Thursday, December 7, 2006

A Christmas Struggle

When I was barely leaving toddler-dom, I asked my mom every night for over a year to read me 'Twas the Night Before Christmas before bed. I loved that book.

The copy I had seemed old to me, which made it special. Its cover was hard and big--I couldn't cover it with both my hands spread on its surface. Like most kids, the idea of this man who lived forever and just made presents all year consumed me. It made sense that he existed. Who wouldn't love just giving gifts for a living and having an army of elves and cavalary of reindeer at your disposal?

But how was Santa the one who got the gig? Had nobody been giving gifts before then? Did Santa start Christmas? No, the baby Jesus did. I had that book, too. Even at this young of an age, the basic commercial and spiritual clash of Christmas was baffling me.

'That's tacky,' my mom said when the apartment across the street from our house put up a 'Happy X-Mas' light-up sign. I asked why and she explained that the 'X' took all the nice things out of Christmas--that it made Christmas all about buying stuff and not about being with family and friends. 'Why bother putting up the sign if it doesn't even spell the whole word out? It's missing the real message.'

So I would return to my studies, poring over the famous Christmas Eve text, looking for clues. After my mom shut the door, I'd pick the book back up from its spot on my bookshelf and, unable to read the majority of the words, I would stare at the pictures. There had to be something I was missing, and once I found it, the whole Santa-Jesus-Christmas thing would become clear to me. Instead, the pictures--out of the context of the story itself--became more confusing.

Most confusing was the last picture in the book. Santa had finished his big night--the gifts delivered, the cookies eaten, the milk drank. But here on the last page, without any words to explain, was Santa--lying out in the sun, stretched onto a beach chair with sunscreen slathered thick and white on his nose. He was holding a drink with a little umbrella in it like the ones that I could get at TGIFriday's with my soda if I asked the waiter nicely. He was on vacation.

A slew of questions arose: Did he stop at home or did he leave the reindeer on their own to get back to the Pole? Where's his suit and does he always wear yellow swim trunks when not in his suit? Where's Mrs. Claus? Does she get a vacation, or do she and the elves slave over the next year's toys beginning on December 26th without any help from Santa? When does his vacation end, does it last a week or until December 23rd of the next year?

After a year, I got tired of trying to figure it out. I had learned to read almost all of the words in the book, I had stared at the pictures for hours on end, and nothing was becoming more clear. Santa, I guessed, would remain a mystery.

Perhaps driving this Christmas quest was my personal relationship with Jesus. I don't, however, mean 'personal relationship' in the way that a Catholic grandmother might mean it. I really mean 'relationship,' to the point where at age four, I had a crush on the Biblical figure and wanted him to be my boyfriend. (Note: Jesus not always this air-blown.) Of all my imaginary playmates ("Charlaines" my five-dollar pink bear bought at KB Toys, Barbie, Grover from Sesame Street, and Elmo too--until I found out he was a 'he' and not a 'she' and I felt terribly cheated), Jesus was my favorite. He was the most real and the nicest.

My friendship with Jesus came crashing down around me my last year in preschool. On a sticky August afternoon, Jesus and I were playing outside under my favorite tree in my backyard. My dad had made the swing--a totally, utterly rough tree swing with rope that would give even the toughest sailors callouses and a flat, hard, butt-numbing board for a seat. I loved it. So on this afternoon, I--willing to be a good friend and share--was pushing Jesus on the swing since it was His turn. Then, something happened. It might have been because I hadn't been spending much time lately looking at the illustrations in my Mom's childhood Bible, or maybe because I had waited so long before I did share the swing with Him, or maybe I was just pushing too hard... But suddenly, unexpected, Jesus flew back much farther than expected and I was hit in the face.

I fell onto my back, knocking my head on the ground. Worst of all was my chin--scraped by either His foot or the butt-numbing swing itself. I ran inside, crying and confused. While I sat in her lap, my mom put Neosporin, gauze and medical tape on my chin and I explained to her what had happened. Through my tears, I made a vow. I was done playing with Jesus.

It wasn't that I didn't believe in Jesus, I concluded, I just wasn't friends with Him anymore. I went back to studying my 'Twas the Night text. Sadly, Santa still wasn't providing explanations or answers as he smiled over his tropical drink. Even more devastating was when, clued in by context about a month after my break-up with Jesus, I found out that Santa was not real.

The details of this horrible revelation I do not remember. According to my mom, I asked for the truth in the car while on an errand drive with her. I asked timidly and in a way that my Mom took to mean that I had figured it all out, and even if she couldn't pull over on Ohio Route 42 to talk about it, she should be honest with me then and there. After she said that I was right, Santa didn't exist, she tried to explain that the spirit of Santa Claus was a real thing while I cried over my second loss. I've done a pretty great job totally repressing this memory. I do remember, however, that afterward I put the 'Twas book on the shelf indefinitely, deciding I was too old for Santa, and feeling more confused than ever about what Christmas really meant.

Things have changed in the last eighteen years. I no longer resent Santa for not being real and I'm not grudging on Jesus for that scrape he gave me on the swing. I don't keep a copy of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas nor of The Holy Bible bedside. I don't believe in Santa, and I'm pretty sure Jesus was an okay guy, but not the son of God or anything.

Some children in France are taught that Santa was
actually St. Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors and pawnbrokers (go figure). On a cold night, three lost children are taken into a warm cottage by a butcher who feeds them heavily and then puts them in bed. Once they fall asleep, he then chops them into bits and pieces, tossing their sliced and now salted remains into a barrel for later. Seven years pass and St. Nicholas happens along the cottage after hearing the sliced and salted remains of the children cry for help, pieces the kids back together and informs the butcher he can repent for his sins and, well, God will set him free. In other versions of the story, he grabs the butcher by the heels and shoves him in the barrel for all eternity (forever and ever, amen), putting a new spin on French children's images of Hell.

I'm not sure at which point Nicholas went from being Saint to being Santa and moved from France to the North Pole, but I'm okay with this story. Granted, it's bloody and dated (from the 1500s actually), but in it, Santa and God coexist and fight together in an epic battle of good versus evil. So I may not be sure how commercially and/or spiritually I want to spend my Christmas this year--the ratio of my time spent mall shopping and knelt praying now escapes me--but either way, they both beat the third alternative--spending seven years salty and in pieces at the bottom of a barrel. And I suppose that's a good reason to celebrate.
Happy Holidays!

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