Dad was a VP at a now-defunct chemical supplier and got all kinds of holiday loot from other companies. The wrapping paper usually arrived about the first week of December, and once I was old enough to understand what the long, flat box was, I'd eagerly open the thing (with Mom's permission) and ogle the colorful rolls and bright ribbons inside. It was the same assortment year on year; the patterns and colors changed but the number of rolls, bows, and so forth never did. The packaging was always exactly the same. It didn't matter; it meant Christmas is coming!
It was also how you could tell the stuff Santa left from the boring things like underwear and socks. Santa obviously didn't use the same wrapping paper Mom and Dad did; that's just stupid--as if Santa would just happen to pick that wrapping paper for your presents, out of the countless millions his elves had to choose from!
That year, then--I think I was ten--I was faced with a conundrum a bare few days before Christmas: the presents under the tree had all been wrapped with the paper that came in the box, all but one; and that one was the problem. I recognized the print from last year, and it had wrapped a present from Santa, not from my parents.
It let me to investigate, to snoop, and in the process I found the store of wrapping paper--not just the boxed stuff from wherever, but other kinds, too. Lots of variety, scraps wrapped around each other, a patchwork of festive color; whole rolls, still wrapped in plastic; bows, some partly crushed, some hale; and at the bottom of the box a handful of spools of serpentine.
Serpentine. Mom and Dad never used it. It only appeared on presents from Santa.
And, sure enough, there--in the box of paper rolls--there was a whole roll of the paper that had wrapped the slot car set I'd gotten last year.
"Don't let Santa catch you snooping around like this!" My older brother's head popped up from the stairwell leading down from the attic.
"Are Mom and Dad lying about Santa?"
"What? Don't be stupid. You'd better get out of here and put that away before Mom catches you."
I reflexively started putting things away, but said, "But look at this stuff."
"What about it?"
I waved the roll of paper at him, the one used to wrap my slot cars. "Santa used this paper last year, now it's here in our attic."
"Stupid! You think Santa makes all his own wrapping paper? Of course he gets it from a factory! There aren't any trees at the North Pole to make paper with. So Mom and Dad just bought some like it, that's all."
"But they don't need to buy it. Dad gets some every year."
He paused at that, then said, "Well, if you don't want Santa to bring you presents, just let me have 'em."
That ended the issue, at least for the moment.
It continued to nag at me, though, and a day or so later I asked Mom about it. "Mom, where did that wrapping paper come from?"
I told her. And the most dumbfounding thing about it--which forced her explanation so far into the background that I no longer recall it--was the expression on her face, which was the kind of expression a person gets when he realizes that he's made a mistake. In the mists of memory I recall her stammering something that sounded lame, even to 10-year-old me, but I accepted it because of course Mom wouldn't lie, right?
It was that long, interminable day before Christmas Eve, and it was snowing, so my brother and I went sledding; and while we were trudging up the sledding hill I told him about my misgivings. "I really think Mom and Dad aren't telling us the truth about Santa," I finished. "I think they're buying the presents and wrapping them, themselves."
"Sure, and what happens to the cookies and milk you put out for Santa?"
"Mom and Dad--well, Mom likes cookies." I had never thought of it before, but if one were to count the cookies in the tin after setting them out and compare the number in the tin the next morning-- But before I could propose the experiment, my brother interrupted my train of thought.
"You know how much Dad hates to spend money. Do you remember how mad he got last year when my bike got stolen, and he said he wouldn't buy me another one? But Santa brought me one for Christmas last year. Remember?"
That gave me pause. I had never known Dad to go back on his word, and I remembered vividly the scene--my brother, near tears at the loss of his bike, Dad fuming angrily at the carelessness that led to it being stolen...it fit.
Maybe a bit too well.
Christmas Eve I lay in my bed, eyes wide open in the dark. Christmas carols floated from the transistor radio my brother had by his bed, just loud enough to be heard. The heating vent sighed softly, occasionally ticking as the ductwork expanded from the heat of the air passing through it.
"Maybe we should try to listen for Santa," I said.
"Dummy, if we do that he won't come. He only comes after you're asleep."
So I abandoned that plan, and rolled over in bed, trying to sleep. I did drift off for a little while, because the song on the radio abruptly switched from Bing Crosby to Karen Carpenter, but when I woke up I was wide awake.
There had been a noise.
I had no idea what time it was. It wasn't morning yet, but--well, nature was calling and I knew better than to ignore it, so I got out of bed and headed towards the bathroom.
That took only a few moments, and once done I started creeping towards my bedroom. The door to Mom and Dad's room was open a crack, as always, and from in there Dad's stentorian snoring was plainly audible. They were asleep, so the noise hadn't come from there.
Downstairs I heard the faint crackle of paper.
Heart in my mouth, I frantically tried to think of what to do. I thought about raising the alarm, but if it was nothing, I'd be in a world of hurt. More information, I decided, and crept down the staircase.
There was a shape moving in the living room. I hung back, frightened witless, unsure how to proceed. I'd heard about people being robbed on Christmas Eve, but didn't think it was possible that it could happen to us. I needed to yell, or something, but I was completely petrified by the shape moving in the dark.
Sneaking to the light switch by the front door, the one that we used to switch the tree on and off, I waited to make my move...noticing that the front door was securely locked. I flipped the switch up, and the family room was illuminated with the rosy glow of a few hundred miniature bulbs.
He didn't say a word to me; he just looked at me over the tops of his glasses, then raised his eyebrows, as if to say, "You mind? Trying to work, here." The work in question was a gift, partly wrapped, with the exact same paper I had found in our attic a few days prior still wrapped in cellophane.
I said, "I thought your elves wrapped them."
He said, "Most of the time, they do. I also do this once in a while. Makes it more fun; it keeps the nosy kids guessing." He winked at me, finishing the wrapping job without even looking at what he was doing.
"But, how do you do all this in one night?" I asked, suddenly realizing it made no sense, how one man could visit the home of every kid in the world. Not even with magic!
He chuckled softly, not the boisterous "Ho ho ho!" which was his trademark, but you could hear it in there. "Why ask? Isn't it enough that I do it? I can't give away all my secrets."
"I mean, do you stop time? Or something?"
"Let's just go with 'or something'," he said to me. "Now, look--you need to go back to bed, and I need to get on with filling your stocking."
"Can't I watch?"
He pondered it. "You can watch me fill it with coal...or you can go back to bed and find out what's in it in the morning. Boys should be in bed at this hour."
Coal didn't sound like much fun. "All right, I'll go...but...well, thanks."
"You're welcome," he beamed.
I went back to bed and crawled under the covers, eyes wide in the darkness. I had just met Santa Claus! He was real!
And in the morning, when it was time to open presents, I didn't even think about what kind of paper wrapped them.