From far off, it sounded like something of a jingle, familiar, yet a little uncommon.

Then there was the voice, deep, loud and firm, but also gentle. It was eerie, I tell you, and brought back visions of my childhood, allowing me to recall pleasant days of the past.

At first I blamed the late hour. I was working feverishly in my office, trying to catch up on a few odds and ends and I was tired. That's how I convinced myself it was merely the wind howling outside.

As the sounds grew louder, I wasn't so sure and the heavy knock on the nearby door jolted me.

Slowly, I opened it, peering carefully into the dark, straining for a glimpse of the late night visitor. And there he stood.

He had a full beard, white with a touch of snow. His belly indeed shook like a bowl full of jelly and his cheeks were rosy, almost glowing in the light of my doorway.

The suit he was wearing was red though there seemed to be something furry and white around his waist and on his sleeves. Heavy, black boots came nearly to his knees. His eyes twinkled like stars and there was a trace of something dark on his pants, like soot from a chimney.

My mouth dropped open. I was at a loss for even the simplest of words. It was Santa Claus. Make no mistake about it.

But why, I wondered. Christmas Eve isn't until Saturday.

I hesitated to ask. Santa's an important man and I didn't want to make him mad, especially at this time of the year. But I was puzzled.

"Well, I'll tell you," he chuckled with a hearty ho-ho-ho, "it's been a good year, a mighty good year. A lot of boys and girls have been doing nice things, minding their parents, helping others, working hard in school.

"That means I've got a lot of stops to make, a lot of toys and presents to leave. Why, just look at this list."

He pulled a long, white sheet of paper from his deep pocket. It was full of names: Shelly and Chris, Scott and McKaye, Grant and Ashleigh, Judy and Jamie, Peyton and Blair, Julie, Mary and Kent, John, Walter, Shirley and Steve, Natalie, Reese and well, almost every name you ever imagined.

Then it dawned on me. Santa was checking his list, making one last effort to see who had been naughty or nice.

"We do it every year," he explained. "I'm not getting any younger you know. It's cold up there where our sleigh goes and this way, we make certain where everybody lives. And I'll even slip down a chimney or two just to make certain I haven't been eating too many cookies.

"Sometimes," he laughed, "we don't go to every city before Christmas Eve, but we've been to Huntsville and we're going to Tuscaloosa. When we saw that pretty tree at Depot Park near City Hall here, we just had to stop."

As he talked, he reached into another pocket, pulling out a handful of letters and spreading them on the floor. Some were in pencil, others in crayon and a few had beautiful pictures drawn on the envelopes.

All seemed to be from Cullman or Hanceville or Fairview or Simcoe or Vinemont or Good Hope or places right around here.

He had letters asking for Barbie dolls or a Laugh and Learn Musical Chair, games like Madden NFL '06, cheerleader outfits, Harry Potter books, playdough, Xbox systems, an Aquadoodle Go 'N' Doodle, puppies, a V. Smile Pocket, footballs, bicycles, sweatshirts from Alabama or Auburn and all sorts of other goodies.

But he seemed especially pleased to get letters like one from Cathy, who told him to be careful, from Joey who said some of his grandma's friendship cake would be under the tree, from Susan who wanted something to make her cat Ralph happy, from Kenneth who was writing his first letter and from Dwayne who called brother Rusty his best buddy.

"We're going to be busy, that's for sure," Santa said, picking up a telephone book to check a couple of addresses. "Sometimes I think it would be nice to bring everybody everything they ask for, but I can't do that even though we make toys the whole year round.

"I know the boys and girls will understand, though, and that's what makes me feel good this time of the year. Our young people seem to realize Christmas isn't just a time to get toys and presents.

"They know it's a time for giving, too, and a time when we all think of the true meaning of the season. I think they know the gifts represent what the wise men brought to baby Jesus in the manger a long, long time ago. That's important.

"See," he said, offering one letter in particular. "Read this and you'll understand what I mean. This little lady obviously knows what I'm talking about."

It was from Caroline, though it had no last name. It asked for a dollhouse and some sing-a-long tapes. But it also said, "and, please, remember the people who aren't as lucky as I am."

Quickly, I lifted my head so I could tell him I did understand, but it was too late.

The letters were gone and so was the man. All that was left was a faint jingling sound far off in the sky.

And a wish that your Christmas will be a merry one.

• Ed Darling is the publisher of The Cullman Times. His column appears on Sundays.

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