20 December 2015

Yes, Richard There is a Santa Claus: Christmas and I Through the Years

I recall once in elementary school — it must have been around 4th or 5th grade — our teacher asking the class who believed in Santa Claus. I was one of about four hands that went up and the only male one. I suppose this further served as confirmation for me that Santa was a fictional character. I’m sure I knew by then, but I didn’t except the truth either before the teacher polled us, or after. I hung on to my belief in Santa through that Christmas season and perhaps another one or two more. I was a determined lad, even in my fantasies. It was to good a story to let go of.

Looking back I’m quite proud of myself for sticking to my faith in the right jolly old elf. There’s enough reality that one has to start dealing with as adolescence approaches, a warm embrace of fantasy is good for the soul. In my case I believe it was also indicative of my rich imagination.

Christmas was a magical time for me. We always had plenty of decorations around the house, centering around a sizable tree. Stocking were hung — by the chimney and with care — and there were Christmas cookies and hot chocolate aplenty. A visit to the downtown department store — Hinks — to sit on Santa’s lap was de rigueur. This of course was back when it was Christmas season and not holiday season. We even had a Christmas tree in our classroom and a Christmas pageant was held at school. Downtown Berkeley was festooned with Christmas decor.

In the 21st century Christmas is inescapable in these parts, but 50 years ago it wasn’t tread around lightly, there was no such phrase as Happy Holidays (or if there was I don’t recall it) and as uncomfortable as it might have made Jews, Muslims and others who ignored or even disdained  Christmas, the holiday was in your face.

That was fine with me. It was a break from the rest of the year. It was different, it was colorful and it came with presents.  I have always been unambiguous in my love for receiving gifts. Mind you I like giving as well, but there is a real excitement — yes, even today — to opening a present. There are typically about 363 days of the year when one doesn’t get to open a present, so I cherish those two or three a year (usually Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and my birthday) when I do.

But mostly there was the magic of the season and that was wholly dependent on there being a Santa Claus who managed to visit tens of millions of homes and deposit gifts under trees using a reindeer drawn sleigh as transportation. I usually left Santa a glass of milk and cookies. The last year I did this I noted in the thank you note that Santa’s handwriting was quite similar to my father’s. I was not suspicious.

The magic has continued to exist. I experienced through my own children and now through the children of my nieces and nephew. Juolupukki pays a call every year to our Christmas Eve gatherings and we all have the honor of sitting on his lap as gifts our distributed.

When I was a child we went to my Uncle’s on most Christmas Eves for what were rowdy, joyous affairs in which much alcohol was consumed and my cousins and I ran around acting very much like the kids we were. Christmas morning gifts were opened and then it was off to my grandmother’s for Christmas dinner. This would usually be a more sedate affair but with the goodies Grandma provided and the opening of still more gifts, it was a time to be cherished.

One year we went to Lake Tahoe for the holidays and I got to experience my first white Christmas. Being away from our home and most of the extended family was difficult but the snow made up for it. Plus that was the Christmas when I got a much coveted bee bee gun. I spent the next few days trekking in the nearby woods  shooting down twigs (all while pretending I was at the Battle of the Bulge).

By my late teens and early 20s Christmas was still great fun. Then I was coming home from college and reuniting with family and spiked egg nog and other seasonal boozy drinks were much on my mind and in my blood system. For a period in my life Christmas was another excuse — and in my mind a particularly good one — for imbibing freely.

Christmas has always been about the music, stories, films, and TV specials. It is a holiday that has inspired some classic tales, none better than Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a book I’ve read numerous times just before December 25th. So often, in fact, that I can recite whole passages. I’ve also enjoyed some of the film versions. As a child it was Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) which I loved so much that one year I skipped the previously mentioned school Christmas pageant to stay home and watch it (I sure could have used a DVR in those days). More recently I’ve favored the 1951 cinematic version A Christmas Carol featuring Alastair Sim as Ebenezeer Scrooge.

Christmas is still a wonderful break from the sameness of the rest of the year. I honestly believe that I love it in some ways as much now as I did growing up, the only difference being that I view it as an adult rather than through the mind of a child. The implausibility of there being a Santa Claus has finally sunk in — okay I admit it, the impossibility too. But I love the smell of our tree and the sound of bells ringing and Nat King Cole singing chestnuts roasting on an open fire and convincing my wife she’s standing under invisible mistletoe.

I seriously wish there was a Santa Claus. Besides of course the one that still resides in my heart.

Ho ho ho.

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