Sunday, December 21, 2008

Santa Unwrapped

One Christmas Eve, just as my teddy bear and I were toddling off to visions of sugarplums (whatever the hell those are), Dad took me aside.

“We need to talk,” he said.

“Is this about the birds and the bees?” I asked.

“No!” he stammered. “No. It’s about Santa.”

“Is he ok?”

“Yes, he’s fine. Well, no, actually, he’s not.” Dad sighed. “He doesn’t exist. Your mother and I have been um, covering for him all these years.”

It figured. If the pizza man wouldn’t even deliver to us, why should Santa? But I was finally in on the secret. It was quite the letdown, finding out Santa’s true identity. On the bright side, it was a relief to know a jolly, corpulent stranger couldn’t actually waltz into our house any time he wanted.

I had always expected the dogs to nail Santa, cornering him before he could make it back to the chimney, or at least ripping a chunk out of his gaudy red suit. Their lack of diligence had worried me. At least now there was a logical explanation.

“Now that you know,” Dad sighed, “Get down to the basement and start wrapping.” I soon discovered why he had told me at such a young age, and why elves are so short with everyone - gift-giving can be a real pain in the ass. Even with four kids and a limited budget, my parents still went all out, buying us toy upon toy upon toy. As a result, I suddenly found myself toiling in a dank, dark bunker, wrapping eleventy little bundles of retail joy for my brothers and sister. I had just been introduced to the ugly, sweaty underbelly of Santa.

It was confusing, knowing how strict our parents were, yet how generous Santa seemed to be. Why be so ornery all year long and then pile on the toys? Looking back, I would have traded several candy canes in December for a few kind words in August. Eventually this keepsake family tradition would be better explained to me in my college psychology class, in the chapter on parental guilt.

As my back began to throb from wrapping, my parent’s crankiness became more understandable. Until recently they had been handling all this toy business by themselves. Now they had little me to help in their dirty work, and I quickly reached the point that if I saw one more Chatty Cathy doll, I would decapitate it.

It was especially weird wrapping anything for me. The next morning, I was expected to be surprised and joyous at such remarkable gifts, when all I really wanted for Christmas were some painkillers and a hot shower. Yes, I was growing up. And seriously considering converting to a religion that involved a bit less manual labor.

No wonder Santa used elves – they never grew big enough to overtake him. And at the North Pole, there was no way for them to escape without dying of exposure. The big guy sure knew what he was doing. But with all those high-pitched, whiny voices and a serious lack of quality entertainment before satellite television, I don’t know how he made it through the year without bountiful amounts of Scotch.

Beads of sweat soaked my bunny-suit pajamas as I lugged sleds, a doll house, several bikes, forty-seven damn dolls, even a cannon, from their hiding places in the basement. Sweat poured from my body because our traditional Christmas Bonfire to Roast Santa’s Ass was heating the house to nearly ninety degrees. My back ached from wrapping such a huge pile of guilt gifts. Suddenly this holiday wasn’t so jolly. More than a cheery wee elf, I resembled a clammy, muttering troll.

In a few hours, my littlest brother would be screaming at me to wake up, bringing the dogs in with him to jump on the bed and pound on my still-suffering muscles. I was tempted to use my newfound powers of x-ray vision to tell him what each of his presents were, but I figured since Santa no longer had my back, I was pushing my luck with my parents. They not only knew if I’d been bad or good, they wouldn’t wait until next Christmas to smack me for it.

It was a few years before I got any assistance in my elfin basement dungeon. My brother, Tom, was only a year younger, so I expected his help the following year. But apparently since I was doing such a terrific job on my own, my parents neglected to share the Santa-less truth with him. I soon realized that if I didn’t settle down, I’d be curling ribbon and gilding boxes solo until my siblings left for college.

For years after that, when my siblings would write their Christmas lists, I’d pray they’d ask for nothing heavy. Instead of bikes and large mechanical contraptions, I’d extol the virtues of stock options and cash. They never did catch on. Or it could be that they knew exactly what was happening, and enjoyed putting me through Noel hell.

Years later, I looked back at our weird traditions. Our tilting, teetering tree, cut and dragged from our back woods, with most of the ornaments hanging within three feet of the ground, since that’s how far up we little ones could reach. We’d bunch up wads of silver ‘icicles’ and launch them at the top of the tree, creating piles of wrinkled silver dangling in oddish garlands. And every time our mom regaled us with one of her Santa Isn’t Coming This Year scream-athons, I had Bing Crosby crooning It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas in my head. An odd song-association, yes, but part of my own personal holiday tradition carved from hours in our holiday basement sweatshop. I wasn’t real keen on hauling so many toys from the bowels of our house, but if that’s how our parents showed their love, so be it.

Besides, picture-perfect holidays are always suspect – it’s like that one flawless house on the street, with the housewife wearing a smile stretched so taut across her face you expect her teeth to implode. We're quietly aware that all her emotional baggage is crammed tightly into one closet. Open that closet door and bam! Emo-armageddon.

Having a bit of goofiness in the preparation comforts me, since I’m far from perfect myself. I figure if flaws are allowed to wander about like cattle, they will be less likely to build up in a closet somewhere and stampede through our lives unexpectedly.

Besides, the first Christmas was a mess, too – no vacancies, hay everywhere, guests arriving days late, and snoring farm animals. Never mind the gifting headaches - what could you possibly get someone whose father is God? Did you even bother wrapping it? I mean, he probably knew what you were going to get him before you did.

When viewed from a distance across decades, most old, family traditions seem quaint. But for a moment, put yourself in Mary’s place – nine months pregnant, riding a donkey, married to a guy who didn’t even have the presence of mind to call ahead to reserve a room. I’m pretty sure Mary uttered a few words too spicy for the Bible. But she got through and everyone’s happy for that. (For the second kid, though, I'm sure she did things way differently.)

Many of our own Christmas traditions were probably nerve-wracking or simply stupid, but we made it through, and now we can all sigh and think of them as quaint. So odd little traditions don’t bother me so much anymore. Mostly because they’re in the past, and I now have access to Santa’s best Scotch.

When we get obsessed with the stereotypical postcard Christmas, straining to make our holidays faultless, we’re basically guaranteed to be in a foul mood by Boxing Day. The real Christmas is not tidy packages under a perfect tree, a silent night, a shiny home. It’s getting an emotional handle on the holidays, a firm grip on love in whatever odd form it may take, and holding on for dear life. Because before we know it, we’ll have New Years and Valentine’s Day staring us in the face. And from what I had just discovered about Santa, I figured the Easter Bunny wasn’t gonna be much help.


tom said...

what do you mean santa isn't real i'm telling mom. have a nice chirstmas anyway, big mean sister.

Kristina said...

My parents had to tell me early that Santa wasn't real because when I was little, the idea of some stranger coming into the house through the chimney terrified me!

WriterDude said...

There were many good things about being an only child until I was eleven, and now you've pointed out another.

If I don't get back here sooner, lemme wish you a Merry Christmas now -- and because I'm a FedEx guy these days, feel free to wish me luck for the next two days!

Annie said...

After learning how Santa entered our house, my youngest worried about robbers. Once I eventually told him the truth about Santa, the first thing he said was, "You LIED to me!" You just can't win.

Congrats on your new job, WD. Jumping right into the holiday blitz(en). Merry, merry!