There was nothing unusual with the weather during the winter of 1944. The arctic air as expected had crept slowly southward so that by November it had established its dominion over the prairies of Saskatchewan and as expected the accompanying snow plunged the land into a long lasting deep freeze. With each successive snowfall the rural roads began to clog up the driving lanes making automobile travel impossible. There were no snow plows that could have cleared the roads so travel by car came to a halt and forced the farm families to turn to horse drawn sleighs.
Even though most of the European settlers had only arrived and settled central Saskatchewan thirty-five years earlier, they were aware of the weather conditions that they would face and had made preparations for the long winter. It seemed that spring, summer and fall activities focused on securing enough fuel to heat their homes, food to feed their livestock and food for their families to carry them through the time of climatic purgatory.
By the time November rolled around the winged summer migrants had abandoned the harsh land and returned to more hospitable climes further south. Those birds that remained were naturally equipped to withstand the cold frost, the snow and the wind. The four legged animals either had built a cache of food far underground or had exchanged their sleek summer coats for thicker warmer ones. As a result the countryside which during the spring and summer months were alive with song and calls of birds and animals, now only on rare occasions would the howling of coyotes and the hooting of owls break the otherwise complete silence of the countryside.
The Otto and Clara Flath family whose farm lay five miles south of the village of Hafford, three miles north of Slawa school and eight miles north of Zion Lutheran Church, were limited to a distance of travel that a team of horses pulling a sleigh could reasonably go in one day. So it was that in 1944, five year old Harry (the youngest of eight children) found himself locked in a very closed environment. Since freeze-up he had been to Hafford perhaps once and to Zion Lutheran Church perhaps twice. During the week days while his older siblings Eddy, Vonda and Rudy (Arnold was working in a bush camp in Ontario, Eugene was in the army, Oscar was working in Vancouver and Lydia was living at home) were at school he occupied himself by playing board games with Lydia, following his dad around the farm yard, bothering his mother, playing with homemade toys or pouring over newspaper comic strips and school readers. He was lonely and a little bitter because at the beginning of the school year he had been sent to begin school in Grade one. Even though he was small for his age he knew in his own mind that he was ready for school. After all he thought, he knew the alphabet, he could count, he could add and subtract and he could even recognize the words in the first grade reader. However, for some reason or reasons never explained to his satisfaction, he was told that he would have to wait another year before he would be permitted to go to school. Initially he was devastated by the rejection but he determined that this was not going to happen to him again. At every opportunity he practiced printing the alphabet, printing the numbers, pouring over newspapers pronouncing words that he could not even understand and, much to Lydia’s chagrin, he demanded that she teach him to read and write.
It was during the last Christmas week of November that Eddy, Vonda and Rudy began to practice for the annual Slawa Christmas Concert. The teacher, Mr. D. A. Humchuk, like hundreds of other country school teachers, was expected to organize and present a concert to which all people from the surrounding community were invited to witness the talent of not only the students but also the talents of the teacher. Since Slawa (meaning “knowledge” or “glory” in the English translation) was located in the heart of a recently settled Ukrainian community a large portion of the program would be in the Ukrainian language. As well, the primary musical instrument would be the mandolin as there was no piano or pump organ in Slawa school. So it was that Eddy, Vonda and Rudy, in addition to practicing their parts had to learn many of them in the Ukrainian language. During the daily process of learning and practicing their parts, little Harry could only sit idly by and observe with envy in his heart and fantasize what his part would have been had he been allowed to go to school that fall.
Harry had not ever seen Santa in the five years of his life so when he was told that Santa would make an appearance at Slawa on the night of the Christmas concert and that Santa would be bringing along with him a big bag of candies and nuts for each youngster in attendance, he was excited!
At five years of age Harry was confused about the reality of Santa Claus. He did not know whether to believe in Santa Claus or not. His mother and father never told him that Santa was real and that Santa drove a team of reindeer from the North Pole and delivered presents to all the children in the world. The newspapers and magazines showed pictures of Santa in his bright red suit trimmed with snow white fur and his knee high shiney black leather boots. The pictures clearly showed Santa having rosy red cheeks and frost covering his long curly white beard. There was never any mention made of Santa in church: only the story of Jesus being born and laid in a manger. Harry could not trust the explanation of his siblings because in the past they had told him many untruths and he was not about to accept their views on this topic. He decided that he would get a good look at Santa at the concert and then make up his mind. He would for sure find out whether Santa was real or not at the Slawa School Christmas concert.
The concert was scheduled to be held on Wednesday, December 20th starting at 7:30 p.m. Classes were to be suspended on that day in order to give Mr. Humchuk time to rearrange desks, set up his cardboard flats which served as stage curtains, and decorate the entrance to the school.
Twenty-seven students ranging from Grades one through nine attended Slawa and when the parents, grandparents and other generally interested folk were added, upwards of sixty people would be crammed into the small one room school house. Only a few desks would be made available for seating for the elderly; most would have to stand for the duration of the concert or perhaps sit on the floor.
The Flath’s also were faced with a multitude of tasks prior to leaving for the concert. Cows had to be milked, watered and fed, water had to be hauled by Dicky pulling a stone boat on which the forty-five gallon barrel was placed. The pigs and chickens required attention as well as the dogs and the cats. Inside the house the double boiler, which was placed on the kitchen stove had to be filled with water for the afternoon baths, beds had to be made, meals prepared and suitable concert going clothes had to be laid out. With all possible hands pitching in, the work and preparations were completed well before Clara called everyone to the table for an early supper.
While sitting ar the table, Otto announced, “I don’t know if we should go to Slawa tonight. It has been getting colder as the day has worn on and the wind has now begun to pick up so that the snow is drifting covering up the travelled path along the road. It has also begun to snow. There is no moonlight tonight so I don’t think I will be able to keep the team on the beaten path. We could get stuck and walking in these conditions could cause all of us to perish.”
With that being, said all of the Flath children in unison voiced their disappointment and pleaded mercilessly for their dad to change his mind.
After consulting with Clara, Otto declared, “We will try it but we will have to take the caboose instead of the sleigh. Rudy, go and start a fire in the stove. Eddy, you go and put some straw on the floor and the seats.”
“Yes, Papa,” retorted Rudy, ” but I need to eat an apple first.”
“Why do you need to eat an apple?” Quizzed nosey little Harry.
“Harry, I need the core for my part in the play,” replied Rudy.
At 6:00 p.m. Otto gave the call for everyone to load up the caboose. The family walked single file, heads turned away from the biting wind and plodded their way through the thick layer of snow that covered the path to the barn. Otto who had lit the coal oil hurricane lantern, held it high as he led the way with the rest following close behind.
Usually the teamster steered the team of horses from the inside of the caboose but after all were on board Otto saw that because there was no moon to provide some light and that it was so blustery he would not be able to see the road ahead. Besides the only two single paned windows were already frosted up so badly that he could not see out of them anyways. Otto pulled his ushanka hat further down his head, wrapped a scarf around his face so that only his eyes could be seen and making sure that all the buttons of his ankle long fur coat were done up, he stepped up onto the doubletree directly behind the horses with the reins in his gloved hands. To keep his balance he leaned against the front of the caboose and urged Dicky and George forward.
Inside, Harry had perched himself between Rudy and Eddy and began to bombard them with questions.
“How many people will be there? Are you nervous? When does Vonda say her recitation? Will Santa be there? Will Santa be bringing any toys?”
And the one question that Harry really wanted an answer for, “Is Santa Claus real?”
“Of course he is real. You have seen pictures of him and his reindeer,” replied Eddy.
“Mama, is there a real Santa Claus? Does he come into houses through the chimney? Will Santa come to our house?” Asked Harry. “Eddy always lies to me; I want to know.”
Clara responded by telling Harry that he would get the chance to see for himself at the concert and that he should not ask so many questions.
Slogging through the drifting snow slowed the team down but Otto knew that for the horses sake, as well as their own, it was prudent to calmly continue on until they reached the school.
The trip took nearly an hour and as soon as the steaming horses stopped, the family quickly got out of the caboose and headed for the warmth of the school house. Otto totally covered by frost and with icicles hanging loosely from his scarf, tied up the team, took two blankets from the caboose, covered Dicky and George with them, divided a bundle of oats and placed the oats on the snow. The horses being hot and thirsty from the difficult haul would eat the oats with the snow helping to satisfy their thirst and the blankets would allow their bodies to cool off slowly.
Upon entering the school and after quickly removing his cap, mittens and mackinaw, Harry eagerly began searching for the one person he knew quite well but had not seen for a number of months. The school was already packed with people standing, milling around or sitting in desks waiting for the program to begin. Harry had slipped away from his mother’s side and made his way slowly to the front of the school room where he thought he might find Wally. Sure enough he spotted Wally sitting on the floor next to the line which marked the stage. Quickly Harry squeezed betweeen Wally and someone he did not know and began to chat with Wally.
After a few minutes the chatter in the school began to die down as Mr. Humchuk made his way to the front of the school. Upon reaching the front of the school, Mr. Humchuk turned to face the audience and waited for the audience to quiet right down. While waiting ,Mr. Humchuk glanced down and recognizing Harry gave Harry a faint smile. Harry did not return the smile because Mr. Humchuk was not his favourite person at the moment. Harry held Mr. Humchuk solely responsible for him having to be a spectator at the concert rather than a participant.
Following a few words of welcome ( in the Ukrainian language) the program began. Students sang Christmas songs, recited poetry, acted in plays and played musical instruments. There was even an instrumental combo comprised of several mandolins, violins and harmonicas. Harry was proud to see his brothers play the instruments. Mr. Humchuk had taken much time and effort into ensuring that the concert was a success. After all the concert was the only significant cultural event of the year for the school.
Harry watched with great interest at the beginning of the program but eventually his mind began to wander and he wished that Santa would hurry up and make his entrance. He was almost asleep when the clanging of a bell brought him back to reality. Immediately upon hearing the bell the children jumped up and scurried to meet Santa Claus. Harry being shorter than most of those surrounding Santa, did not immediately get a good look at him so he quietly wiggled and edged his way through the crowd until he came face to face with Santa.
What he saw both shocked and puzzled him. Harry’s eyes first focussed on Santa’s boots. Now in the pictures that Harry had seen, Santa’s boots were shiney and black, reaching nearly to his knees. Well, these boots met the length criteria but his boots were felt socks – the kind that most men and boys wore during the winter meetings months. Slowly Harry raised his eyes and began to focus higher up on Santa’s leg.
“Surely Mrs. Santa would have ironed Santa’s suit before he went out,” thought Harry to himself. “The belt – it is way too narrow and the buckle is so small.”
Harry could not believe what he saw next! The front buttons on Santa’s suit did not hide Santa’s big belly as there were two buttons missing. Gazing upward Harry was able to discern that Santa did not have a real belly but instead there was only a pillow tied to Santa’s body. The pillow was certainly not the end of the evidence exposing the imposter. Santa’s beard which in the pictures showed a pure white well groomed beard did not measure up to those standards. This one seemed to be attached to something that hung on Santa’s head. When Santa talked the beard did not keep in time with the chin and his lips did not even move. His nose, his NOSE! His nose was dented in as if Santa had run into a wall. Oh my goodness! His eyes were just deep black holes. Even the bell that Santa rang gave away the imposter. Harry recognized it as the one that Mr.Humchuk would ring to call the children in to the school. The final straw though came when Santa began to speak. Puzzled, Harry thought that he recognized the voice. After listening more closely Harry realized that the Ukrainian speaking Santa was in fact his neighbor.
Well! That settled it for Harry. Now he knew! But that was fine ……………. as long as he would get his bag of candy and nuts, he would be happy. And he did.