Yuletide wishes, Christmas trees and a Santa clause

by Brian Clarey

We went and got the tree this weekend.

It was time, according to my 7-year-old son who deemed Dec. 10 the absolutely last possible moment to put up our Christmas decorations.

“A lot of people at school already have their Christmas trees up,” he said to me, and I know well the perils of resisting the wisdom of the schoolyard.

I took the 7-year-old and his 5-year-old brother with me for the purchase, an instinct, I suppose, born of the nostalgic image of the family men heading off to the woods with an axe to find the perfect fir. We left their 3-year-old sister, who has recently demonstrated an astounding capacity for rage, at home with their mother.

I’m looking forward to Christmas this year, maybe more so than in years past because my life has been stressful as of late and I could surely use a few days of wonder and joy. We plan to spend a full week in the New York metropolitan area with my extended family, which gathers just this once every year, and the slate of friends I have left on Long Island. There will be parties and gifts, copious amounts of food and drink, feelings of fellowship and good tidings… all that stuff – the things I really do love about Christmas now that my heavy gift-getting days are long behind me.

And as is usual right around this time, I’m having some trouble getting into the spirit of things what with our ever-growing list of chores, the speed with which the days of December fly by and the ghosts of urgent work yet to come.

And it doesn’t help that it’s like 80 degrees outside.

But getting the tree is a good first step toward achieving holiday bliss, and the boys are all but hopping up and down as we head to the Wal-Mart off Highway 29, the one I railed against in these pages but which I now visit with such frequency that I have a favorite parking spot.

On the way over, the wisdom of the schoolyard is cited once again.

“A lot of the kids at school,” the 7-year-old is saying, “don’t believe in Santa Claus. They think it’s their parents who get them their presents.”

“They think it’s their parents,” his little brother echoes.

“Really?” I say, because, frankly, I’ve got nothing else.

In the early days of my parenthood I began preparing myself for the tough questions that I knew would arise as my kids started to notice the things going on in the world around them, and I am now in possession of a full repertoire of speeches designed to foster discussion and discovery in my young charges. I have a drugs-and-alcohol speech, a sex speech and a peer pressure speech (which is something along the lines of “What the hell do they know, anyway?”). I’ve got a bit on why they should go to college or, at least, refrigeration school, and something about dealing with bullies.

But for this Santa Claus thing, I’ve got nothing. It’s like that dream where I’m still in school and I have a final exam for a course I forgot I signed up for and have never attended.

What, I wonder, is a post-modern, secular humanist parent to do?

I’ll tell you what I do: I dummy up.

“Why would they say something like that?” I ask my boys.

“I don’t know,” the 7-year-old says. But clearly he’s been thinking about it, and God bless his little analytical and socially conscious soul, he’s come up with something.

“Not everybody has a lot of money,” he says, “so some parents can’t afford a lot of presents. So it’s got to be Santa Claus.”

“Got to be,” his little brother echoes.

And I nearly weep, because the lad has touched upon something that has bothered me about the Christmas myth since I first began to get glimpses of the Big Picture when I was in my early twenties.

The myth dictates that the Fat Man keeps a list of the naughty and the nice, and that the year’s performance is measured each Dec. 25 by the amount of presents under the tree. It is implicit that the nice kids get more than the naughty.

But the reality is that, like my son says, some people don’t have a lot of money. And the children of these people, on Christmas morning, are led to believe that they are not as good as others simply because they get more stuff on Christmas Day.

One day I’ll tell them all this, but for now we head inside the Wal-Mart and pick out a tree, a 6-foot Fraser fir, and wrestle it into a shopping cart. There’s a Santa Claus in the garden area, kind of a crappy one with a beard that looks like synthetic pillow stuffing hanging way down on his chin and a weird, quiet way about him. He’s not even all that fat. Still, the boys want to sit on his lap and do the whole thing. But I can tell they’re a bit put off by this guy. They wince when he tries to hug them and I notice they don’t go through their whole litany of gift requests. When they’re done my oldest looks skeptical.

“Do you think that was the real Santa Claus?” he asks.

I think on it for just a second. I know I could wipe out his whole line of inquiry by holding the party line, know I could squeeze a few more years of the midnight Christmas charade by insisting that this clown is indeed the great St. Nick, and you better stop touching your brother or he’ll see it and amend his list. I also know that the garden department at Wal-Mart is no place to have your childhood come to a screeching halt. And I love the way this kid’s mind works, so I figure if I give him enough clues, he’ll figure it out for himself.

“No way,” I say. “There’s no way that guy is the real Santa Claus. Now, do you guys want to go look at Star Wars Transformers?”

They do.

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