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After a tragedy, choosing to believe

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Here is a lovely holiday remembrance from Kenneth Branch, a Raleigh reader and Wake County's principal of the year for 2012. He is now retired:

It's been difficult to believe in the goodness of man lately, hasn't it? Evil made his presence known in a horrifying manner. We shuddered in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, and we wept. We squeezed those we love so closely that it hurt. I continue to cry when I see the names of those who were killed.

So what do we now? The New Year is only days away. I suggest that we believe. As the rock singer, Jon Bon Jovi, is quoted as saying: Believe in love. Believe in magic. Believe in Santa Claus. Believe in others. Believe in yourself. Believe in your dreams. If you don't, who will?

So I share this story. I hope it inspires you to continue to believe.

Not long after Hurricane Hazel unleashed her furor across Eastern North Carolina in October 1954, my father, Ernest Branch, set about building a life-size Santa along with his reindeer. He used plywood to create the jolly old man along with five of the prancers. A neighbor, who was quite the woodworker, assisted him, but the plan was all my father’s. The idea, of course, was that he was making a gift for us – his three kids, who ranged in age from just weeks old to 3.5 years. We were delighted, I am told, when he first placed the cheerful characters in our front yard on Jackson Street in Rich Square that December. Little did we know that my father was establishing a tradition that would carry on for almost six decades.

When we moved just across the ball field into a new house seven years later, Santa moved along with us. At Christmas, the lively crew was often found perched safely along the peak of our roof with Santa standing at the chimney with a bag of goodies preparing for his descent. Yearly, my dad would sneak out just before sunrise on Christmas Day and climb the ladder to the roof to remove the gifts that spilled out of Santa’s special sack so that we – and all of Rich Square – would believe that Santa had accomplished his task and was preparing to fly north. There was even the year that Santa and his reindeer, with Rudolph’s nose flashing red, were stationed on the lawn at a forty-five degree angle as if launching off into the starry night -- the magic of guide wire and a very clever and patient father.

One very memorable year in the early 1980s, my father decided that perhaps -- just perhaps -- Rich Square was ready for a break from Santa and his little gang. As Thanksgiving faded into December and Christmas became evident throughout the little Northampton County town, someone noticed that there was no Santa at 313 Pine Street. After a series of phone calls from town residents wondering when Mr. Ernest would bring out his now-famous Santa, my father went to work. As a result, Santa on Pine Street hasn’t missed a Christmas in 58 years.

In the recent days, I climbed into the rafters of my father's workshop, under his supervision, of course, and removed Santa, his reindeer, and sleigh from storage. The merry band members, even with annual sprucing up, now show their age. We carefully hauled the pieces to the side yard and spent the afternoon erecting the holiday scene.

So once again, I celebrate this gift that my father, Ernest Branch, who is now 95 years old, so lovingly crafted in the fall of 1954 for his three kids. My hope is that this tradition of Santa and his lively reindeer will be continued in Rich Square and everywhere. I hope that the love these gifts represented almost 60 years ago will live on in our hearts forever. My father believes and so do I.

I hope you will do the same this holiday season and throughout 2013.

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About the blogger

Burgetta Eplin Wheeler is the associate editor of the Editorial pages, responsible for the Other Opinion page. She occasionally writes editorials. She can be reached at bwheeler@newsobserver.com or 829-4825.