Friday, December 18, 2009


I wrote this little thing three years ago, but it's been on my mind lately. I edited it up a bit and thought I would repost it. Happy Holidays to all who happened to check my blog six-plus months after my last post and discover this new post!

For over a year when I was barely not a toddler and not quite a kid, I asked my mom to read me “'Twas the Night Before Christmas” before bed every single night. I loved that book.

The copy I had seemed very old, which made it extra special. It was large with a hard binding covered in fabric. Its cover was bigger than both my hands spread wide across its surface, and I had to carefully balance it in my lap if I looked at it alone. Like most kids, the idea of this man who lived forever with the sole purpose of making presents year-round consumed me. It made sense that he existed. Who wouldn't love giving gifts for a living while supplied with an army of elves and cavalry of reindeer at your disposal?

But how was Santa the one who got the gig? Had nobody given gifts before him? Did Santa start Christmas? No, the Baby Jesus did. I had that book, too.

'That's tacky,' my mom said when our neighbors put up a neon sign that beamed out a green and red-lighted message: Happy X-Mas. 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 on what the real message was. After my mom would say goodnight and shut my bedroom 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. Santa was on vacation.

A slew of questions arose: Did Santa stop at home before hitting the beach or did he leave the reindeer on their own to get back to the Pole? Where's his red suit and does he always wear yellow swim trunks when not decked in fur and red velvet? 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 clearer. 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. 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 Elmo was a 'he' and not a 'she' and I felt terribly cheated), Jesus was my favorite. He was the most real and the nicest.

Where my relationships with other imaginary friends were sometimes strained—Charlaines and I were known to bicker over who got the window seat on the airplane fashioned out of meticulously be-rowed dining room chairs; Grover was antisocial and required lots of prodding to pull himself out of a morose mood; Barbie demanded my representation as her lawyer in multiple divorce court proceedings when her misguided romances with various Kens fell through; Elmo turned out to be a boy—my relationship with Jesus was pure, blissful. Our friendship was open, supportive and active. Jesus often wanted to play outside, dance to opera music, and he liked my drawings.

But my friendship with Jesus came crashing down around me during 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 truly rough tree swing fashioned with a flat, hard, butt-numbing wood board for a seat and two ropes that would give even the toughest sailors calluses. 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, unexpectedly, Jesus flew back much farther than anticipated 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 not too long 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 running errands 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. She said that I was right, Santa didn't exist but that the spirit of Santa Claus was a very real thing. My mom tells me I cried quite a bit, but I've done a pretty great job repressing this moment. I do remember, however, that afterward I put the 'Twas the Night 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 over the last twenty-plus years. I no longer resent Santa for not being real and I'm not begrudging 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.

Children in France are taught that Santa is Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors and pawnbrokers (Go figure). The story goes that on a cold, dark and snowy night, three lost children are taken into a warm cottage by a butcher who feeds them heavily and then tucks them into bed. Once the three little kids fall asleep, the butcher sneaks back into the room and 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 from their barel. St. Nicholas pieces the kids back together and informs the butcher he can repent for his sins and, if he does so, God will set him free. In other versions of the story, St. Nicholas 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 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 spiritually I want to spend my Christmas this year--the ratio of my time spent shopping at the mall and knelt in prayer 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 the holiday season.

Happy Holidays!


rleland said...

Maybe calling it x-mas instead of christmas was santa's idea in an attempt to steal the spotlight from jesus

joven said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
joven said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.