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How Texas (if just for a moment) showed me the Christmas Spirit

I am overjoyed to be back at the Austin Acoustical Cafe this year, and with the open nature of this fantastic blog, I thought I'd share one of my favorite stories that's happened to me since I moved to Texas in 2008. 

It was about seven years into living in Texas when I realized Christmas hadn't given up on me. My bass player Josh and I drove three hours from Austin towards the coast to a small shrimping town on the bay called Palacios (pronounced pa-lah-shus for non-Texans). We had been invited to play a show at a local venue we had heard great things about. It was a cold evening, at least for Texas, just above freezing. Despite Christmas being 18 whole days away there was no way to escape the advertising, the music on every station, and the red and green sweaters. My feelings towards Christmas at least then, leaned towards the apathetic...

I imagine that my own experience with Christmas is a lot like many others. I come from a generally happy, middle-class American family. My Mother was a Secretary, and my Father was the president of a drug-treatment center in the next town over in Southeast Michigan. I have three sisters, two older, one younger, and despite our spats, we cared for one another. I recall being very little and being infatuated with Christmas. The bible stories read by my Mom along with the lighting of the advent candles (each kid got to light the candles on one sunday sometimes oldest to youngest, sometimes youngest to oldest. I always prayed for the oldest to youngest order so I could light the pink candle on the third week.), the food, the snow, the family, and of course Santa and the presents. It was a magical time for me every year... that is until I got old enough to vacuum.

Very suddenly I grew old enough to inherit the stressful side of Christmas. I had responsibilities now, there was baking, tidying, dusting, scrubbing, decorating, and shopping, There was helping my Mom, getting out of my Mom's way, and bickering with my sisters. This was the serious, impress-the-extended-family kind of work that needed to be done. The kind that suspends all plans with friends until further notice, kind of work. It didn't always help that during all of this I would find myself peeking into my dad's office and catch him playing Solitaire on the computer... but hey, he picks up the tree, and loves me unconditionally, so what can i do but look forward to the time i can do that to my kids. 

As the years progressed, Christmas time only got more stressful. Suddenly I was the biggest kid, which meant bringing up and down all of the boxes of decorations, carrying the tree, shoveling snow (pronounced SN-OW to all you Texans) every morning, as well as all the rest. It wasn't the work itself that i minded, in fact some of the work i really enjoyed (bringing the tree inside and shoveling), I think it was dealing with responsibility at a time when I least wanted it. Wasn't Christmas supposed to be easy? All about goodwill towards men, family, friends, good food and presents? How could something that in my mind was supposed to be so simple and happy, have so much pressure? Christmas music suddenly became annoying. Santa looked like he was lording it over me that he only had to work one day a year. Everybody had more thoughtful presents than me, I was just bad at Christmas. Presents were the worst part, to this day I constantly worry about what to get my family, whether they'll like them, whether I can afford it or not. 

It got bad enough that without me even asking, my Mom went out of her way to alleviate some of the pressure. She could see it was getting to me, and I really see now how much she wanted all of us kids to really enjoy the true spirit of Christmas. 

So here I found myself an adult, at least in the eyes of the law, in Palacios, Texas heading to my gig which was to start in just a couple of hours. We found ourselves having trouble navigating the streets since many were blocked off for some Christmas event, and I found myself rolling my eyes. Thanks Christmas, you can't even help me get to my soundcheck on time. 

When we arrived at the venue and started setting up our equipment we found out that there was, in fact, a yearly Christmas event that happens, complete with a show of lights and hot chocolate, and finally ending with Santa coming in on a shrimp boat and greeting the townspeople (i mean this without any sarcasm at all that this kind of thing is one of the reasons i really do love Texas). Once we had finished our soundcheck we decided to go check it out. My grinchyness aside, when was I going to get another chance to see Santa on a shrimp boat? 

The air was cold coming off of the water, salty and clean, causing us to huddle with the rest of the small town as the small boat made its way to shore. On the bow of the boat, Santa stood like Washington crossing the Delaware. The children were yelling and pointing, still young enough to not have to think about how much Christmas is going to cost them. The boat docked, and the shrimping Texan Santa stepped out on the dock. I have to admit, he was by far the most impressive Santa I had ever seen. A broad, black, real leather belt with a large brass buckle centered around his ample sides, thick red coat with white fur trim with matching hat and pants. Soft leather boots, and a big, bushy, very real snow white beard. Rosy cheeks, snow white gloves, the eye twinkle, the slight "all knowing" look that you see in some renditions... This Santa was clearly a professional. 

As Santa walked up the dock Ho-Hoing to all the excited boys and girls, he slowly turned, looked directly at me and said, "BEN BALMER!!! SO GOOD TO SEE YOU!!!"

I just about fainted. I had never even been to this town before. Frantic thoughts were spilling off me like sweat. Santa was real!!! He knows my name along with all the other little boys and girls!!! I KNEW he was real and never REALLY doubted it!!! Why was he on a shrimp boat?!?! I don't even know what I WANT for Christmas!!!

Real Santa reached out a snow-white glove and took my hand in a hearty Texan/North Pole handshake. 

I was grinning ear to ear.

He then pulled me close so no one else could hear and whispered, "I saw you perform at a music festival this past summer, I really enjoyed the music, and I'm coming to the show later". 

You might think the feelings that followed that realization would be disappointment, and perhaps most of the magic I felt over the past thirty seconds had dissipated. He was, after all, just a really good local Santa who does the shrimp boat thing every year. But a little bit of magic goes a long way, and I found I wasn't disappointed. I felt good, elated even. For the only thing that experience had left me with, was the feeling that deep down, past all of the jaded layers of stress and pressure, past all of the feelings of annoyance and skepticism, and finally past all of the rules i have learned to live with as an adult, past it all, I really do believe in magic.

I'll see you all on April 13th, and I'll do my very best to bring a little bit of magic with me.

-- Ben Balmer

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