When I was a kid, the idea of a rotund, bearded white man in a flamboyant costume breaking into my home in the middle of the night terrified me. I once dreamed that I woke up and saw Santa Claus — always sounding like Tim Curry from “It” in my imagination — standing over my bed staring at me. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” quickly took on a sinister connotation. Some kids thought clowns were scary, but that seemed silly to me. There were no recorded instances of home invasions related to red-nosed comedians.
Santa Claus had also gotten me into a great deal of trouble one year. My parents had concealed all my presents from “Santa” in the brilliant hiding place of the unlocked, hall closet next to the bathroom. I quickly stumbled upon them, which infuriated my mother. She told me that she was just “holding” those presents for Santa — it wasn’t guaranteed that they were mine. This struck me as the same suspicious arrangement Clemenza had with Vito Corleone in “The Godfather Part II.” In fact, I could have sworn I’d heard Santa pounding on my parents’ window the previous night, shouting, “Hey, you Italian? No? Uhm, do you like Italian food? Even frozen pizza would count. The cops are on my ass.”
During the weeks leading up to Christmas, my mother would call Santa if I did something wrong, which in the poor lady’s defense was quite often. “There’s no need to come to the Robinson house this year,” she’d say as anyone with a brain could hear the operator saying, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and…” I didn’t question why a simple homemaker in Greenville, SC would have a direct line to someone as powerful as Santa Claus. My mother had been homecoming queen in high school, so I assumed she was well-connected. Besides, I was delighted if Santa skipped my house. My aversion to him was practically driving me to juvenile delinquency. I did point out that Santa lived in the North Pole, and the expense of long distance calls was the rationale my mother often gave for not calling her out-of-town relatives. “Santa has a toll-free number,” she said. “And he gets to the point. Doesn’t ramble on like your aunts.”
The only people less enamored with Santa were the folks on the local gospel station my mother sometimes listened to when driving. They were unhappy with how Santa had stolen all the spotlight from Jesus. One ad had kids opening presents on Christmas morning and laughing as the sound of wrapping paper turned into the sound of crackling flames. The announcer intoned, “This holiday season, when getting all caught up in Santa Claus, just make sure you don’t get caught in Satan’s claws!”
Perhaps the crazy lady on the low-rated radio station had a point: Santa was an anagram for Satan. Santa wore a red suit. Santa wanted us to forget about Jesus on Christmas. Santa entered houses through the heat of the chimney. We even left an offering for him of milk and cookies — that doesn’t sound so sinister now but I was 8 and had just seen “Rosemary’s Baby,” which upon reflection was probably not great for the mental health of an 8 year old.
So, Santa was coming to collect. Was he was like the guys in “Pinocchio” who stuffed kids with candy and junk food so they would eventually become donkeys? Where did Santa get those reindeer? My mother had always said that no one did anything without wanting something in return, yet her cynicism had vanished when it came to the old man with the bag. Maybe she was in on it. I recall her insisting I go to bed that Christmas Eve and my screaming at her, “What did he pay you? What did he pay you?”
I tried to appeal to my father to let me stay up on Christmas Eve. “I know you’re excited, son,” he said, “But you have to go to bed before Santa comes.” “I’m not excited! I just don’t want to become a reindeer — Donner, Blitzen, the one who use to be the black kid. Besides, you let me stay up the night before Easter.” My father was silent for a moment before responding, “Well, that’s because the Easter Bunny comes late, well after you’re asleep. Santa likes to come early.”
I couldn’t help wondering why the Easter Bunny was so slack about his job. I pictured him in a bar the night before Easter, watching a game on the TV and drinking a beer. “Damn Braves! Always giving up runs!” The guy next to him would say, “Aren’t you the Easter Bunny?” “No, I’m the Energizer Bunny. Actually, that’s my little brother. He sold out, went Hollywood. Bought our mother a nice house just to rub my nose in it. Whatever. I’ve got a pension. I’m fine.” “But what are you still doing here? Tomorrow’s Easter.” “Really? Dammit, it’s so hard to keep straight. It’s a different time each year. That’s why Santa has it easy.”
Santa’s reign of terror ended when my 4th-grade teacher’s boyfriend dumped her shortly after Thanksgiving. When she came to class, she looked as if someone had scooped out her insides and just propped up the remaining shell at her desk. This one girl, Sonya, was already excited about Christmas and was jumping up and down in her seat talking about Santa. Our teacher looked at her with barely concealed contempt and sneered, “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus, Sonya. There’s no such thing as love, either. But you’ll learn that eventually.”
Sonya started to cry, but I leapt from my seat and moonwalked with delight, shouting, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!” I ran home and exclaimed to my mother, “I’m free! There’s no Santa! I’m not getting turned into a reindeer.” “Who told you this?” she demanded. When I told her, she angrily picked up the phone, “I should have her job… but it’s Christmas, so I’ll let it go. But I am telling Santa about her.”