Santa came to our house on the eve of Christmas Eve each year, the night before December 24th, a whole day earlier than for everyone else I knew. My mom explained to us that there were way too many people in the world for Santa to visit on one night, so he had a special Christmas Eve list and we were on it. We also opened our presents ahead of tradition on Christmas Eve night, right after dinner, not the next morning like everyone else. But we didn't ask for an explanation for that difference, not after waiting an entire day, from dawn to dusk, with unopened Christmas presents in the house.
Yes, later when we were older we learned that mom had practical reasons for breaking with tradition. She wanted to avoid squirmy children at church on Christmas morning. She had learned that, whether presents were opened right before or immediately after church, they danced too much in the eight wee little heads she needed to keep calm through Christmas morning mass.
So, mom changed the tradition and made up a story to match it. I think that was more common in the days before parents reasoned with their children over everything and caved to their whiney demands. My mother might seem like a dictatorian today, but back then, I think she was more the norm.
I certainly can't imagine how something like The Elf on the Shelf would have fared with her, or with us for that matter. It was enough pressure growing up knowing Santa, and our guardian angels, and even baby Jesus saw us when we were sleeping, and knew when we were awake, or bad or good. But, now there's this creepy pixy moving freely around the house in the night, grinning coyly like Peewee Herman or Kurt Hummel from Glee just saw our underpants.
But they all admit that they do it because it's expected. Parents, however reluctantly, have this pact: We all agree we hate this thing. It's a waste of time and money. We all know our kids have been brainwashed through TV, or Common Core, or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. But if one of us does it, we all must do it. Don't be THAT parent that spoils it for my kid—even if I wish I'd never started it in my home in the first place. Peer pressure. Lies. You know. You know you know.
There's not even a good "true meaning of Christmas" message in The Elf on the Shelf narrative—no shepherd's recitation by Linus, no heart growing three sizes like the Grinch, or a Scrooge sleepwalk with ominous Christmas ghosts. It's rather transactional: be good, keep your hands to yourself, get more presents.
It's almost certainly the death of any kindly loving character, like good old gift-giving Saint Nicholas or a protective guardian angel, when he or she is reduced to being the disciplinary police force for weary parents. But if there is anything in all of this that is truly real, it's weary parents and hyper excited children, and at some point a story will get twisted to say that an otherwise kindly, pacifist, forgiving Saint Nick or Jesus is coming back to throw bad children into Hell! I half expect the story of "Gandhi's Revenge" or "MLK Will Eat You if You Don't Behave" to circulate at some point.
Krampus, he is a beastly, horned creature from German folklore who captures naughty children in his sack and carries them away to punish them in his nasty lair. His origins go back to pre-Christian Europe, but around the 17th Century he was enlisted to keep bad children in line and Saint Nick's generous avuncular reputation in tact.
It seems, in more recent times, with even more weary parents and fewer good "true meaning of" stories, Krampus has gone, Santa is back to being the bullying bribing police commissioner, and that Elf on the Shelf his squirrelly undercover nark.
But my mother didn't need proxies. She was the disciplinarian, and we knew it. She changed the story to suit her rules rather than let the story rule her. She kept it fun and still got her way. And her children—and our imaginations—went along for the ride.
"Whenever you came up missing around Christmas time," my mother once confided, "I always knew exactly where to find you."
And I knew what she was talking about. From as far back as I can remember, I have been completely entranced by a lit Christmas tree—by the dense looming shape of a living giant in the house, filled with colored dots of light refracted through needles and painted glass.
Even when I was very young, I would shut off the rest of the lights in the living room, plug in the Christmas tree myself with a pop and a spark, and sit for hours staring at the bulbs, the bubbling lights, the patterns, the tinsel, and the nativity scene at its base, lit by a single little quiet bulb like a distant porch light on a winter night.
I can't say what the draw was for me back then. As an adult, I’ve decided Christmas lights are a great remedy for the average seasonal affective disorder. And the trees and bowers are one hell of an art project for Bob and me—two frustrated artists who haven't made any real art in years. As a kid, it may have been those very same instincts. Or maybe I was prone to distraction by shiny objects. Who knows? I just loved the lights, the warmth it created in our home, and the way it involved my whole family, especially my sisters Bridget and Maggie, who could make a dramatic adventure out of the simplest projects. With Maggie and Bridget, each box, each ornament had a song or a story that had to be performed with its installation in order for the whole process to be truly fun. And their stories and opinions about what was fun and what looked best strongly influenced mine.
And so we swore we'd never get an artificial tree, an oath that lasted until the beginning of the 1970s, when a woman named April, who worked for one of my uncles, moved to Hawaii and left us her ratty green bottlebrush of an artificial tree.
April was a dark round little woman with a rugged, no-nonsense disposition. Obviously her parents expected a dainty spring-flower kind of little girl and instead got a drill sergeant. If they'd know what she was going to grow up to be, they might have named her for a different month, like March. April was also of some exotic background unknown to me, and Hawaii was an exotic place that wasn't even a state yet in my dad's old National Geographic magazines, so I think my family just assumed that they didn't need Christmas trees in Hawaii. I'm not sure if we thought it would be replaced by a coconut tree, or a grass totem, or an army jeep decorated with shrunken heads and monkey paws.
Whatever her reason, April left us her artificial tree, along with some cheap 1960s plastic ornaments—plastic with other soiled elements, like worn felt, flattened synthetic bows, and little dry sticky booger-like grey gobs smeared on their surface, as if her family had rolled the lot of them down their oily driveway before packing them away. We took the tree with its soiled ornaments into our home like a large sick dog that we really didn't want, but didn't have the heart to see abandoned by some voodoo foreigner on her volcanic shore.
At least that’s how I interpreted it. Most likely, my parents were giving in to the fact that the 1970s economy was tanking along with the rest of the social climate and traditions, and their kids were getting older.
But, before that, for my earliest years—when I was in preschool and first grade, and still believed in Santa and angels singing sweetly o'er the plain—back then—when I still shared an upstairs bedroom with Bridget and Maggie and had a soft mat on the floor next to my bed at night because I was prone to sleepwalking and the distance down from my mattress was quite dangerous (my parents called the soft mat "Popeye's Bed" because Popeye was a favorite imaginary friend at the time)—way back then, in the early 1960s, our trees were always real: fresh, green, sappy, fragrant, lopsidedly real trees. Annual hopes for a perfectly shaped conifer, like the one on the cover of The Little Fir Tree or on the Noma bubble lights box, were tempered by discovering what real trees in the tree lots really looked like. My mother assured us that (much like my size, or Bridget’s freckles, or Maggie’s glasses) these imperfections were what gave the trees character.
There was a grand process around procuring the tree itself each year. My family would prepare for the arrival of the new tree by rearranging the living room furniture, clearing a large empty space in front of the big picture window, and bringing the boxes of ornaments up from the basement.
The boxes would flip open with the smell of last year's tree still faintly moldered in them. This isn't an experience that those who grow up with artificial trees and cold LED lights will understand. Something of the heat from the old strings of bulbs gently baking the tree each year, left a faint, dry, sour, grassy smell on everything—a smell I think I subconsciously attributed to the little scraps of hay glued to the roof of the die-cut cardboard stable for the nativity set, which was the first thing I unwrapped each year and the most prominent thing at my eye level.
Once the room was ready, and before we could unpack too many of the decorations, we would pile into my dad’s Greenbrier van and drive to a grocery store Christmas tree lot of his choosing. It often seemed like a long drive from our house, and even more so on the way home through slushy Saturday shopping traffic.
At some point my mother would calm us to quiet, when she noticed dad growing intensely focused on the heavy traffic. I think it was on one such ride home with the tree that I first heard my father shout "crap and corruption," which was one of his favorite curses. We were stuck behind two old ladies driving slowly in an ancient sedan, and had already waited the length of two red lights through which they had failed to make their left turn.
"Is that their names?" I asked from the backseat.
"Is what their names?" My mother inquired.
"Crap and Corruption," I replied.
"Is that whose names?" I could hear a tone of caution in my mother's voice, as she stared straight ahead through the icy windshield wipers into bright red taillights.
"Those two old ladies in front of us," I answered more cautiously.
Bridget giggled. And my father replied, "I suppose it is."
We all giggled, and as soon as we had finally made it through a left turn of our own, my father started us singing carols again in his usual deep bass monotone. I was never quite sure if that was his real voice or if he was just being silly, as he was known to do. "Hark the herald angels sing," he began, his chin lowered to his chest and his eyes on the road. "Glory to the newborn king," we all joined in, leaving any residual crap and corruption in our snowy wake.
My poor dad's temper often flared at Christmas time. A kindly, funny, gentle giant, who worked hard and loved his family, he seemed to only lose his temper when things didn't work right. And Christmas presented prime opportunities for temper flares: sawing the twisted trunk to fit in the Christmas tree stand, unknotting lights, finding the one burned out bulb that rendered the whole string useless. More than one new bicycle came through Christmas morning assembly with its spokes bent and parts missing.
But my dad's temper always cooled as quickly as it flared and, as with the snowy Christmas traffic, he always regained his sense of humor in time to keep the proceedings playful. Like many mid-20th Century dads, ours was to us like the Clark Kent version of our screen heroes—tall, heavy set, mild-mannered, glasses—but take him out of context, put him in his business suit or watch him dance around the living room with my mother, and he became something bigger than life. Ours was a comic, part Mr. Magoo, part Cary Grant, and as we decorated the tree, I suspect his disguise slipped a little to reveal a bit of white beard and red suit, as well.
As soon as the tree was guided through the living room and into its stand, we would fluff its branches and turned it to hide the bald spot on the side facing the big picture window. "The neighbors will only see the lights from the street, anyway," my mom would say. "Save the best side and best ornaments for us."
In those early years, before we adopted April's soiled decorations, our own family ornaments were mostly from the 1940s and '50s. I am second youngest of eight kids. I was born in 1958. So, the ornaments, like much of the other family items and stories were acquired over the years before I arrived: 1940s and '50s Shiny Bright balls, Noma bubble lights, West German glass, aluminum garland, and small celluloid figures illuminated by strings of Kodachrome-tinted C6s and the “Angie the Christmas Tree Angel” tree topper. Angie was made of hard celluloid plastic, with spun yellow hair and a golden tin crown that never sat straight on her head. She held one hand over heart, where a light bulb glowed from inside, which over time had burned her chest a toasty brown. Bridget and Maggie said Angie had her hand on her chest because she suffered from heartburn, which also explained the toasty brown color.
During the decorating, one of my sisters would usually put a Firestone Christmas record on the RCA Victor. We’d listen to Dean Martin or Dinah Shore do a jazz rendition of “Jingle Bells” or “Home for the Holidays,” in what I imagined to be the coolest, “now-est,” hippest style possible. I suppose today’s younger generation would simply brand it “Mad Men,” but it was “Rat Pack” to my parents generation, and you could almost hear the ice in the martini glasses tinkling in the background.
You Meet the Nicest People” and have a listen. That and the Andrew Sisters’ “Angie the Christmas Tree Angel” still haunt my holiday dreams, the familiar "hoosh-hoosh," pocks, and skips of the needle keeping time in my memory. It wasn’t until years later I figured out that our family had named our own dime-store angel after the Andrew Sisters' song. I thought it was the other way around; that she was the real Angie and the song was about her. Bridget and Maggie and I had the lyrics memorized, and we would sing the song from beginning to end with every dramatic scoop and pause, hanging the last of the tinsel and garland before dad placed Angie on the treetop as the final verse crescendoed.
Now that I think about it, Angie had an expression on her face uncannily similar to the aforementioned modern shelf elf, and the Andrew Sisters' song recounts how she was involved in arranging the presents around the tree, but I was never afraid that she'd turn up in some awkward position in my bedroom, on her back staring intensely up from Popeye's mat, or stuffed like a vendetta under the sheets at the foot of my bed.
While we were decorating the tree, my mother would usually be in the kitchen baking. Her specialties were small, sugar sprinkled cookies that were known among my cousins as "Aunt Sis's Dinky Cookies," and dark German fruitcake with candied cherries and little silver balls. She made a lot of them—for grandparents, aunts and uncles, the nuns at the school, the priests at the church, the Barbieri's and the rest of the neighbors—and rested them on wax paper-lined trays and in tins to cool around the kitchen counters and the dining room tables among the snowman candles and plastic poinsettias.
I believe it was one of the snowman candles that caught the plastic poinsettias on fire one year (igniting one panel of the polyester drapes behind the table) during the one Christmas party where I remember more than just family being invited. Guests from the neighborhood, church and dad's job were there, and they all cleared out quickly after the fire was extinguished, taking their fruitcake and dinky-cookie tin with them. In the aftermath, tree still aglow, Firestone on the stereo console, and the scorched table decorations and drape extinguished on the back porch, my mom cited the plastic and the polyester as the culprits, insinuating that, some how, nothing of the sort would have happened had these items been real.
But in our home nativity everyone was of equal proportions. I arranged Mary and Joseph so that they looked at the baby. Shepherd and sheep knelt appropriately near one another in quiet adoration. And the one king that stooped and tilted slightly as if to peer into something was placed at one end of the porch where he seemed to be peaking around the railing just so.
Maggie and Bridget would join me on the floor around the stable when I was finished and, as they’d review the tableau with me, we’d tell the story of how, just at that moment in the history of the world when the human race was most in need of God's love, Mary and Joseph were ordered to go to Bethlehem even though she was really, really pregnant, so that the government could count them for a census. And how, at the last minute, Mary went into labor and they couldn’t find a motel, so they hurried into a farm stable and she had the baby right there in the hay, with the animals watching. And then shepherds and kings started showing up, some with sheep, some with expensive perfumes, all of them directed by angels or a star to this baby that they thought might be the love that they were waiting for. And it was an amazing surprise to Mary his mom, who cherished all these things in her heart. And Joseph kept them protected because he was given this big responsibility of being the earthly dad to this little fragile bundle of God's love. And it all seemed so scary, and fragile, and wonderful.
We gave the story modern characters, like the three wise men were Pope John XXIII, President Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the shepherds were the ranchers from Bonanza. And Mary and Joseph were our mom and dad, or our oldest sister or brother, or whoever most recently had a baby in the family.
And when we got up off the floor, the decorating was pretty much finished and cleaned up and the big glowing tree stood watch over the tiny nativity story at its base, as if it too was charged with protecting the little baby bundle of love.
What was real was obviously a big deal for us back then: real trees, the real Angie, the real Santa, the real details in the Christmas story. I didn't doubt any of it. Santa? No problem, he visited every year. Wise men following a star? Of course. It all was true each time we repeated the stories and sang the songs, each time Bridget made up games, and Maggie acted them out with the same dramatic weight as the year before. Like the story staged in the chalk-figure nativity beneath the tree, it was all true because the stories were so vivid and fun.
So, in December of my second grade year, when one of my classmates told me that Santa Claus wasn't real, I hurried home from school. It was already dusk. The Christmas tree was lit. Christmas music was playing. Maggie and Bridget were helping my mother in the kitchen. And I was in anguish.
"Pat Quirk said Santa isn't real," I whimpered to my mother, her arms elbow deep in a sink of dishes.
"What did Sister Annunciata have to say?" my mother asked, clinking glasses into the dish drainer.
"Sister didn't hear him," I cried. "It was only Pat, and Mike, and John, and me in the back of the classroom."
"What did you say?" my mother asked further.
But, I hadn’t said anything. What could I have said? Santa was integral to my Christmas world, as integral as shepherd, kings, and angels, even as integral as my whole family.
I knew that the Santa we visited at Montgomery Ward's wasn't the real Santa: what with the fake beard, the cheap suit, the modern glasses. But when I'd asked my sisters, I was told the real Santa couldn't be at every department story, so he assigned very friendly and wise representative who reported back with the list of gifts.
I knew most of the gifts in the house were not from Santa: the school shirts, pajamas, and underwear were from mom and dad; the Crackerjacks and five-dollar envelopes were from my grandparents; the Etch-a-Sketch and Rocky Mountain paint-by-number set were from my cool uncles; and the brittle mesh stocking filled with candy and cardboard toys that smelled kind of like stale cheese crackers was from a neighbor lady who herself smelled kind of like stale cheese crackers. But there was always some particularly special gift—the Noah's Ark set, the G.I. Joe, the big illustrated story book—that I knew had to have come from Santa.
So, standing by my mother’s side at the kitchen sink, I was looking less for an explanation and more for reassurance, and she was clearly at a loss. She was most certainly troubled by the prospect of disappointing one more child about Santa, but I simply read her expression as being overwhelmed with the dishes and other chores, as my sister Maggie took me by the arm and lead me to the living room.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I saw Santa?” she asked, as if she was letting me in on a secret. “Come with me. And I’ll tell you how it happened.”
And so, curious, I followed her cautiously past the Christmas tree and up the stairs to our bedroom, where she helped me climb up on her bed.
“Now close your eyes, and pretend you're sleeping,” she began softly, “and I’ll tell you how it happened.” I followed her instructions and listened to her voice and the sounds from the kitchen down below.
“Once, in the middle of the night before Christmas eve,” she continued, “when the whole house was completely quiet, and everyone was asleep, I woke up and thought I heard a little noise down in the living room.”
I felt a chill and curled into the blanket.
“It kind of tinkled like little bells or Christmas beads clinking together,” Maggie explained, as if she was interpreting a vivid memory. “I expected it was just the wind, and tried to go back to sleep, when I heard the noise again, and knew it was inside the house. So I sat up—come on, sit up,” she guided me to sit on the edge of the bed. “And I listened carefully—are you listening carefully?” she asked, and I strained my ears cooperatively.
“And I listened until I heard it again,” she whispered intensely and her eyes grew wide behind her glasses. “So, I very carefully got out of bed without making a sound,” she narrated as we both climbed down to the floor and tiptoed through the room, mimicking each movement in the story. “You and Bridget were sound asleep as I snuck passed your beds—Popeye's too—and into the hall. I stayed close to the wall, as I slid passed mom and dad’s bedroom door, and made my way around the corner, where I could see down the hallway to the top of the stairs where the Christmas tree lights were glowing up from the living room.”
“I got down on my knees and crawled quietly down the hall to the top of the stairs so that no one would see me,” she continued as we moved stealthily to her narrative. “And when I got to the top of the stairs, I peered around the edge and up over the banister, just like this. And I saw the Christmas tree all lit up, first Angie at the top, then the bubble lights,” she was describing the tree exactly as we saw it now. “And then...I saw...him.” I looked up at her quietly knowing whom she meant.
“Santa was right there in our living room, bent over with his big red butt in the air,” we giggled. “He was taking presents from his giant red sack, and slipping them all around under the tree. But,” she cautioned, “no matter how hard I had tried to be quiet, Santa must have heard me. He turned, and squinted up the stairs to where I was, and then he smiled and put his finger over his mouth to tell me to keep this whole thing quiet. And I’ve never told anyone else.”
“And, then what happened,” I whispered.
“Well, he finished what he was doing and left in hurry,” she concluded matter-of-factly. “He had a lot more houses to visit. But now, listen,” she warned, “you must not tell a soul, especially not at school, because Santa wouldn’t want anyone to know.”
And that was it. We sat at the top of the stairs, smiling down at the glowing tree and warm amber living room lights, while Maggie’s Santa story replayed in my head. I may have even suspected that she had been making up most of it, but what set my soul at ease was her storytelling itself. It was what Christmas was really about, and Santa or not, at that moment I knew I was in my glowing home and the real Christmas was certainly here.
I returned to school the next day secretly confident, if only for one last year, that Santa was something real, because my sister told me the story.