Santa’s helper

One December afternoon a number of years ago, I stopped by a nursing home to visit a member of my church. She happened to be attending a holiday program in the cafeteria, so I stopped by there to see her. The residents were being entertained by a jolly plump man in a fancy suit. No, the suit was not red, and the jolly plump man did not have a white beard. Santa was present, but he was not entertaining anyone. He was leaning against the back wall of the room with a bored look on his face. The man with the microphone was wearing a gem-spangled white suit. He had dark hair and long sideburns. He was singing one of his big hits—I no longer remember if it was “Love Me Tender” or “Heartbreak Hotel,” or which song it was.

Yes, the King was upstaging good old Santa Claus, and Santa did not seem to appreciate it one bit. But that passing moment opened a new chapter in my family’s holiday lore. Since that day, I have told my children that Elvis lives at the North Pole with Santa. During the year, Elvis makes toys for Santa to bring to children on Christmas Eve. Elvis helps Santa manage his database recording who has been naughty and who has been nice. Elvis is Santa’s helper, and if you thought Santa is assisted by elves, you have simply been hearing that name wrong all these years.

Of course we will have to rewrite some of the Christmas songs and poems and books. The man in red and the man in white are a holiday team, working together so that none of us has to face a Blue Christmas. Together they deck the halls, ring the bells, and rock around the Christmas tree. Together they bring Christmas joy to every girl and every boy around the world.

One of my favorite Christmas decorations shows Santa kneeling in prayer at the manger. Surely someone can create an image that has Elvis also at the manger, kneeling to honor the King of kings. That scene would go a long way toward bringing to the world the real meaning of Christmas.

To each of you, and to all those who are special to you, I wish a very Merry Christmas. J.

 

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On lying to children

Many Christian parents think nothing of it, but a few are deeply concerned: should we tell our children stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? The worst-case scenario is that, when they learn they have been deceived, they might begin to doubt Jesus Christ and the accounts of the Bible. Even barring that risk, is it worth entertaining young children with falsehoods merely to perpetuate a cultural tradition?

As a father, I chose to participate in the stories without putting any more stress upon them than upon Hansel and Gretel or Jack and the Beanstalk. I read my children The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, not neglecting to read also Luke 2:1-20. We watched Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Miracle on 34th Street together, but we also watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Linus’ famous rendition of the Christmas Gospel. A stocking with fruit and candy appeared in the house after the children were in bed on Christmas Eve, but not much was said about Santa bringing the stocking. A quarter was given overnight for a lost tooth–and some teeth were truly lost: one was evidently swallowed with a bite of breakfast cereal, and another fell out in a swimming pool and disappeared into the drain. The egg hunt on Easter happened after church and after the midday meal–the children went for a walk to look at flowers in the neighborhood while Daddy rested after a busy morning. Somehow colored eggs and baskets with candy were hidden in the house during Daddy’s nap.

Santa Claus had to work a lot harder when I was a little boy. Not only did he bring stockings overnight; he also brought a live tree into the house and decorated it while we slept. I knew that Santa would not come until everyone was asleep, and I was concerned that my mother was vacuuming the house late at night on Christmas Eve–didn’t she know that she was delaying his visit? Other stores had men dressed like Santa who reported to Santa what children told them, but the real Santa Claus had his throne in Marshall Fields’ store in downtown Chicago. On a Saturday in December we would take the train to Chicago, and I would wait in line a long time to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. When the movie A Christmas Story was made in the 1980s, I discovered that I was not the only little boy who had been scared of Santa and would prefer not have bothered to visit him at Marshall Fields.

Santa Claus was big and loud and frightening. Worse than that, he was always watching (and he had an army of elves spying for him as well). He knew if I had been bad or good, and from Thanksgiving until Christmas I was frequently warned to be good so Santa would bring me presents. Likewise in the late winter and early spring I had to be on my best behavior to ensure the delivery of candy and colored eggs. In this case, every rabbit that left footprints in the snow was a spy for the Easter Bunny. I sometimes tried to track the rabbits to their lair, but I never had any success in that endeavor.

I think it is a mistake to use holiday treats to coerce good behavior, and I tried never to do that with my children. Christmas and Easter are not about being good to earn rewards; these holidays remind us of a God of grace who gives us blessings we do not deserve. Christmas and guilt should be separated as far as possible. On Christmas we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem whose mission it was to remove our sins and guilt as far from us as the east is from the west. The planet has a north pole and a south pole, but there is no end to a journey traveling east or west. Our sins and guilt are taken from us and placed an infinite distance away from us.

My children were never confused by the fantasies we shared about Santa Claus and the others. They did not doubt the reality of Jesus and his love even if they were sometimes distracted by gifts under the tree or a basket of candy. One of their favorite books when they were little told about a little girl who lost a tooth and put it under her pillow so the Tooth Fairy would bring her money. In the morning, she accused her mother of coming into her room and replacing her tooth with money. Her mother replied that, in every house around the world, the Tooth Fairy took the appearance of the child’s mother or father so the child would not be frightened. This story may not be as dramatic as the “Yes, Virginia” newspaper essay. Still, I think it does assure parents that they can enjoy holiday traditions with their children without fear of losing the trust of their children later in life. J.

Childhood Christmas memories

When I was a little boy, Santa Claus brought our Christmas tree along with the stockings filled with small gifts and candy. The whole family would go to church on Christmas Eve for the Sunday School program, and when we got home my parents would hurry me off to bed, warning me that “Santa won’t come until you’re asleep.” Then my parents would stay up for what seemed like hours. I would even hear my mother vacuuming, and I would wonder why she didn’t go to bed, since Santa wouldn’t come until she and my father were asleep.

In the morning the tree would be in the living room, lights glowing, covered with ornaments, and many family presents under the tree. Of course back then the Christmas tree was enormous—it towered all the way to the ceiling. These days I barely need a stepladder to touch the top of the tree. They just don’t make Christmas trees the same any more.

We always had a real tree, and we always kept it up for all twelve days of Christmas, so I suppose it made sense for it not to appear before Christmas Eve. We had other Christmas decorations up through much of December. My mother would cut evergreen branches and weave them into a wreath for the front door. We had a ceramic nativity scene on a card table in the living room. My father would hang lights on the spruce tree in our front yard. Some years I would make ornaments for that tree. My mother saved the plastic trays that came with the meat, and on a long December Saturday or Sunday afternoon she would give me some of those trays and her collection of cookie cutters. I would trace the cutters onto the trays, cut out the shapes, and color them with crayons. I’m sure that kept me out of the way while she baked Christmas cookies and peanut brittle and fudge.

My father took off one weekday in December so the family could go downtown. My parents liked to see the Christmas decorations in the stores, but they told me the reason for the trip was so I could tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas. The men who dressed like Santa Claus in the suburban shopping malls only worked for Santa, but the man in the downtown department store was the real Santa Claus. Santa always made me feel nervous when I was little. It didn’t help matters that my parents and I had to stand in line for an hour or more to get to Santa, surrounded by other children and their parents. Frankly, I would have been content to stay home and write Santa a letter, but the trip into The City was an important tradition for the whole family.

The Sunday School students practiced for the Christmas Eve program on Saturday mornings in December. The smallest children sang “Away in a Manger” and “God Loves Me Dearly,” and older children sang other traditional hymns. We also had speaking parts, most of which were verses from the Bible. A few children would be selected to portray Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the angels, and the wise men. I cannot remember which of those roles I played over the years. I do remember saying the verses from Luke that Linus recites for Charlie Brown to explain the meaning of Christmas. I remember the pastor’s wife standing in the back of the church during rehearsals, shouting, “I can’t hear you singing!” My memory is probably exaggerating, but it seemed that she did that every song, every Saturday, every year.

On Christmas morning once everyone was awake—and most years that happened earlier on Christmas morning than on any other morning, expect perhaps Easter—we would sit in the living room and unwrap the gifts in our stockings. Those were from Santa Claus, and the tradition was to shout, “Thank you, Santa,” for each gift we opened. Then we would tackle the gifts from family, which were under the tree. My parents gave me practical things like clothes. My out-of-state grandparents gave me the best gifts—one year a chemistry set, another year an electronics kit, and still another year an electronic Battleship game. Only recently did I learn that those grandparents always sent a check to my parents, and my parents actually chose their gift.

Around noon my in-state grandparents would arrive. We would exchange gifts, and then every member of the family had to show what gifts we had already opened that morning. The gifts stayed under the tree for several days before they were gradually gathered into the household possessions. Each member of the family had a certain section under the tree where our gifts were left. Early Christmas afternoon, we would have a grand dinner, much like the meal we had eaten a month earlier for Thanksgiving. I had to try a little bit of everything, even the sweet potatoes, which I already knew I didn’t like. My grandparents would visit with us through the afternoon. Sometimes we would work a jigsaw puzzle together. Then we had supper: sandwiches and maybe some leftovers from the grand dinner.

Often my favorite Christmas gift was something small in the stocking. One year it was a book about a man who lived in a white house on a street where every house was exactly the same. Every time he tried to make his house look different—such as planting a tree in his front yard–all the neighbors liked what he did and imitated him. Finally, he painted his house purple. When the neighbors again liked his idea, they were able to agree to choose different colors for their various houses. I read that book several times that Christmas day. Another year I got a Slinky in my stocking. I loved playing with that all afternoon, watching it walk down the basement stairs. When more family dropped by that evening, one of my cousins tried to take the Slinky away from me. I held on to it, and it was ruined. I was heartbroken. Christmas was early in the week that year, but Santa came back on Friday night and left a new Slinky for me to find by the fireplace Saturday morning.

My household has developed its own Christmas customs. Some are like those I had as a boy; others are different. The Sunday School program is on a Sunday in the middle of December instead of Christmas Eve. We go to the early Christmas Eve service, the big candlelight service at midnight, and the Christmas morning service. Christmas morning is my favorite. Our preacher not only keeps Christ in Christmas, but he also keeps the Mass in Christmas Day. A smaller group of people comes, but the joy of the holiday is warm and genuine.

May each and every one of you have a Merry and wonderful Christmas this year. J.