For me, Christmas was always a beautiful time. As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey was digested, festoons of garland would appear around my bedroom’s door jamb. Softly glowing, orange-bulbed candles would light all of the windows, basking each room with a warm luminescence that signaled the onset of the holiday season. My mother, who was often so stoic and stern, would slowly develop a smile that would take over her usual taciturn face; this was the season she loved the best, and wanted to make sure that the entirety of the world knew it.
She would chase my father out into the cold, early December afternoon on one of the few days he didn’t spend working everyday all day at a job I didn’t understand, but knew required long hours and left him worn out and too tired to play, forcing him to put up strand after strand of Christmas lights. He was proud of his work when it was done, but his was a silent pride – he didn’t do it for accolades or attention. He did it because it made my mother happy and it made us happy; it was the reason he did everything.
Several Christmases stand out in my memory; they were always the hallmark of my year. While other children had birthdays to look forward to, my mother regarded them as celebrating the inevitability of life’s end. Instead, she and my father went all out with Christmas, flooding the entire parlor with gifts, the Christmas tree standing like a bobbing buoy in the sea of shining red paper and glittering green bows. There was the Christmas I received my Nintendo, and another when I received a Game Boy – the expensive electronics that Santa doubtless could not produce. There were He-men and Star Wars figures (I asked for the rancor monster five years in a row), board games, model kits, a small acoustic guitar that never stayed in tune long, and a dozen other gifts from a dozen other Christmases that dot my hazy childhood memories.
Each Christmas, there was one gift that always stood out. It was always wrapped in silver, shining paper with a big red bow. Every year, there would be a gift like this, and every year it said it was from Santa. When I opened the box, it would always be a small wooden toy – something that looked like it was whittled by expert hands. When I was little, I saw this as proof of Santa Claus, but as I grew older, I started to suspect that it was a scheme of my parents. It was that Christmas, the first one that I doubted the reality of Santa, that I for better or worse, remember the best.
I was around 10 perhaps, and I was confidently writing my letter to Santa Claus. I had been developing my list for months, studying the commercials between cartoons, making sure to catch the name of every Cobra agent and GI Joe recruit they advertised, and I was certain that my list was near completion when the Sears Wishbook arrived, dropped with a floor shaking thud through the mailslot that sent the family dog into a barking, yowling tizzy. My sister and I raced for it, wrestled over, pushed and shoved, but she got the best of my young, meager hands and wrested it away.
She looked through it, oohing and ahing, tormenting me with its secret contents. I scrambled around her, climbing the chair back to glance over her shoulder, but she slammed the book shut with a sadistic grin that only big sisters could smile.
“You can look at it,” she said, “But only if you kiss Santa.”
I looked at the Sears Wishbook, the jolly-old elf sitting in a close-up, softy-focused shot with a knowing look on his face. I felt the true eyes of Santa on me, and redness crept into my ears. It wasn’t Santa. In fact, there was no Santa. I don’t know why I knew it, but at that moment, I realized the truth; Santa wouldn’t have such rules about the Sears Wishbook, and he definitely wouldn’t let big sisters make up rules like that either. At least not without them ending up with coal in the stocking. Their stocking that was longer than that of their little brother.
I didn’t kiss the picture, and my sister eventually grew bored of the game of keep-away, and I finally got to look through the book. I finished making my list, pretending that I still believed in Santa. I signed it with love and gave it to my mother, and remained confident that I had been a good boy, and that I would still get all the gifts that I asked for.
Christmas came, along with all of its lights and sounds. Everyday I would open a door of my cardboard advent calendar that had a pull tab on the side which made a pop-up Virgin Mary and Joseph bow to a cardboard Christchild in his nativity trough, watching the story of his conception and birth unfold in drawings. Time moved so much more slowly then. Every day at school was like torture. Our teachers would wrangle us and sit us down, talking about history and math, none of it having to do with the only thing that floated through most of our minds – Christmas. Christmas with its gifts and trees and ornaments, so distanced from Cavemen and long division.
Music class was the closest we’d get to Christmas, though the Santa hats we made in art class were a close second. Miss Karras was our teacher through Grammar School, and I had a crush on her despite the many decades difference. I day dreamed of her as Mrs. Miss Karras Thompson, my wife. She’d sing me songs in her beautiful voice and make me dinner, and sleep with me in bed. However, she was out that Christmastime. It was a man that walked through the door, with a mustache and a nasal voice; balding and thin, he scolded us for not being able to hit high notes; we were young boys and girls – we should be able to hit these notes.
The time came to sing Jingle Bells, and we did. Only we didn’t sing the lyrics as written. Yes, it was Jingle Bells, Batman smells. We didn’t know what child penned it, but I knew it from my sister, and I think she knew it from my brother. Despite its dubious origin, we sang it with verve and panache until that mustachioed buzzkill that was not Miss Karras told us to stop.
“You’re ruining it,” he explained, “there’s only so many more years that you’ll be able to sing songs like this, and you shouldn’t be acting like this. You should appreciate them now.”
He went on and on, and I wondered if it meant I had been bad. It didn’t matter. There was no Santa, and I was confident that my presents were on their way. After all, my mom had gone Christmas shopping.
I was never sure how I made sense of it. I knew that my mother went Christmas shopping, and I knew she went to Child World. I knew she would come home with an enormous box full of toys that she said were for other children, but I knew that was a lie. I had filled in the blanks of the story with my own answers – Santa couldn’t make the fancy toys that I wanted, so instead he had my parents buy them, and then he’d come pick them up, wrap them, and drop them off on Christmas, along with one of his own wooden toys because I was so well-behaved. Of course, now that I knew the truth, the middle man was cut out and everything made much more sense.
When school ended, vacation began, and Christmas was closer. We went to the mall on occasion, and there were Santas there. I never believed that one of them was actually Santa or that they had any connection with him – they were pretenders, and sitting on their laps was a waste of time. I had written him letters, and that’s what Santa really wanted. I thought back on to my letter and all the letters I wrote previously. Where did they actually go? If there was no Santa, where did the mail man bring them? I had no idea, but figured it would make more sense with age. I knew that my mom couldn’t have kept the letters instead of mailing them. That would be tampering with the federal mail system.
On the night before Christmas, my father always worked only a half-day. He’d get home early and we’d visit my grandmother. My mother’s mother had passed away before I was born, as did most of her family, but my father’s mother was still quite alive, though I suspected that it was cigarettes and spite that kept her that way.
Visiting her was the least exciting part of the season and something I dreaded. She wasn’t the warm and loving creature grandmothers are painted as in books and television. She was a distant and cold lich that had a voice that rumbled in her throat like a pick-up truck laden with stones.
My sister and I, as my brother was now old enough to opt out of going to grandmother’s, sat quietly. We played with grandmother’s strange dog and looked at her collection of porcelain cats and dogs. She gave us gifts, usually useful ones, though just as often toys. My godfather would give me an extravagant toy, or baseball cards, or a gift certificate for comic books; he’d sit in his reclining chair and watch from a distance. He’d smile a sad looking grin. There was something there between us that I never understood, but I knew that he took joy in my joy, and that was all that mattered.
When we were leaving, my godfather said something that stuck with me through the night.
“He’s coming, you know.”
Of course, he meant Santa and I was content to believe that he was in on the world-wide conspiracy that the all-seeing, gift giving hoax was real. I simply smiled and was on my way, happy with the toy helicopter he gave me (which my brother would have to assemble) and content with the wallet that my grandmother had presented me. The ride home was quiet. The stifling boredom of my grandmother’s was enough to sap my energy. Yet, when I got home, I found myself quite wakeful.
In the haze of my drifting slumber while in the backseat of my dad’s Plymouth Duster, I conceived a plan: I would catch Santa. Or the lack of Santa. I would stay up as late as I could, listening for his arrival. I’d keep an eye on my parents and make sure they weren’t doing anything funny. I’d either catch Santa or my parents putting gifts under the tree.
It was a struggle. I asked for water and went to the bathroom more times than I could count. I paced by the head of the stairs, listening for any kind of commotion. My mother thought this was endearing at first, but as the middle of the night came and went, she had eventually had enough.
“Go to bed and go to sleep, or else Santa won’t come.” she said.
I wanted to retort. I wanted to say that he wasn’t real, but I held my tongue. I’d bide my time and wait until I could catch her and my father placing gifts beneath the tree. I went back to my room under protest, and felt my eyelids growing heavy.
When I awoke, it was still nighttime. I could hear my father’s heavy breathing coming from my parents’ bedroom, the sound of some kind of radio program emanating from his clock radio. I stalked down the stairs gingerly, quietly, though they still creaked beneath my weight. As I turned the corner and poked my head out from the doorway, I heard a loud jingling of bells.
I stepped back up the stairs, retreating slightly, but with my eyes on the house door. There was the sound of clattering hooves and laughter; not the rich ho-ho-ho you read about; more of a low chuckle. The door knob slowly turned, a shadowy figure in the door’s window. The door was locked, I knew it was, but the knob turned and the door gaped open anyways. I considered running up the stairs to hide, maybe to call the police, or perhaps just pretend that I was sleeping. Before I could move, he came into view.
He was tall and old, with a long beard that trailed near to his knees. His long red coat looked a bit haggard, but there was no denying its warmth and sumptuousness. His eyes fell on me, piercing and comforting all at once. He gave a smile that was meant to be warm, but it had the same tinge of something I did not know that my godfather’s smile had. He stepped into the hallway and walked towards the parlor, leaving the door open behind him.
I followed closely, unable to speak. I couldn’t believe that it was truly Santa, that he was in my house.
The Christmas tree was the only light in the parlor, which cast the room in a dozen different colors. Santa looked at the tree and shook his head, smiling a little, probably at its extravagance. There was an enormous sea of gifts as usual, and he had a hard time finding a spot to place the two small silver package he pulled out of his bag. He looked to the couch where my mother had fallen to sleep and gently pulled a blanket over her sleeping form. She did not wake, but a contented smile beamed on her face. To this day, I had never seen her smile quite like that.
Santa turned away from the tree, and walked towards me. He placed a mittened hand on my head, tossling my hair.
“You forgot a gift for John,” I said, looking after my brother’s best interests. Santa shook his head no.
“He has one,” he said in a withered, aged voice.
“Then what about Lisa?” my sister was at least as good as I was, and I knew she deserved something if I did.
Santa shook his head no.
“There is one for her as well.”
“Then what about me?” I asked brazenly.
Santa looked behind me and pointed to the open hallway door. There was the jingling of bells and clattering of a hoof. I smiled widely, expecting that perhaps Santa would take me for a ride on his sleigh. I beamed at Santa, but he did not smile back. Instead, he looked forlorn.
A shadow on the hallway floor grew, and the lights of the tree lost their warm hue. The sound of bells and hooves was accompanied by something else. It was the sound of chains being dragged up the stairs, and the lamentations of children that were whimpering, “Why me?”
I tried to turn away, but Santa was behind me. He placed a hand on my shoulder, and in his grandfatherly voice said, “Don’t look away.”
It ducked as it came through the door, its horns still scraping the ceiling. It came in with the scent of fires and fear, dark, wild eyes darting here and there. One bare human foot slapped against the wooden floorboard, then a goat-like hoof. A tongue, thick, ropey, and long, sagged from the beast’s mouth, dripping with spit. In its hand was a bundle of white sticks, stained red with blood. I could see small hands reaching out of the basket it carried on its back.
“What is it?” I asked Santa.
“It is the price all bad children must pay.” said Santa.
“But I’ve been good,” I insisted.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, not really. I said sorry when I broke my mom’s vase, and I said sorry because I lied about it originally. I didn’t break the toaster, that was Lisa. It should get her! John put the paper towels in the toilet, not me!”
“No,” said Santa, “he is here for you.”
It stepped towards me, stooping low, its tongue hitting the ground and writing like an earthworm. Its lips peeled back into a grin, showing jagged teeth with bits of hair and bloody bits stuck between them. Its breath was bitter and warm. It reached out towards me, and I could see the silver links of the chains that hung from its manacles. A sharp claw pressed against my cheek, right below my eye. I yelped as it drew blood, tearing through my skin in a short swipe.
I started to cry. I begged for mercy, but the creature simply laughed in my face.
Santa’s arms closed around me, and I felt safe.
“Go now,” he said, “that’s enough.”
“Why Santa?” I asked as I turned to hug him.
“Because you are a greedy little boy. But you can change. You can be better than this.”
Santa hugged me and then stood.
“I said go,” demanded Santa.
The creature gave me a wink and turned away, dragging its chains behind it.
I never received one of those silver wrapped Christmas presents with a hand made wooden toy inside it again. I stopped writing letters to Santa, and it was only grudgingly that I would provide my mother with a Christmas list. The season hasn’t lost any of its magic, but since my encounter with Santa and that creature, I understand it much better.