Of all the things that need doing right now, writing this takes priority over wrapping, cleaning, baking, sifting through the garbage to find my niece’s misplaced gift card…
Christmas has become so much of what has to be done: shop, shop, shop then wrap, wrap, wrap, run out of tape, run to the store and buy a dozen useless things but forget the tape. Decorate, make lists of things not to forget like something for our son’s music teacher, the mailman and garbage men–which just crossed my mind because that list is probably with the missing gift card.
Yes, I’m nostalgic for the Christmases of my childhood. I want to feel what I felt about Christmas without the obligation and anxiety. I want to say, “Merry Christmas” without wondering if that term is offensive. How do you feel excited about the season when it is rushed with decorated department stores at the end of September? Yet how can it be I let things go the very last minute? When did peace on earth, and good will toward others include a new Lexus or Jeep?
Our youngest son is sixteen and I assume it’s been years since he believed in Santa but this morning was the first time I asked him when he knew “About Santa”. He couldn’t recall but said it was more of an awareness that the Santa phenomena wasn’t true rather than a harsh serving of reality.
I had quite the opposite experience.
My birthday is in early December and just before my eighth birthday I decided to take a look under my parents bed. I swear I hit the jackpot! There were bags with stuffed animals, a Barbie kitchen carousel, ski sweaters and hats, board games and a macrame kit. I had no idea why my mother decided to make my eighth birthday my banner year. It never dawned on me that the amount of things under the bed was enough for five kids or that Christmas was also just around the corner. Therefore on the morning of my eighth birthday I was not only quite disappointed, I was also shocked. My parents were Santa Claus. And I got a Peace & Love sweatshirt despite my announcement that hippies scared me. It was NOT a banner year.
I wasn’t the only kid to “find out about Santa” that year. I went to a small neighborhood school and there were just two classes to each grade. We not only knew all about each other, we knew all about the extended families of our classmates. In 2nd grade, one of the most asked question was, “Hey, do you know about Santa?” There were two answers to that question: 1. The Sad Yes or 2. The Wide-Eyed What? It was a rough time for kids who asked What? because they got a flat-out harsh dose of reality in either, “There is no Santa” or “You still believe in Santa?” I don’t know which was worse.
By third grade, it was a given that we all “found out about Santa”. We were jaded little people and our shock-talk moved into the Mystery of Where Babies Came From. Until the day we were waiting for our music teacher to show up. The music and art teachers traveled from school to school so there was a standing rule if the teacher was late, we were supposed to sit quietly in our seats. Which never happened. We group gossiped instead because music and art was the only time our two classes were in the same room at the same time. The gossip that morning was that Kenny still believed in Santa.
Kenny was a regular classmate, but absent that fateful day. He was good at math. He had a paper route. He was usually picked second or third for kickball at gym. There was nothing special about him until the music gossip revealed that he still believed in Santa. We, as a class, decided we should help Kenny keep believing in Santa. I remember Carl Oliver, the biggest kid in class (probably because he was at least two years older than the rest of us) announcing, “Nobody tells Kenny about Santa!”
We didn’t. It wasn’t exactly a campaign, it was more like protecting your little brother or sister from finding out. It gave back some of the magic of Christmas to keep Kenny believing. Kenny’s best friend, Michael Jeska, was designated as his protector from the truth. Nobody messed with Michael. Even in 3rd grade, he was a square block of Polish muscle.
We managed to “Keep Kenny Believing” in 4th grade as well. Word circulated just after Thanksgiving that Kenny still believed. I remember watching him deliver papers in the afternoon, thinking he was so lucky yet tragic because he still believed.
It fell apart in 5th grade. We were at indoor gym and we played dodge ball. Hard-core dodge ball with the red ball that made a boink sound when it peened off your head and felt like a slap if you got it in the back. Darryl Denson was the best at dodge ball. He always either caught it no matter how hard it was thrown or managed to make tremendously athletic leaps and pirouettes to just miss a hit. That day Kenny got Darryl. It would have been noted as The Day Darryl Denson Got Beat at Dodge Ball if the following never happened: Kenny threw a straight shot that Darryl tried to catch but dropped. Kenny started whooping and running around the gym. Then we all started whooping and running around Darryl who was sitting on the ground sulking. Mr. Kyle stopped our nonsense by getting us to line up at the door. We were supposed to be quiet before we left the gym but everyone was pounding Kenny on the back and laughing. It was a really big deal until Darryl turned on Kenny and shouted, “Who cares? You’re so stupid, you still believe in Santa Claus!”
The gym went silent. Kenny looked confused then his face dropped when he saw the looks on all of our faces. Carl Oliver shouted, “Shut up Darryl!” which confirmed it for Kenny. It was a crushing blow for all of us.
I remember many of us trying to get Kenny to believe again. We told him Darryl was wrong and mean and to forget about him but it was useless. I also remember our teacher commenting at how quiet we were that afternoon, “What’s the matter with you all?” she asked the class.
It didn’t strike me until much later how we all acted in a selfless, protective manner, without adult guidance, to keep something special for one of our own. And it was a way to keep something special we all once had but grew out of. It was remarkable. I am certain if a parent or teacher told us to make sure Kenny kept believing in Santa, we’d have run over each other to be the first to blow it for him.
I know this because I revisited that protective desire with our sons many years later. And the wonder of how long we had to make something extraordinary and delightful in a season where consumerism reigns.