Helen Chappell - December 2009


There Goes Santa Claus!


Helen Chappell

   I believe in Santa Claus, of course. Anyone with a heart knows the big guy lives at the North Pole, uses elf labor to make toys and, on Christmas Eve, flies around the world in his sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer to deliver presents to good and not-so-good children. I say not-so-good because I was periodically threatened by my elders with a stocking full of ashes and coal if I didn’t behave. My aunt swore to me that one year she’d gotten ashes and coal, and I believed her. Of course, my brother told me if I wanted to join the Brownies I’d have to eat rattlesnake meat, and I believed that, too.
    I’ve been agnostic about many things in my life, but my belief in Santa remains rock-ribbed and unchallenged. There was a time in my life, when I was about eight, that I realized Santa starts handing over the present-giving to the adults in your life. With all those little kids coming up behind you, that only makes sense, right? I mean he’s only one man.
    A child’s Christmas in the ’50s was something we kids all looked forward to, which is why some people will pay $250 for a plastic Frosty the Snowman on eBay. When new and stuffed with a pouch of hard candy, Frosty probably cost 29 cents at the five-and-dime. but he’s what you remember on the mantlepiece next to the stockings, all lined up with care, with a plastic sleigh and reindeer and some plastic green pine garland.
    We always had a real tree, and boxes of glass and plastic ornaments and chains of gold beads to decorate it on Christmas Eve. The real tree was a big deal for us. We looked down our noses at lazy people who had aluminum trees with all blue bulbs. You can now buy those trees as vintage for about $300 as a sort of campy holiday statement.
    Lights were another big thing. You were some kind of communist if you didn’t have a scraggly shrub in your front yard festooned with Nona lights.
    These days people go insane with the lights, the light-up figures and decorations. I myself have driven miles out of my way to see some particularly spectacular display. Christmas decorating is not for the faint of heart or the tasteful. It’s the one time of year when the most restrained WASPs can break out of their understated style and light up the house like a traveling meth lab on crack. Christmas is when you want to get as loud and gaudy and trashy as you possibly can. On New Year’s you can go back to your single grapevine wreath on the front door, but Christmas gives you an excuse to allow your Inner Redneck to come out and play.
    These days, over-the-top light displays are not only common, they’re awarded prizes. But back in the conservative ’50s, lighting up your entire house and displaying 23 illuminated figures on your front lawn was pretty daring.
    My Uncle Buddy was a pioneer in the Christmas Excess movement. For a man with a bad temper and a worse attitude (he had not had a good World War II), he certainly knew how to literally go over the top at the holiday season.
    The Thanksgiving meal was still on the table when he would start outlining his crumbling old Victorian in strings of multicolored lights. From the rooftop though the windows to the porch, every square inch was illuminated by multicolored flashing strings of lights. Not the tasteful little fairy lights of today, but the industrial grade Elkos the size of plums.
    Not content with that, he had a full-size illuminated Santa on his rooftop, complete with glowing sleigh and reindeer, and a happy, if somewhat bemused-looking Santa strapped to his chimney. Year by year he added more stuff. Six caroling choirboys were followed by a dozen three-foot-high candles.
    I personally think he really outdid himself when he acquired a life-size, seven-piece Nativity. Sure, Melchior looked like the late Lyle Alzado, and my cousins promptly broke Baby Jesus, so a battered Betsy Wetsy had to be substituted in the manger, but to a child’s eye, it was a magnificent sight when reverently illuminated by spotlights.
    One can only imagine what the neighbors thought when the whole thing was lit up, with much cursing and untangling of cords and changing of fuses, but my aunts and my mother were pretty united on the Christmas Decoration Question.
   “Just awful. Common.”
    Considering that they gave their baby brother a break on every single slip and bad decision in his life, from his choice of a wife to his job, it amazed us kids that they were horrified and embarrassed that one of the family could be, well, so tacky. Since they blamed Aunt Mary, his wife, for everything else, it was interesting to watch them scramble for excuses and blame when this Christmas extravaganza was so clearly his idea.
   “He just can’t help it,” was the final pronouncement of his eldest sister, whose collection of tasteful antique créche figures appeared beneath her Douglas fir every year. And that was what they told everyone who happened to ask them about it in the supermarket aisles, tightlipped and unsmiling, just daring anyone to say anything. And knowing my mother and my aunts, wise people left it alone and changed the subject.
    As I said, I was about eight when I figured out Santa had stopped coming to our house. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the door to the storage room in the eaves was suddenly locked, and when we were about six and eight, my brother figured out that was where Mom was stashing the presents. She was clever in hiding the key, because she knew we’d peek, which we nearly always did. Of course, we thought those presents were the ones Mom and Pop bought for us, and Santa would drop the payload on Christmas Eve when he came down the chimney.
    At least until the Christmas Eve when some of my parents’ friends dropped by for cocktails and stayed long past what was supposed to be our bedtime. Not that anyone sleeps much on Christmas Eve; at least no kid does.
    Finally, about midnight, the guests left and my brother and I, ostensibly asleep, heard my mother making several long trips from the storage room to the tree. Down the stairs, up the stairs, down the stairs she went for quite a while. Ed and I were lying in our beds listening. Finally, exhausted, she crawled into her own bed and we all fell asleep.
    The next morning, Ed and I pretended to be surprised by the goodies Santa had brought us. After the wrapping paper flew and we ooh’d and ahh’d and played with our gifts for a while, my brother turned to my mother and said, “We know Santa doesn’t come here anymore. We heard you taking the presents out of the storage room and downstairs. I really wanted to get up and help you.”
    My mother looked relieved and a little disappointed. “Why didn’t you?” she asked.
   “Because we didn’t want you to think we don’t believe Santa comes here anymore,” my brother replied. “We thought it was important to you and Pop. We stopped believing a while ago.”
    After that, we helped bring the presents down. But we weren’t allowed to open them until Christmas morning. Some traditions are just too important to break.