Note: Although this blog post is written in first person, it is fictional and not autobiographical. Neither the characters nor the events are real.
My memories of childhood Christmases are fairly typical and maybe even a bit cliché. I was obsessed with snow, and it was a major disappointment if the grass was visible on Christmas day. My family loved Christmas music and Christmas decorations and Christmas cookies. Our tree had far too many ornaments to actually look tasteful, but we always thought it was beautiful anyway. Every year, my sister and brother and I would try our best to be good and would live in fear of Santa Claus’s judgment. By the day before Christmas, the suspense level had mounted to the point that we didn’t hear a word of the Christmas Eve service, despite the fact that our parents tried their best, year after year, to teach us that Jesus was the point of Christmas. And then, every Christmas morning, there would be presents under the tree and candy in our stockings. Despite the inevitable lapses of good behavior, we somehow seemed to always end up on Santa’s nice list. At least, that was the way it happened for the first few Christmases of my life. But then, there was the year when we didn’t make the cut.
In retrospect, I recall that we had gone overboard in our Santa obsession that year. Mom and Dad had been feeding us “true-meaning-of-Christmas” messages in the form of corny holiday movies and serious talks about Jesus, but we couldn’t help focusing on the all-important goal of being on Santa’s nice list. We didn’t deliberately disregard those lessons, but it’s a little hard to concentrate on abstract notions of joy and love and peace when you’re worried about whether or not you’ll get those toys you want. After all, both Jesus and The Christmas Spirit were around year after year without our active involvement, but those Christmas gifts from Santa required ongoing effort and dedication from us. Naturally, we couldn’t help focusing on the one aspect of Christmas that depended completely upon our behavior.
One of the biggest mistakes that I remember from that year happened about two weeks before Christmas. We were having company for dinner, and Mom had asked me to keep an eye on Susan and Davy so that she could devote her full attention to the fancy meal that she was preparing. The three of us closed ourselves up in the bedroom that Susan and I shared and sat quietly on my bed with a stack of books. We were determined to stay out of the way until dinnertime and to thereby impress Santa Claus with our obedience and dedication to goodness.
All went well for a while. When Mom checked on us, she found me reading aloud from a picture book, with one younger sibling at each elbow. “There you are,” she said, smiling at the adorableness of the scene. “You’re doing such a good job reading, Gloria. Thank you kids for being good and staying out of my hair.” And she was gone again, leaving all three of us proud of our behavior, and leaving me proud of my reading ability.
But I didn’t have quite enough reading skill to keep it up for long, and Susan and Davy didn’t have the patience to sit still and listen to me. The next thing we knew, the floor was covered with crayons and colored pencils and paper and we were busily making Christmas cards, oblivious to how messy the room had suddenly become.
“I need scissors,” Davy announced. “Gloria, can you get me scissors?” I was the only one of the three of us who was tall enough to reach the shelf in the kitchen where the scissors were kept. I should have said no. At that time, my parents had a strict rule against scissors in the bedrooms, which had been instituted a year and a half earlier when I had cut my own hair. Besides that, fetching the scissors was going to be a dangerous mission. I was going to have to invent a reason for going into the kitchen even though I knew that Mom wanted to be alone in there, and then sneak the scissors away without letting her notice. I knew it was wrong to break the rule, but as it so happened, I needed the scissors, too, and the temptation was irresistible.
“Mom,” I said as I entered the kitchen, “Susan wants a drink of water.” I stealthily approached the shelf of interest and eyed my target.
“I don’t want you taking water into your room,” said Mom. “Tell her to come here and I’ll give her some water myself.”
My hand slowly crept across the shelf. I was safe from Mom’s gaze; her head was down as she chopped an unidentified vegetable that I hoped I would be able to remove from my own food when the time came.
“She doesn’t want to come because we’re busy coloring,” I explained. My fingers reached the scissors, and I skillfully snatched them and had them safely concealed behind my back in a split second.
“Well, she can just wait until dinnertime then,” said Mom.
“Okay, I’ll tell her that,” I replied. And thus, I made my exit and returned to the bedroom, scissors in hand.
At that precise moment, Santa Claus wasn’t specifically on my mind anymore, but I still found enough kindness within me to let my brother use the scissors first. He made a couple seemingly random snips in his work and then graciously handed them to me. My project was a little more complex. My older cousin had recently taught me to make paper snowflakes by folding a circular piece of paper into a wedge shape and cutting little bits out of the edges. I was determined to master this art myself. It proved to be more difficult than I had remembered. The first challenge was figuring out how to cut a piece of paper into a circle, and when I finally succeeded in getting one that was good enough to use, I couldn’t get it neatly folded. Once I had more or less mastered that step, I thought I had gotten the hang of making paper snowflakes, but my first two attempts ended with a snowflake that came out in multiple pieces. It took every bit of patience that I had to keep trying until I finally produced a snowflake that resembled my cousin’s work.
With pride and a sense of accomplishment, I held my snowflake aloft for my siblings to admire. Clearly, this work was worthy of a mother’s approval, so I brushed the paper scraps off of my lap and got up to bring my snowflake to her, completely forgetting that I had already committed a misdeed by taking the scissors without permission. At that moment, the error of my ways suddenly became much more serious. As the scraps of paper fluttered to the floor, they were accompanied by little pieces of dark fabric. With horror, I realized that I had unknowingly cut pieces out of my pants.
Davy and Susan stared at me in utter shock. This was the naughtiest thing that any of the three of us could remember ever having done. Destruction of clothing seemed to our immature minds to be an unforgivable vice, and there was simply nothing to be said that would adequately express the gravity of this situation. I did the only thing I could. I quickly changed into a similar pair of pants, rolled the damaged ones up into a tiny ball, and hid them in the back of the closet.
If Mom and Dad noticed that I had changed, they didn’t question or comment on it. The original pants stayed safely hidden for a long time, and I actually don’t know what eventually happened to them. At any rate, I never did get in trouble for cutting them. We did get in trouble for making a huge mess and for sneaking scissors into the bedroom, but that seemed like a minor point compared to the pants incident. As far as we were concerned, events turned out in our favor. But, for the two weeks that followed, we couldn’t shake the fear that Santa Claus knew more than Mom and Dad, and that we had gotten ourselves in serious trouble with him.
Then there was the matter that arose at the children’s Christmas program in church several days later. I can’t entirely explain why we acted the way we did that day. It didn’t help that we had been given cookies and candy in Sunday School prior to church, and were consequently all in a rambunctious mood. Stage fright may have also played a role, because that was the first year that I had been given something to memorize and recite in front of the entire congregation, and it was a stressful situation. But I think that the biggest factor in that day’s trouble was the plain and simple fact that we hated Cassie.
Cassie was in my Sunday School class. I hated her partly because she sometimes teased me, but mostly because she was Mary in the Christmas play and I wasn’t. Davy hated Cassie because she had hit him once, or so he claimed. Nobody else could ever remember when that had happened. Susan hated Cassie because she was a very devoted little sister and dutifully hated anyone that Davy and I hated.
The service was about to start, and all the kids were huddled together in a group at the back of the church. We were supposed to be forming two lines to march down the aisle singing “O Come All Ye Faithful”, but it is a plain and simple fact of nature that children are incapable of organizing themselves into lines without the assistance of adults who know where each child is supposed to go. I knew that I was supposed to go behind Tommy and in front of Cassie, because we were in height order. That was the way we had always practiced it and that was the way that the grownups had told us to do it. But for some reason, that wasn’t the way Cassie remembered it.
“You’re behind me,” I whispered at her. My whisper came out too loud and attracted the attention of all of the other kids, but the grownups took no notice. Several of our Sunday School classmates quickly took sides. My friends insisted that I came before Cassie, Cassie’s friends insisted that Cassie came before me, and everyone else insisted that we were being too loud and had to shut up now because church was starting.
It was crowded, and there was no way I could reposition myself in front of Cassie. I focused a dirty look at the back of her head, covered with the envied light blue cloth. The hymn started and the disorganized group of children began moving forward, but I didn’t sing. I was busy trying to formulate a plot for getting into the right spot at the front of the church, despite being in the wrong place in this formation that was supposed to be a line. We passed the pew where my parents were sitting, and they each gave me a look that said that they knew what was going on and were disappointed in me for acting grumpy and childish when I was supposed to be singing “O Come All Ye Faithful”.
When we got to the front of the church, the Sunday School teachers faced the consequences of failing to ensure that our lines were neat. As they tried to herd us into the pews at the front of the church, the grownups in the pews behind us laughed at the cuteness of our disorder. The little kids stood there idly, looking utterly baffled and lost, while the older kids hissed directions at each other under their breath. And Cassie stood there, looking so prim and proper as she waited to make her way into the pew that I wanted to yank her Mary headpiece right out of her hair.
But I didn’t. Davy did. I didn’t see him coming up behind me, and I didn’t see his hand reach for Cassie’s costume. But the next thing I knew, Cassie was shrieking and holding her hands to her head as if she’d been physically hurt, and Davy was standing next to me, giving me a triumphant look as he held the piece of blue fabric. Despite the surprised and amused reaction of the entire congregation behind us, we shared a moment of sibling comradeship. As far as everyone else was concerned, Davy had just done something childish and stupid because he was a little boy in an unruly mood. But from my perspective, he had just done something noble and unselfish in my defense.
Actually, we didn’t get in trouble for that at all. The adults all thought it was pretty funny, and the incident was more or less forgiven and forgotten as soon as the blue fabric was back on Cassie’s head. Even Cassie herself didn’t have anything to say about it after the fact. But Davy and I both knew that misbehaving in church was a serious offense. Later that evening, we discussed the question of whether or not Santa Claus would hold that against us. We wanted to believe that Santa Claus understood that we had to do something to respond to Cassie’s hatefulness, but it seemed unlikely that this was an adequate excuse for being mean to her in front of the entire congregation.
As Christmas day got closer, the pressure to be on Santa’s nice list increased. But, as any kid knows, it is simply impossible to avoid being rambunctious when it’s almost Christmas. There is simply too much energy to burn off, and that’s really all I can say to justify the time when Susan and I were playing catch in the living room. Susan started it, but I was older and supposedly knew better.
As any grownup would have predicted, the ball went off course a number of times. The game should have ended when an ornament got knocked off the tree, but as luck would have it, the ornament didn’t break. Susan gaped at it with her mouth wide open in a silent gasp. She had perfected the art of overly dramatic facial expressions, which served to enhance her natural cuteness. In this particular case, cuteness was not the objective; she was genuinely shocked at the misdeed we had just committed. But I simply picked up the ornament and put it back on the tree. And then I threw the ball back to Susan.
Only a minute or two later, something worse happened. The ball hit the fancy lamp on the little end table next to the sofa. It wobbled back and forth a couple times, while I stupidly stood motionless instead of running to catch it. Then it toppled off the table in slow motion, hit the floor, and dramatically broke into a million pieces. It would have been a spectacular sight if it wasn’t for the fact that breaking a lamp was, as far as we knew at that time, one of the most horrible things that a person could do. And there was absolutely nothing we could do to fix it or to avoid the parental wrath that was sure to ensue.
Instinct kicked in, and I grabbed Susan and hid behind the Christmas tree with her. I was old enough to know that hiding solved nothing, and if I had been thinking logically, I would have known that the safest course of action would have been to quietly sneak away and hope that Mom and Dad would find no evidence to tell them who had committed this crime. After all, they had three children and a dog, so it wasn’t unreasonable to hope that they would have no idea who to blame and would end up blaming no one. But I wasn’t thinking along those lines at that moment, and it seemed logical to hide behind the tree and wait to see what would happen.
Susan snuggled up against me, evidently feeling reassured to have a partner in her wrongdoing. “Do you think Santa Claus saw that?” she asked me.
“Santa Claus knows it was a mistake,” I told her, and hoped that was true.
We didn’t have to wait long before Mom walked into the room and found the broken lamp. “All right, who did this?” she yelled at anyone within earshot. There was a brief silence before she added, “I see you two back there. Come on out.”
There was no way to deny what we had done, so we came out. “We’re sorry,” I mumbled. “It was an accident.” Susan echoed my words.
“I forgive you, but you need to be more careful,” Mom said. “I can’t have you breaking things. Now go away until I get this mess cleaned up. I don’t want you stepping on anything sharp.”
She sounded angry, but she wasn’t punishing us. Susan and I scurried away, grateful to escape from that debacle so easily, and no more was said about it. But it was one more thing to add to the list of reasons that we were scared of how Santa Claus would judge us this year.
In spite of that, we really were relatively good kids. Those three incidents were really the only times we got in trouble for the entire month preceding Christmas that year. There were a few arguments that got a little out of hand, including one time that Davy bit me, and there were a few cases of staying up late without permission or sneaking disliked food to the dog. There were even a couple tantrums. But in general, our good behavior outweighed the occasional bouts of naughtiness. At least, that’s what we thought, and we were pretty sure it was what our parents thought, too. We could only hope that Santa Claus agreed.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Mom and Dad called us together into the living room. They looked so serious that we knew something was wrong. Dad held up a handwritten letter on elegant stationary and shook his head sadly.
“I’m very sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but we got a letter from Santa Claus today, and he said that you aren’t on the nice list this year.”
Even amid the stunned silence, an ambiance of grief suddenly filled the room. Susan started to sniff. “Let me see that,” I demanded.
He wasn’t bluffing. “To the parents of Gloria, Davy, and Susan,” the letter said in perfectly neat handwriting “I regret to inform you that your children have not met my official standards for goodness this year. Because of their behavior, we are unable to put them on the nice list. Sincerely, Santa Claus.” It looked legitimate. If the handwriting was in fact my mother’s, I didn’t notice, and if she was struggling to keep a straight face as I read the letter aloud, I wasn’t aware of that.
Davy let out a wail of sheer despair, and Susan burst into tears. I stared speechlessly at the paper in my hands and thought back to various wrong things I’d done and hated myself for every one of them.
“But we tried so hard to be good,” I said.
“I know,” said Mom. “I guess you just weren’t good enough.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Dad, “but you know there’s nothing we can do about it. Now you all need to go and get changed for church.”
It seemed horribly cruel for them to bring us to church on Christmas Eve when we had nothing to be excited about the next day. We had to sing Christmas hymns without any feelings of joy and we had to listen to the pastor preach about how Jesus is God’s ultimate gift when we were saddened by the knowledge that we weren’t getting any other gifts that year. After the service, people cheerfully wished us a merry Christmas, and Mom and Dad responded with an equal degree of Christmas joy, but the three of us kids were quiet and somber. We came back home and went to bed without all of the chaos and exuberant excitement that normally characterized Christmas Eve. Mom and Dad put us to bed and wished us a good night and a merry Christmas with so much affection that it was slightly comforting, but there was nothing they could say or do to heal the heartbreak of a Christmas without gifts. That night, I fell asleep to the sound of my little sister sobbing quietly, in a way completely uncharacteristic of children that young.
Most years, on Christmas morning, the three of us woke up absurdly early and dragged Mom and Dad out of bed to start our Christmas celebration long before it was daytime by any reasonable standard. But that Christmas, the digital clock on my dresser said 7:38 when Susan woke me up to ask for help with a zipper. I helped her and got dressed myself, and then Davy joined us as we went downstairs to see if Mom had made anything special for breakfast, like she usually did on Christmas. At least that would be one nice thing about today.
“Good morning, you sleepyheads!” said Mom. “Merry Christmas! You certainly took your time getting up today!”
We looked around the living room in amazement. There were presents under the tree. Mom and Dad sat on the sofa, where they had apparently been waiting for us for a while now. They looked happy and excited and impatient to get started with Christmas morning. But how could there be presents under the tree?
“I thought Santa said we were naughty,” Davy said.
“You have been naughty,” said Mom. “You’re naughty every year. Sometimes you’re very good, but that doesn’t make up for all the times you misbehave. But you know what? Christmas gifts aren’t a reward for being good. We give you Christmas gifts because we love you, and we forgive you when you misbehave.”
“After all,” Dad added, “does God only give gifts to people on His nice list? Are any of us even good enough to be on God’s nice list? Or did he give Jesus as a gift to everyone, even though we’re all sinners? We aren’t going to celebrate Jesus’ birthday by punishing you for not always being good. It’s better to celebrate Jesus’ birthday by letting you see that you can’t earn gifts. You haven’t earned these Christmas presents and you haven’t earned the forgiveness and salvation that comes from Jesus. But you get to have them anyway.”
That was the Christmas that I stopped believing in Santa Claus and learned that the presents under the tree came from my parents. But more importantly, it’s the year that I realized what’s wrong with the legend of Santa Claus. Now that I think back on the Christmases of my childhood, the Santa Claus tradition strikes me as being ironic and sad. Why would we celebrate Jesus’ incarnation, which is the ultimate example of an undeserved gift, by teaching children to believe in a moralistic system whereby gifts are a direct result of good behavior? Christmas is a time to rejoice in the knowledge that God gives us gifts even though we don’t deserve them. The most important gift of all comes through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Santa Claus might be a fun little story that is harmless when it’s used for entertainment, but the moralistic message of Santa Claus is completely overshadowed by the salvific message about Jesus Christ. And since none of us deserve to be on any kind of a nice list, that’s extremely good news.