Early on I developed a real problem with Santa Claus. It’s wasn’t for any of the most obvious reasons. Yes, the song warned us that “He sees you when you’re sleeping,/He knows when you’re awake” and that’s disturbing but it never really bothered me. I figured he was one guy and in spite of being apparently immortal and able to thrive in one of the planet’s most hostile environments I didn’t think he could really keep tabs on all of us. I figured my odds of getting away with something while Santa wasn’t looking were pretty good, even though I also never believed he visited every single child in the world in a single night. Somehow very early on I was culturally aware enough to know that not every part of the world celebrated Christmas and that therefore Santa could skip large sections of the southern and eastern hemispheres. Even then I figured he had a huge number of kids to watch over–at least two or three times the number of kids in my school. I also realized he had proxies, that the mall Santas and the Santas standing on street corners and even most of the ones on television weren’t the real deal but were stand-ins, like the guy the other Stooges pretended was Shemp for a while after he died. I don’t remember when exactly I first concluded this, but it was before I outgrew my belief that Santa Claus was a real person who broke into people’s homes in the night but instead of stealing their TVs would leave presents and maybe eat some cookies before zipping off to the next house. There were other parts of the Santa story I also jettisoned while still believing in him which, in retrospect, I find kind of odd. The idea that he had a whole gang of elves who made the toys and other presents he brought was ludicrous, especially considering how much of the stuff had “Made in China” stamped on it. And yet I never wondered how he could afford to buy and give away all those toys for free because I continued to believe that a fat man in a red suit flew around in a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer and entered peoples’ homes through their chimneys. I believed this in spite of the fact that our house didn’t have a chimney until I was fifteen when my parents had a fireplace built in the basement and I got a practical lesson in the principle that heat rises. Whenever they built a fire just enough heat would rise to shut off the furnace and as the heat continued to rise it would get cold so my room at the very top of the house would be freezing, but that’s another story. Anyway I figured Santa just came in through our front door or maybe a window. Maybe I continued to believe at least part of the Santa Claus story because about the only time of year I gave him any thought was December. That made the question, “Have you been a good boy all year?” more than a little disconcerting. Most of the time I couldn’t remember what I’d had for breakfast the day before, let alone what I’d done in June. And that question also clued me in that Santa wasn’t checking up on me every minute of every day throughout the year. If he had that kind of power he wouldn’t need to ask any more than he’d need to check his list twice, right?
Unless it was entrapment. Yeah, I’d tell him I was a good boy but I could just imagine the big guy saying, “Ho ho ho! So not only did you steal your friend Troy’s doughnut on March 13th but you’re a liar too! Kids like you save me from breaking the bank!”
And it was that fear of entrapment that I hated most because it always seemed like the holidays were a time when all the adults in my life developed shorter fuses. I understand now that for a lot of adults the holidays are a stressful time, not least because they have to deal with whining, demanding kids who think a fat man in a red suit can magically deliver piles of expensive toys. It seemed like it was a lot harder to be good the closer we got to Christmas. And on top of that it was too cold to go outside most of the time so we were cooped up inside the house which just made the problem worse. I can’t tell you how much I envied kids in Australia when I learned that Christmas for them falls right in the middle of the summer, and also that they had giant spiders that could kill you from six feet away, but that’s another story.
It just seemed like the whole being good thing was a very twisted test and looking back it’s a wonder I didn’t rebel against it, especially when I was told that naughty kids got switches and lumps of coal. Obviously the adult who told me that meant wooden switches—long thin strips used for scarring the butts of kids who didn’t behave—but I thought of light switches which actually sounded kind of cool. And so did lumps of coal. I’d never seen real lumps of coal and wouldn’t until I was fifteen when I got some and burned it in my room.