It was December, and all around us people were gearing up for the holidays. Several of the residents had already flown away home and I was busy getting the next book ready for press, the next newsletter out, and working on the schedules of classes for the next several months. This year Swamiji was not going to India; he decided to stay in the States since we were growing so quickly that we needed his presence and his wisdom just about every five minutes.
The snow was coming down beautifully and I began to wonder what to do. Christmas Eve was always the big celebration time in my family, but I did not want to leave Swamiji alone. What to do? Cassie and I met to make some plans and came up with the idea that we would have a party on Christmas Day with the handful of staff remaining at the Center and, of course, Swamiji would be the honored guest. She did not think that he had celebrated Christmas before, and wanted to have a big meal for him, a decorated Christmas tree, and a fun-filled evening. I thought it was a great idea. Christmas Eve with my family, and the next day with my Guru and fellow students. Now I just needed to catch up on my work. As if he knew about my need, Swamiji kept giving me more and more work that must be done “immediately!”
Then, almost as if he knew my problem, Swamiji went to Cassie on December 23 and told her to have a celebration on Christmas Eve because it was better for him in the evening rather than the main day. The party was changed, but I did not know it yet.
During one of my rounds to Swamiji’s office for signatures and approvals of the stack of letters I typed for him, I asked politely if I may go home for Christmas Eve. “You are home,” came the brisk reply.
“I mean, may I go to the party at my parents’ home?” I asked again, being more precise.
“No!” he answered as he signed the last letter. Without looking up at all, he handed the stack back to me to fold, envelope, glue shut, stamp, and send out. My mind raced for a reason for his “no” as well as deliberated what I should do, knowing that my family would be hurt.
“We will have our own celebration tomorrow.”
Somewhere inside me a voice said, “Well I won’t be there!” not fully realizing that the words bubbled up and came out of my mouth. He looked a bit surprised at me and then just walked out of the office, leaving me to complete the work.
How could I tell my family that I would not be there? Here I was, a few miles from home, with Mom and Dad, the twins, and two little brothers waiting for me. And of course, my other siblings would be driving in to share in the fun.
The rest of the day I thought and thought of this problem as I ran up and down the corridor, typesetting this and that, helping with the cleaning, bothering Justin to write class blurbs for the new year’s classes I needed to add to the schedule. Time seemed to run faster than I did, and by the time I looked at my clock, it was evening.
Justin picked me up and we walked down to Gurudev’s house in the dark. “My family is having its party tomorrow,” I told him.
“Yes, too bad you can’t go,” he said. Before I exploded at him, we were at Swamiji’s door and he was inviting us in.
“Tree, make tea!” The usual refrain was shouted out in a happy, booming voice, as I dropped my coat and made for the kitchen. That night he kept us longer than usual speaking of future plans, telling jokes, and drinking one cup after another of his famous tilk. Finally, he told us it was time for us to go to sleep. I touched his feet silently and left.
The next morning was cold and damp. Cassie and Howard phoned, excited about the party, but I said I didn’t think I could come. I then told Justin that I would not be going. He could not believe my words but when I refused to get in the car when Howard came for help with the last-minute shopping, he gave me a hug and said, “Well, I can’t understand you, but have a nice quiet Christmas with your folks if you want.”
As soon as the door closed, I got busy. I pulled out the large, white laundry bag from our Chicago laundry delivery days and began filling it with the gifts I had hidden in the closet. I was so pleased that I was able to make, refurbish, or buy a little something for each of the people that Cassie told me would be at the party. Of course, there was a wrapped carton of cigarettes for Gurudev, along with two new cigarette holders. I wrapped them all up, tied them with ribbon, and filled up the laundry bag.
Then I found the glue and began slathering my face to hold all the cotton. I powered my eyebrows, rouged my cheeks, and stuck wads of cotton inside my mouth to make my cheeks look fat. I pulled on my long black socks so they’d look like boots when my shoes came off. Several pillows were tied around my middle with drapery cord, and over them I put on the large red bathrobe that I found in the Salvation Army store several months back. A black belt of Justin’s held me together. Finally I topped my costume off with the red felt stocking cap that I had sewed, and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses from my convent days. One look in the mirror told me I was a bit strange, but everyone should know I was Santa.
The tricky part was driving to the party. It was a bit hard to fit behind the wheel of the car, and my old glasses kept steaming up. At one red light I heard pounding on the window of the next car and looked round to see a whole family delighted to find Santa driving a car. We waved and waved until I turned into the last block to the Judt’s house.
I stood by the apartment door listening to the laughter within, hoping that I was doing the right thing. I didn’t want to offend anyone, and perhaps this surprise would be too much for my teacher. I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. When the door was opened, I shouted, “Merry Christmas” as loud as I could and was stunned to see all the mouths drop open before me. “Merry Christmas, Ho, ho, ho!”
Everyone began to laugh and shout and welcome Santa into their midst. Justin could not quite believe what he saw and stood there scratching his head, smirking, and wrinkling his brow. I was a bit poked and prodded until I said, “I want to see all the children!” and plopped down on a dining room chair. “Now, where is Swami Rama?” I huffed in a Santa voice. “Bring him to me!” Swamiji got up from his seat and walked over to me smiling. I pulled him down on my lap and said in a deep voice, “Now, Swamiji, have you been a good boy?”
The group held their breaths until Swamiji replied with a definite good boy look, his big eyes filled with fun. “Well, Santa, I’ve tried really hard this year!”
The room exploded into laughter as he threw his arms around Santa giving a big hug and then another when he got his present. Then he began to peel away Santa’s disguise until he finally smiled and said, “Ah, there’s my Tree! Merry Christmas!”
The music was turned back on, more good food was brought out to the table, the extra presents I brought were given round, and Swamiji beamed at me, realizing that I had made a difficult choice. This was, indeed, my family and here was where I belonged. I’d be with my other family next week. For right now, I was celebrating with the Lord of the Himalayas right here in a little apartment in a little suburb in the flat lands of Illinois.