I am a Christmas-a-holic. Yes, I love the entire Christmas season. I love the decorations, the music, the food, the gift giving, and the time spent with loved ones. I’m always filled with a sense of wonder when the holiday season arrives. Every Christmas is built on memories and traditions that were part of my childhood.
Growing up, there was only one thing that didn’t jingle my bells about December 25th, and that was the man in red – Santa Claus. It wasn’t that I didn’t want the gifts or doubted his existence. I just didn’t want to sit on his lap or be anywhere in his vicinity. I had a “Santa safety zone” and it was at least a football field in size. Anything closer and my knees grew weak and visions of monster sugar plums danced before my eyes. Even being downwind of a peppermint scent made me queasy.
It was a contradiction that I had such a fear of the jolly old elf. This guy represented the spirit of giving and the belief in a magical holiday. Who else had flying reindeer and could visit children around the world in one night? I liked his work ethic and gift giving. I just didn’t want direct contact with his scary snow white beard or jelly belly.
Being in love with Christmas and having an unexplainable dislike of Santa, was like loving roller coasters but not liking the hills, or loving the ocean but hating the sand on the beach. I knew that I wasn’t alone in my fear of Mr. Claus. I’d seen many kids, screaming in terror as they were forced onto his lap. I don’t know exactly what frightened other children, but I’ve tried to analyze my issue.
As I’ve flipped down memory lane, looking at photos from childhood, I did come to at least one concrete conclusion. I resented Santa’s red suit. Every holiday, my mom would deck me out in red. I had red pajamas, a red housecoat (which by the way, do children even wear housecoats anymore?), red bow ties, and a red jacket. How dare this guy steal my signature color. He might have donned his suit way before me, but I looked better in red. Let him switch to green, blue or candy cane stripe. No one ever attempted to steal pink from Mary Kay, so let me have my red.
Mixed into my Santa-phobia was that he was a large, authority figure with a scary beard and a huge belt buckle. Plus, he could magically break into my house and move about the premises. We didn’t have a chimney that led to a fireplace, so he wasn’t entering our house in his normal manner. If he went down our chimney, he was going to end up in the furnace. I’m not sure which frightened me more, the thought of him roaming around my house in the dark, or his body turning to ashes in in the basement. No flaming Santa for me – I wanted my gifts.
My list from the Sears Wish Book would reach him by way of my parents. I was in support of the middle man. Like a union negotiator, my parents could talk to good ole Santa and deliver my list of toy demands. In an effort to bypass the lap sitting, I prepared very detailed lists. There should be no question about what I wanted, since I included the page number, the item number, the name of the toy, and the price.
I guess I assumed that somewhere at the North Pole there was a Sears catalog store where Santa placed his orders. I’d watched movies and TV specials about the North Pole and all I’d ever seen were elves hammering on wooden trains, wagons and rocking horses. It seemed they lacked modern technology. I never saw G.I. Joe’s and Mouse Trap games being made in the toy shop. It was okay with me if Santa needed to order toys, as long as I got what I wanted. They could deliver that wooden stuff to the kids who were too lazy to compile their list in spreadsheet format.
I got comfortable with my parents being the all-important couriers for my Christmas list. I never had to encounter the scary guy. When I was a child, the Santa’s were not the new millennium well dressed, real bearded, child psychologists that hold court in local malls. I recall the fake beards, the cheap faux fur and patent leather boots. These Santa’s were doing community service as their holiday gig. They were a bedraggled lot sitting in Woolworths or W.T. Grant waiting for the end of their shift and a drink at the local bar. After a day of leaky children, a cheap Santa suit smelled worse than a locker room after some serious reindeer games. “Stay away from me Smelly Claus.”
I was told the Santa’s in the stores were just his helpers. They took all children’s wishes back to the North Pole. This was another reason I didn’t want to go near the red suit. If I was going to lose serious childhood playtime standing in a line of restless kids, I wanted to meet the real Santa Claus. I didn’t want an understudy. My parents did tell me that sometimes the real Santa would make an appearance in a Christmas parade or big department stores in cities.
This became an issue and a few sleepless nights when my dad wanted to take me into Philadelphia to see the holiday lights and the displays.
I’d never been into Philly, although we only lived 45 minutes away. When my dad asked me if I’d like to see the decorations at Lit Brothers, Gimbels, Strawbridge’s and John Wanamaker’s, I was beside myself. It was like being asked if I wanted to take a rocket to the moon. Was there any answer but “Yes?” He was going to take me on a Friday. Which meant I had a parentally approved day off from school. This is an extremely rare occurrence like Hailey’s Comet or an intelligent remark by Donald Trump.
Anticipating the big day was like waiting for Christmas morning. I couldn’t sleep, and I counted the minutes until it arrived. I remember my mom bundling me up for the trip and proudly walking to the bus stop with my dad. He decided he wanted me to experience the fun of riding on the official bus to Philly. Even at a grade school age I was not a fan of public transportation, but if dad thought it was the way to go, I was all for it.
The trip felt longer than a transatlantic voyage. The bus made numerous stops on its route, and I know I asked the infamous childhood question “Are we there yet?” Somewhere on the never-ending highway my dad turned to me and said “You can see Santa Claus today. I heard the real Santa is going to be in Lit Brothers.”
Somewhere over the Ben Franklin Bridge my heart sank into the Delaware River. I was being bused to a Santa showdown. As my coronary arteries drug through the dirty Delaware I knew I had to get off the bus. Could I kick out a window and make a mad dash for freedom? I felt like Dr. Richard Kimble from The Fugitive. Was there a one-armed Santa waiting for me? I was on the bus to holiday hell.
Had my dad had tricked me? He wasn’t that type of father, so I was perplexed. He was a patient, kind man, so he must have drunk a bad batch of hot chocolate. There would be negotiations made and Santa would not be touching my anxiety-ridden body. No photo would be snapped of me laying collapsed in Santa’s lap clutching a candy cane like a defeated toy solider grasping his trusty rifle. I was headed to the big city and no one would see me act like a small town bumpkin.
Philadelphia, from a child’s perspective, was everything I expected. It was large, noisy, crowded, and filled with Christmas wonder. The department store windows were all decorated in holiday splendor. It was magical and I couldn’t wait to explore all the huge stores on Market Street. Point me in the direction of the toy departments. When we entered Lit’s, I broke out in a cold sweat. Did Santa have my name on his list of children he was expecting to see that day? I didn’t want to disappoint my dad or Kris Kringle, but it wasn’t going to happen.
Santa’s Wonderland was crowded with busy shoppers. The line to visit the official superstar of the holiday season snaked around stanchions. There was no way of telling how long it would take to make it to his big throne. I advised my dad that I could see him, and I’d deliver a hearty hello wave to him from across the crowed room. We were on a time schedule with a bus to catch for the long ride home, so time wasted would deprive me of all the sights of the city in its holiday regalia.
Dad really wanted to see the The Enchanted Colonial Village exhibit that Lit’s displayed every year, so he opted for that queueing line instead. It took a village, but it saved me from Santa. I don’t know if my father was disappointed that he couldn’t bring back a photo of Santa and me to my mom, but he never said a word. We spent a wonderful day together. He even bought me a Santa doll which I’ve kept, and its displayed every year. It’s part of my special holiday memories.
I was pretty sure I’d make it through my entire childhood escaping Santa’s lap of terror. I had achieved it until the age of ten. Then entered my Aunt Dot. My clean record was snatched away by her sharp talons. My father’s sister was a cantankerous, mean woman. She was a combination of the Grinch and Cruella Deville. I believe when she was growing up she took a Hitler Youth correspondence course. For all her rottenness – she liked me. I don’t know if it was my blue eyes, cleft chin, red outfits or that she wanted to plump me up and shove me into an oven.
One Christmas, she invited me to a luncheon at the VFW. Looking back, I should have realized that going to a VFW was a bad idea. When we arrived, she told me Santa would be there, and I’d be able to tell him what I wanted for Christmas. That meant I was expected to sit on his lap – alarms sounded. I told her I was too old to sit on his lap. She wasn’t buying it. You didn’t tell Aunt Dot “No!” It wasn’t allowed or tolerated. It was like telling the executioner to stop the guillotine blade on its way down. There was no way back. It was full speed ahead on Choo Choo Loco.
Before I could escape her clutches, I was being forced into the Santa receiving line. I looked back in desperation. I saw her wagging finger, motioning me to move forward. That finger was like a laser pointer and it was directing toward a bad Santa. He had the fake beard and the cheap suit. The white fur might have been from a cat, because I saw he was shedding.
I started to move out of the line, and I heard the shrill voice of my taskmaster. “Get back there young man. Santa’s going to give you a gift.” Yes, that was true – the gift of cardiac arrest. I felt myself growing faint and I started sweating. A panic attack was on the way. Watch out Santa your beard is about to go flying into the punch bowl. Finally, the time arrived – I was face to face with Krusty Kringle. He patted his leg for me to sit down and I blindly obeyed. I felt my throat close up, as he asked me what I wanted for Christmas.
I wanted to point to my aunt and say “please kill that gargoyle with the cigarette hanging out of her snout,” but instead I whispered “you should have received the Sears list from my parents.” He looked at me and chuckled with his beard flapping from his chin. I was handed a wrapped gift and promptly dismissed. I don’t even remember what I received. It was a forgettable toy. There were no big ticket items at the VFW Christmas lunch. I was far from Ellen’s Twelve Days of Giveaways. It was probably a two-piece jigsaw puzzle or some rusty jacks.
I rode home in my aunt’s Chevy Impala in total silence wiping cat fur off my pants. If my stare could destroy, my aunt would have melted into her upholstery. I would never forget that she was the one who had forced me to face my biggest holiday fear. I had survived, but I’d be scarred for life.
The Santa Incident was burned into my memory. I told my parents I was forced onto the lap of the overstuffed gift giver and had a bruised rib from his giant wrestling belt. They looked at me like I was yelling I had a paper cut. “It’s only Santa,” my mom said. “Where’s the photo of you on his lap?” she asked. After all the torment, I still had no physical evidence I had participated in the dreaded holiday tradition of visiting the fat man. If I’d had charcoal and some drawing paper, I would have sketched a reenactment and the issue would have been settled.
It took over forty years for me to finally conquer my Santa-phobia. When my mom was in a nursing home with failing health, I decided to finally give her what she had missed for countless Christmases – a pic of Santa and me. I found a good Santa – real beard and leather boots. Of course, I wasn’t going to sit on his lap. Santa didn’t need nerve damage or a blood clot. I sat bravely by his side and smiled for the camera.
The twinkle in my mom’s eye when she unwrapped the framed photo made up for all the years of red suit therapy. She finally had what she had wanted – her son going through a holiday rite of passage. I no longer fear Santa. I’ve since chatted with him at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, and I wave to him whenever I see him at the mall. I still prefer some distance, and I still think his night invasion of my home is creepy, but every year he still is an integral part of the holiday. He provides magic and wonder, and isn’t that the best part of Christmas?
“Merry Christmas and to All a Good Night”