Curtice author’s story featured in “Chicken Soup” Christmas book

Tammy Walro

        A heartwarming Christmas tale by local author Toni Wilbarger, of Curtice, is featured in the recently released book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Blessings of Christmas: 101 Tales of Holiday Joy, Kindness and Gratitude.”      Her story, “Mission: Undercover Santa,” highlights a couple’s clandestine mission to help friends facing a tough Christmas.
        Wilbarger has been previously published in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series, as well as in Guideposts, The Upper Room (a Christian devotional magazine), Church Libraries, and Christian Communicator (a Christian devotional magazine).
        She self-published a novel in 2000 entitled, “Out of Grace.” Her latest novel, “A Matter of Truth,” was runner up in the 2020 Great Novel Contest sponsored by the Ohio Writers Association, and as a semi-finalist in two other contests.
        “I'm very happy and honored that the editor chose my article to include in this year's Christmas book,” Wilbarger said. “This story is one of my favorite Christmas memories, and I loved sharing it with ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ readers.”
        Wilbarger is also happy to share her story with Press readers.
         “Mission: Undercover Santa”
        “Date and time: Christmas Day, one in the morning.
        Our mission: Invade the back yard of our target home, deposit the payload, and escape without being discovered.
        My partner and I waited down the street in our warm pickup with the headlights off. Despite our best planning, a single lamp still burned in the house.
        I envisioned a thousand different ways this caper might go wrong. At least, that’s how it seemed. “What if a neighbor sees us sneaking over there?” I asked my partner (and husband), Dave, who had an answer for everything.
        “Look around,” he said. “No one is out. People have already gone to bed.”
        I glanced at the scattered, shadowy clouds covering the full moon and pointed skyward. “What if those part? We’ll be more visible, and someone might call the cops.”
        Dave leaned toward the window, glanced up, and shook his head. “So, what if they do? I just told you no one is out tonight. Will you relax?”
        I checked the back of the cab to make certain the boxes hadn’t shifted or toppled. Then I scanned the street again, just in case. Come on, go to bed already, I urged the home’s occupants. As if I possessed magical powers, the light switched off.
        “Let’s go,” I said.
        “Wait,” Dave said. “Give them about 20 minutes to fall asleep.”
        I rolled my eyes, but I also realized it was sound advice. I settled into my seat and hoped our plans weren’t about to blow up in our faces.
        From the moment Dave heard his friend and co-worker Bob mention how tough the holidays were going to be for his family, Dave knew he couldn’t sit around and do nothing. Bob and his wife, Darlene, had three children. The two boys were six and four, and their baby daughter was just one. “What would you think about giving gifts to the kids?” Dave had asked.
        “Absolutely. Let’s do it,” I replied. “But I think we should get a little something for Bob and Dar, too.” But then I had another thought. “Thing is, though, I think they’d see this as a handout. Would they even accept the presents?”
        “You’ve got a point. And Bob would probably feel even worse that he couldn’t do more for his family.”
        So that’s when we hatched the idea for Undercover Santa. Dave shopped for Bob —a basketball pole, hoop and backboard. I bought a necklace and book for Dar, games and clothes for the boys, and a stuffed animal, a doll, and clothes for Sarah.
        I wrapped the gifts (except for the basketball pole, of course), and we placed them in cardboard boxes to protect them from the weather. We slipped an unsigned Christmas card in one of the boxes before we packed them in the truck cab. After Christmas Eve service ended, we drove home to change clothes before heading out.
        Now we were minutes away from the big moment.
        Finally, Dave cut the engine. “Let’s go.”
        We exited the truck and hauled out the boxes. The basketball equipment would require a second trip. It had snowed a few days earlier, but thankfully the streets were clear. As we moved off the sidewalk into the yard, the snow crunched with a sound that seemed louder than Santa’s reindeer landing on the rooftop. I half expected the lights to flip back on.
        Slowing our steps to try and make less noise, we crept behind the house. A wooden picnic table stood about thirty feet from the back door. We brushed off the snow and positioned the boxes on top. Then we retraced our footsteps and headed back to the truck to grab the basketball equipment.
        I shivered as cold air seeped into my coat and gloves. When we approached the house again, the clouds drifted away from the moon. Now the snow glowed silver-white, and our shadows appeared. “Hurry,” I whispered, my heartbeat accelerating. We deposited the last of the gifts and retreated to our vehicle.
        Bob and Dar’s house remained dark as we climbed into the truck and drove away.
        “I can’t believe we pulled that off,” Dave said as he turned up the heat in the cab. “I just hope someone looks out that back window in the morning.”
        A few days later, Darlene called and told me about finding the boxes and how excited the children were when they unwrapped their gifts.
        “And you don’t know who left them? Did they leave a card or anything?” I played along.
        “Well, there was a card, but no one signed it. I can’t believe someone did this!”
        I hung up a few minutes later and smiled.
        The next time we had dinner with Bob and Dar, they brought it up again. Darlene looked me in the eye and said, “Did you guys do this?”
        Uh-oh, crunch time. And I’m a terrible liar. But lie I did, and she seemed to accept my answer.
        We didn’t speak of it again except for an occasional remembrance. Over two decades have passed since then. The family moved across town, and the kids are grown.
        Bob and Dar are grandparents now. We figured they probably solved the mystery way back when, but even now we’re not quite sure.
        Over the years, Dave and I collaborated on a few more secret Christmas adventures for other families, but none of those experiences compared to the year we accomplished Mission: Undercover Santa.”
        “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Blessings of Christmas: 101 Tales of Holiday Joy, Kindness and Gratitude,” is available at Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Walmart, Target, Rite-Aid, Kroger, Meijer, Amazon, and wherever else books are sold.


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