When my parents and my brother and I moved to Farmingdale in 1952, we were the first in our extended family to live outside of New York City.
I never did see any farms in Farmingdale, but Main Street was special. Before downtowns were devoured by shopping malls, you could get most anything. Main Street had a movie theater, hardware store, pizza parlor and a record shop. You could even rent a tuxedo.
However, there was one glaring disappointment in our new bucolic surroundings. Every Christmas, the village set up a slapdash booth for Santa's workshop at Main and Conklin streets. He was the same guy year after year. My friends called him "Pop Time." Dark yellow stains discolored his beard, a consequence of the Camels he smoked. He was fat, but not jolly. Perfunctory is more like it.
However, I had heard tales of the best Santa on the planet. He set up residence at Macy's in Manhattan. Hints to my father brought a predictable response.
"What the hell are you talking about?" he said. "We got our own Santa right downtown."
I lived with this outrage until outgrowing my need for a lollipop and a crack at advanced wish fulfillment.
Decades later and still on Long Island, I had my own family. Farmingdale's "Pop Time" had given up his post long before, and my children and I joined the throngs for photos with St. Nick at local malls. But these Santas seemed little more than props encouraging people to open their wallets and plunge into seasonal debt.
Then in the late 1980s, still seeking the magic I was long denied, I took my third daughter to Macy's in Manhattan. We took the train from Islip to Penn Station. Nicole, 5, was a little mystified by our quest.
The store was luminous in holiday regalia. Escalators transported people from the world over to bear witness. Wooden walkways were lined with fairyland fantasies. As we wound through the gay Christmas scenes, our anticipation grew. Darkened passages, soft music and "elves" everywhere created a spiritual yet spooky atmosphere.
Santa had his own alcove that families entered one at a time. A true believer, my daughter looked apprehensive when she saw Santa resplendent on his throne. Nicole sat on his lap and made her modest requests. He spoke in a murmur that I couldn't understand.
I had just a few moments to take it all in. This man wasn't simply the best Santa facsimile I would ever see, he was Santa. His elegant red suit had a distinctive Bavarian style. His faint voice had a slight accent I couldn't place. When our eyes met, it felt like a religious moment -- an unexpected feeling for a man who had given up on religion years earlier. He knew who I was and how long I had waited.
My daughter fell asleep on the train ride home while I sat as if in a swirl of yuletide rapture. I couldn't have been happier if they'd given me the tree at Rockefeller Center.
Years later, I asked my daughter her memories of that day. She said she was more frightened only once in her life, that by a Ringling Bros. clown.
As for me, I've grown more tolerant of the bell-ringing impostors on every corner because I've been to the mountain, looked over and seen the true spirit of Christmas.