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The Chemistry of Christmas

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“I asked Santa to bring me a chemistry set this year,” I told my third-grade best friend at Hilltop Elementary School in rural Colerain, Ohio, a few weeks before Christmas 1966.

He, the suave-beyond-his-8-years buddy who lived over the hill from me on Sharon Road, flashed a quizzical look but remained silent.

“What, you think I'm too little for a chemistry set, don't you?” retorted I, who also fancied Superman and Davy Crockett outfits that year and more than a few new Matchbox cars.

“No, I want one, too,” he said, confessing his equal admiration for the Skil Craft set (but only in the trifold metal case, mind you) that I had found in a catalog. His voice trailed off as he measured carefully in his young mind what his developing reason would force him to blurt out next:

“You don't still believe in Santa Claus, do you?” he asked, getting to the nub of the rub, throwing the niceties of the season (if not my very belief foundation) out the window of the classroom, freshly decorated with paper chains, their links made of alternating green and red construction paper.

“Of course I do,” I shot back, with just enough lack of conviction to give me wiggle room if — somehow, some way, O Holy Night — he happened to be right.

“So, who do you think brings all those presents?” I asked, in a tone that was a combination of bluff-calling and pumping for the supposed real skinny.

“Who do you think?” he mocked what he saw as my naiveté. “It's your mom and dad and your grandparents and aunts and uncles,” he said with an air of authority trumped only by the real authority, our teacher, calling for all to clean up their desks in advance of the day-ending bell.

It was a short but soul-searching bus ride home that afternoon. The coolest kid in the class and my best friend had just shattered my world. No Santa Claus?

“Impossible,” I muttered to myself. The proof was everywhere. There was the Santa at the Stone & Thomas department store in nearby Wheeling, W.Va., every Christmas. Most of the things I asked him for were found under the tree every Christmas. Heck, he was even on the local TV channel every Saturday morning and called me — me, personally — his “little apple dumpling.”

I called my buddy that night, just after dinner on the red rotary-dial phone that hung on the wall over the desk just off the kitchen, to confront him with the evidence. Mom, finishing the dishes, heard my proofs but also my doubts when, one by one, my friend rebutted my Santa testimonial.

“Well, maybe there really isn't a Santa Claus,” I conceded as the phone call ended.

“You know,” Mom said, “Santa knows where we keep our coal and there's always a bucket of clinkers next to the furnace ... .”

Christmas Eve was the longest longest night of the year in 1966. The manger light, left on all night, was brighter than ever. The room was hotter than ever. Sleep, when it came, was fitful. Doubts raged.

But morning indeed dawned and, as per usual, the living room was packed with presents. There even was the Skil Craft chemistry set (in the trifold metal box, of course) with a “From Santa” on the name tag.

Still, I was skeptical. Until I called my buddy to see what he got for Christmas, that is.

No chemistry set.

Proof positive, my 8-year-old mind confidently concluded, that there must be a Santa Claus.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. (

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