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Santa’s Helicopter

November 23, 2001

When I was a kid, Santa Claus flew over our house in a helicopter every year on the morning after Thanksgiving. My brothers and I might be running pass patterns in the front yard when we’d hear the thudding of the rotors. Then we’d see the fishbowl of Santa’s two-seat helicopter moving quickly south over the bare treetops. Like nearly everyone else in town, Santa was headed for the mall. He always landed there by mid-morning, but the poor guy never managed to beat the crowd.

I enjoyed this strange tradition, and I still picture us in our maroon sweatshirts and muddy blue jeans looking up into the November sky as the great man flew over. How ya doing, Santa? But it’s difficult to drum up real holiday nostalgia for an old public relations spectacle sponsored by a mall whose slogan was, “Where the Big Stores Are.”

These days I’m more fond of traditions that take some work, maybe even some teamwork. I have a particular one in mind, but first let me say that I have no serious credentials as a sports fan. I spend as much as two minutes a week reading the sports page, and when they added twenty thousand extra seats to the local football stadium, they still didn’t add a seat with my name on it. But I feel lucky, even blessed, to live in a town with a first rate college marching band.

We often go as a family to watch the band practice, say on a clear, cool autumn evening a couple of days before a home game. Even though the musicians aren’t in uniform, my daughters adore the extravagance of the thing, all these shiny objects being wheeled about, drums pounding loudly, horns piercing through with melody, musicians turning, high stepping, dazzling and grand and full of happy, orderly, luxurious excess. It sweeps a person away a little bit, and we like that, just as kids like being swept in the fast arc of a merry-go-round.

But I also go to hear the band director teach. He often stops the band after twenty or thirty bars and tells the students something about their performance. He might remind the brass section how crisp and dramatic a horn entrance can be, and then he’ll ask them to play it again. He shows these young people how to listen and think more clearly and hear their mistakes. Then they practice together and correct them and make something jazzy in the process. Now that’s a great, hard-working, joyful tradition.

I’m also fond of traditions handed down from long ago and those we update or invent ourselves. The most homely, homegrown Thanksgiving tradition at our house is something we call breakfast pie. Like many families, we have pumpkin pie at the big meal on Thursday, but later on, as the clock strikes midnight, the leftover pumpkin pie transforms magically. Then on Friday morning, right about this time, we head into the kitchen for coffee and a slice of breakfast pie.

Yesterday, on Thanksgiving evening, in the light of the candles, with the tensions of modern life softened by a day off, the companionship of family and old friends, a glass of wine, and the fabled calming properties of roasted turkey, it was easy to see tradition as a steadying influence on our lives, a source of strength and peace and value. Look at the table, spread with the same foods each year. Look at our faces, laughing over the same stories we’ve told until we’ve worn them smooth, polished and perfected them. One of these years I’m afraid my wife is going to forbid me from telling the stories of my famous Alaska trip in her presence, or maybe her protests too have become part of the tradition.

And now it’s Friday, the morning after Thanksgiving. We won’t hear Santa fly over this year, but the friend I hiked with in Alaska when we were nineteen is here with his family for the whole weekend. We’ve known them for a long time now. They drove 400 miles to get here, so we’re feeling lucky to share the holiday with them. There is a little bit of whipped cream left in the refrigerator. The coffee is hot. I think it’s time to reacquaint our guests, our friends, with the tradition of breakfast pie.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired November 23, 2001 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.