23 December 2007

The Santa Dilemma

The Santa Dilemma
by Kyle Stich

Carols don’t do Santa justice, not the real Kris Kringle in any case.

I’d just left Sacred Heart, the Catholic church on 4th and A, when I met him. At least, it was the first time I met him. The fat guy in the red furs. The high-end hides didn’t really grab my attention, though. It was that “twinkle,” the one mentioned in stories and songs. His eyes didn’t twinkle; they radiated. I’m talking about a full-out blast of light from his orbs. His gaze literally pierced.

The boys followed close and saw the jolly guy ringing away and smiling at all who passed. Few paid attention, but those sons of mine stopped and looked at him, then at his bell, then at the sign. They asked, “What’s the Salvation Army?”

I glanced at the man who continued swinging the bell as he listened for my answer. I thought for a second longer than I should have, then said, “Salvation means saving, so they are an army of people who help you out. This bucket is where you can help them help others.”

They launched into the usual interrogation, requesting info about what the Salvation Army does with the money and why the bucket is red. Mostly, though, they wanted to know about why they used a guy in a Santa suit and why he rang a bell.

“Well,” I uttered in a half-choked reply, “Santa helps people feel generous.”

My eldest son, Dean, said, “And… the bell?”

“To attract more people, duhhhh.” Micah, the younger of the duo, dragged out the last part for all it was worth. “But why at Christmas?”

“Well, I’m not sure,” I began with a furtive look at the Santa, “Maybe it has to do with the whole ‘Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All’ theme of Christmas.”

Dean turned to his brother and said, “Do you still have that five dollars?”

Crossing his arms, Micah stared down his older brother. “That’s not what that money was meant for, Dean. Grandma said only on fun stuff.”

“But it’s for goodwill and peace,” Dean said. “Don’t you think Grandma would be okay with goodwill and peace?”

That’s when I heard it all over again. For the longest time, we didn’t get presents from family at Christmas. Family on both sides put up hard cold shoulders when we announced our abandonment of Christmas.

“Oh, you’ll still do Santa for the kids though, right?” they asked.

“No, no Santa,” we said. “No Christmas.”

“But, you’ll have a tree up, right? Or lights and some stockings?”

After explaining what it means not to celebrate Christmas, we explained why we don’t celebrate this “all-important” holiday. They understood our desire not to buy into the mass consumerism of the season, but they seemed to gloss right over an overriding reason we don’t celebrate: we aren’t Christian. That still didn’t stop them from saying, “You don’t need the trees and presents to celebrate Christmas, just put Jesus back in Christmas.”

We would then restate that we aren’t Christian and we always received the same response: “Then what are you?”

“I’m nothing really,” I said. “We’re nothing.”

“Are you a nihilist then, or an Atheist? And, what about your kids? You’re raising little heathens?”

“If by ‘heathens’ you mean ‘not-Christian,’ then yes. I think that the closest thing we are is Pagan. We love nature and believe it is worth our devotion.” Endless hours of debate ensued around the topic, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear jokes about turning us in for child abuse. Then we invited some of our more open-minded siblings to our Winter Solstice party.

The Solstice jams always promised a fun time, what with the Feast of Fools and the Wassailing. We stuffed our faces and laughed our guts back to empty, perpetuating a long cycle of feast and fest, feast and fest. The only downside came when my middle sis tore out of my backyard screaming as we lit the Yule Log covered in “dreams and demons.” Once the log burned down low enough, we roasted some reindeer sausage over the coals, a treat imported from the Land of the Midnight Sun. Man, the place was hopping and folks were up until the sun cracked over the horizon.

As the sun rose higher, though, the best Solstice party turned into the worst. Beneath the pecan tree that we had decorated was a pile of presents. The kids freaked out and looked to the adults.

“Don’t look at us,” said one aunt. “It must have been Santa.”

My wife’s eyes shot at me. “Um, boys, could you come with me please?”

The well-meaning aunt looked shocked but attended to the other children already opening their gifts. I half-dragged my youngest, green over his lucky cousins, to the house. Marla’s sister hounded after us, right until we shut the door of our room in her face and locked the door.

Marla and I played the hard stare game before turning on the boys. “Look, you two, you can’t say anything to your cousins. I hate to ask it, but you have to keep the secret. Just don’t lie and say there is a Santa. Avoid the subject of Santa belief at all costs, got it?”

We opened the door and get pushed back in by the ever-pressing sister-in-law. “What is going on with you two?”

“Besides you pressing a lie on our kids?”

“You’re messing with me, right? It’s just a fun little thing that people like to do. Pretending there’s a Santa is the whole magic of the holiday. Otherwise, it’s just like your birthday and Thanksgiving all rolled up into one. Where’s the fun in that?”

“There is no Santa Claus,” I told Marla’s sister. “When you buy into the Santa thing, when you tell your kids that Santa brought the gifts, you’re lying to them. Period. Think about what you’re teaching your kids.”

“Whatever!” She threw her hands in the air and sighed so heavily that a mixture of candy cane and eggnog wafted past my nostrils. Turning her back on us, she left the room and yelled to the kids, “What did Santa bring you?”

The fat man’s bell rang louder as I looked down to my sons still haggling over the five spot in their hands. Here they were, two normally agreeable brothers fighting over a measly bill.

“You’re going to rip it,” I exclaimed as their screeching increased. “Why don’t you go make change? That way, Dean can give his half away and, Micah, you can spend yours on whatever.”

They each looked at me, before Micah snatched Abe Lincoln from Dean’s grip. The shorter of the two stormed to the 7-11 two doors down. One minute passed, then another and another until Micah exited the store. His cheeks were red, whether flushed or blushed was difficult to discern in the chill weather.

“Where’s my two-fifty, Micah?”

“I don’t have it,” Micah said twisting his foot.

Dean’s eyes lit up like a lightning storm. Ready to throttle his brother, he instead said, “What did you spend it on?”

“A hungry family,” Micah said from under his furrowed eyebrows.

Dean’s fist slowly uncurled and his head tilted. Micah explained how a man with a baby tried to shoplift some baby formula. He watched as the cashier grabbed the phone and began to dial 9-1-1. Without thinking, he asked the cashier to stop a little too loudly. All in the convenience store turned to look at Micah. He asked how much the formula cost, then used the five dollars to pay for it. The cashier yanked the bill from his hand and started to yell at the man with the baby as Micah shuffled empty-handed out the door.

“They just seemed to need the money for something a lot more important than candy or toys,” Micah explained, still dazed from the encounter. “The man behind the counter was going to send that dad to jail just because he needed to feed his baby.”

Dean smiled and said, “So, goodwill and peace do matter?” He slid his arm across his brother’s shoulder and we resumed our progress down the sidewalk. From behind us, I heard the cessation of the bell replaced with the most authentic “ho-ho-ho” I’d ever heard.

Later that night, we sat all stuffed bellies and foggy heads in our living room. Although we’d not celebrated Christmas for a decade and a half, Marla and I continued the tradition of preparing a fat roast and serving hot-buttered rums on Christmas Eve. Our Solstice candle burned over the mantle as well-cured logs crackled in the fireplace.

With effort, I peeled myself from the Barcalounger and looked upon my sons with their fading eyes. Wide smiles curled across their cheeks as they read the books Grandma had sent for the Christmas we didn’t celebrate. Then I turned into a startling sight. The man from the Salvation Army was bent at the hip, placing presents beneath a mini Christmas tree.

My heart lurched and I reached for the fire poker, but then inexplicably froze. “What are you doing in my house?”

The fat man straightened himself and chuckled like the proverbial bowl full of jelly. “Working, of course.”

“How’d you get in here?” I stood between him and my sons. Marla entered from the bathroom where she had been prepping for a long night’s slumber, all wide eyes and mesmerized.

Here was this complete stranger standing in the middle of our living room, no invitation, no noticeable point of entry, and bearing gifts. I gaped for words, barely mouthing, “But, you’re not real.”

“Aren’t I though? I’m standing here, and in a minute, you’ll watch me leave through your chimney. How can you deny that I exist?”

“But why? Why us? We don’t even celebrate Christmas and we’ve told our boys that you don’t exist.” I scratched my head.

“Good people are hard to find, truly good people that is.” He then looked down at my lounger and took a seat. Micah and Dean hopped up and asked the bearded man if he wanted some milk and cookies, but didn’t wait for his response. They returned and essentially force fed him their treats, and he smiled with satisfaction.

The boys sat on the floor before him, cross-legged and waiting for stories they were sure to come.

Patting his belly, Santa belched then said, “You want to know the secret of how I am able to deliver all my gifts on this one night?” He knew we did, so he continued, “There aren’t that many truly good people in the world. Sure, plenty of people will put on pretenses, but if you act good for the sake of being included on the ‘nice list,’ you don’t qualify. You have to ‘be good for goodness sakes,’ as the song goes. Like Micah here, and Dean for not getting upset with his brother for spending the money on those less fortunate than him, and for you and Marla for raising such selfless children.

“Truth be told, you haven’t stolen any magic of Christmas from them. You’ve given them a much greater gift than any other parent gives on this night: honesty and goodwill. That deserves reward and recognition. When it comes down to it, selfless people are in short supply these days, so it makes my work load mighty light.”

Dean tilted his head and said, “If parents give out presents in your name, how do the kids know when they got a present from you and not them, and why don’t adults get presents?”

“Ho-ho-ho!” Santa burst into laughter and rocked himself upright out of the chair. “I’ve shared a few too many secrets with you already, boys. Now, I must be off.” He slung his pack over his shoulder and wobbled over to the roaring fire.

I reached out to stop him, then said, “I’m sorry, Santa, sorry I said you don’t exist.”

He grabbed my hand in both of his and said, “It’s okay, how could you have known, really known when your own parents lied to you…” he paused seeking a final word. “You broke the cycle and told the truth. You didn’t pretend to be me; you were yourself, and that’s what counts.” With that, he touched his finger to the side of his nose and dissolved before our eyes, streaming out through the chimney like so much smoke.


Anonymous said...

Good job Quack. Very few really get it. You should make it a book. -J

Anonymous said...

I like that alot---Makes one seiously consider what they believe and most importantly, Why?--- Amanda