I know my journey is far down the road, and even though it may be shockingly late to admit, I will state outright: My relationship with Santa Claus always was precarious, and as a child, I was more than a little ambivalent about that old, hairy, oversized, dressed in red guy. From the beginning of time, at least time in the 1950’s, Santa was supposed to be not only a generous gift bringer, but a huge joy bringer to all the children who were good little boys and girls. For me, this was not the case.
When I was very young, words to express my reaction to Mr. Claus had not formulated. I was not able to communicate effectively that his appearance and actions scared the socks off me. And every year, regardless how I felt, the Santa rituals began shortly after Thanksgiving, when my siblings and I were taken downtown to visit with him. I dreaded this event, and my behavior was perplexing to parents who only wanted their children to experience the fun of Christmases they had wanted, but missed out on due to the Great Depression.
One particular year, I am certain, became the benchmark for all future Santa Claus visits. My mother had dressed us up, and drove us downtown to a large department store. We arrived fairly early in the afternoon, and took our places in line. Although the other children there seemed to be having a good experience, I was anxious, and very uncomfortable waiting for something I did not want to do, at all. We moved forward a few steps at a time, inching closer and closer to the raised throne, whereupon a really big, sweaty, loud man, dressed in red, with long white hair, and a long white beard sat, rushing children on and off his lap with all the panache of a noisy, insincere Christmasy conveyor belt. Tears had begun to trickle down my cheeks, because stress always made me cry. Not the big, wailing, tears gushing kind of cry; just the little leaky eyed, sniffly nose, pressure release valve sort of cry. I knew I was expected to be happy and appreciate this golden opportunity to tell Santa in person what I wanted for Christmas, but I already had dictated a list to my parents, and they had mailed it to the North Pole. To me, that was enough. I really did not like the idea of talking to the gruff guy in a fur-trimmed red suit.
And then, “Oh no!” It was my turn; my moment had arrived. I was grabbed by Mrs. Claus, lifted, and unceremoniously plopped onto Santa’s lap. He launched into his “Ho, ho, ho! What do you want for Christmas?” routine used on every child who was thrust onto his ample lap. I took a deep breath, wiped my cheeks, and proceeded to tell him as methodically as possible the things that had caught my eye earlier in the month, while poring over the toy section in the Sears Catalog.
It was about half way through my list that I stopped and asked Santa why he was not writing this down. He “Ho, ho, ho’d” me again, and said he did not need to, because he was Santa Claus, and could remember all the toys little girls and boys wanted. Big mistake. Poor man, he did not seem to know my Christmas history, nor did he have a clue I was having a Christmas epiphany, realizing and understanding why every year gifts at our house were always wrong. I tried to help the old guy out by telling him if he had written things down, last year my sister would not have received the doll I wanted and asked for; and I would not have received the ugliest doll ever given to anyone, anywhere, any time; and my mother and I would not have gotten into a battle of wills that day over who should have received the pretty doll. There was a moment of complete silence, and then he told me I was done, and could go. It was with relief I hopped down from Santa’s lap, and skipped happily away, because I finally knew why presents at my house were frequently and consistently not right. Santa came every year, but he did not make a list, nor did he check it twice. He was old and obviously forgetful, and now I understood, feeling much better about the confusion caused by so many toys having been given to the wrong person.
There was, however, one more Santa Claus issue that would not be resolved for a long time, and it took its toll on me every Christmas. I found something fundamentally wrong with a stranger, even if we knew his name and he left gifts, coming into our home in the dark of night, having free access to anything he wanted, including eating our Christmas cookies. And most baffling of all to a small child was observing her ever-vigilant dad being not only indifferent to this yearly home invasion, but appearing to encourage it.
Our Christmas Eves began with my dad building a fire in the fireplace…”No, Santa will not get burned when he comes down the chimney. No, he will not get stuck, and I already told you, he will not get burned. He’s magical, and he makes the bag fit; it doesn’t matter how big the toys are. Because I just know, now stop worrying about it!” We would listen to the radio, and get continual updates on Santa’s travels throughout the world. Someone was tracking him, and they kept us posted on where he was during the evening. It was important to be in bed before he reached our little valley town and got to our house, so we listened to these updates with great interest. Later in the evening, our mother made hot chocolate, and we gathered in the living room where we drank it, and ate Christmas cookies, while our dad read Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night Before Christmas.
Just before bed, we always prepared a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa, and left a note telling him the snack was his. So, there we had a hefty old man carrying a huge sack of toys, landing on our roof in a sleigh pulled by reindeer who flew through the sky with their legs running while they supposedly were flying; the white-haired, white bearded fellow, who easily was three times the girth of our chimney dropping down it, all the while avoiding burning himself or his fur-trimmed red suit, wandering through our house with no one caring that we really did not know him at all. And we were feeding him, to boot. Then, as if, taken all together, this were not confusing and puzzling enough to a little kid, the old gentleman, after eating cookies and drinking milk, left a thank you note at the bottom of our note. Plus, there also would be a hoof print from one of his reindeer next to Santa’s signature. How in the world did the reindeer get down the chimney, too? It was Christmas mystery overload!
I wondered more than once if I were the only kid alive for whom this yearly event gave great pause. Seriously, with a Santa on every street corner ringing a bell asking for money, and in every department store promising presents; the advent of this stranger somehow gaining access to the inside of one’s home, with or without a chimney, wandering around at will once inside; and flying reindeer who pulled a sleigh throughout the world, stopping at every home along the way in a matter of a few hours, it was overwhelming to a child who just wanted to make sense out of it all.
It was during those Christmas nights I found my need for little sleep very handy. I kept watch, as best I could, because even though I had been told gifts would not be left to children who were not asleep, I felt responsible for a household that peacefully slumbered in their beds while the Santa Claus activities were occurring in other rooms. I never caught that wily old fellow, and over time, I learned how to appear happy and grateful for gifts that were not what I wanted nor had asked for; after all, he did not write things down, and had been up all night, so mistakes could be forgiven.
And I have to say, it was not with any trace of sadness nor disappointment when I found out the truth about Santa. No. I was relieved beyond words the day my classmates were discussing the truth about Santa Claus. I was shocked to hear what they were saying, and listened carefully. After school, I ran home as fast as my little legs would carry me. I burst through the front door, yelling for my mother. She ran into the living room, whereupon I confronted her with what I had heard at school, and asked her if it was true. When I took a breath, she responded by telling me there indeed was a Santa Claus, and he was the spirit of Christmas. I asked her if she meant he was a ghost. She told me he was not a ghost; he was what Christmas was supposed to be for all the little children of the world. When I asked her to just say yes or no if Santa was real, she said she already had answered my question. That was it. I knew. My mother was never very good at making things up.
Thank goodness, I knew the truth. In all subsequent Christmases, I joyfully relinquished my self-appointed task as protector of hearth and home; no longer had to visit with the ubiquitous Santa, one of which was always located in our downtown department store; and found, by opening, peeking at, and resealing presents, a workable way to prepare myself for the gifts that should have been under someone else’s tree instead of mine. Yes, I had found the truth, and it had set me free. Free to enjoy Christmas with my family and friends; loving it, them, and the real reason for it all.
For unto you is born this day…