When I was four years old Mrs. K, who cleaned our house and lived down the street, came over dressed as Santa Claus. Even though I knew it was her I locked myself in my sisters’ room and cried, terrified of the specter in the red suit.
“Jennifer,” she said from the other side of the door in her lilting brogue, “It’s me - Mrs. K.” Not only was I frightened to tears but I was so angry she would taunt me like that, knowing how much I hated “the man with the bag.”
Mrs. K was always amiable but I remember seeing her ever-so-gently put the tips of our cat Kitschy’s ears in her mouth. No one in my family believed me, but I had seen it — not long after she had told me I couldn’t play with the special occasion butter knives with the mother-of-pearl handles. Even then it struck me that my innocent appreciation of something beautiful was not to be tolerated yet she could tongue my cats ears. This deep sense of propriety plagues me to this day. My point is even though Mrs. K was sweet as fruitcake, when she showed up dressed as the most maligned figure of my youth to date I knew I was right about her and I was right about Santa, too. (Soon they would both be replaced with my second-grade teacher, but that’s another story).
My family used to go to the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” every year. They always repeat the favorite numbers, such as the Rockettes’ “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” and the living nativity, and add some new scenes. One year while my niece was in her finding Santa petrifying phase they had a dance with a ton of Santas and a mirror in the back so it seemed an infinite scourge of Santas was descending. Panic set in amongst the adults, trying to keep my niece’s little face away from the stage. All because this supposed bringer of toys and cheer scares the living crap out of so many kids.
Are so many children inherently fearful of Santa like they are of clowns? Maybe kids realize, before they are indoctrinated into consumerism and the want-want-want beat on the American drum, that there is something underlying in Santa that is sinister. Perhaps Dana Carvey’s Church Lady character was right when she rearranged the letters in “Santa” to spell “Satan.” Is sitting on Santa’s lap a symbol of the kinds of unsavory things many people have to do for money and/or goods? If so, crying seems the right response.
Embarrassed, my father used call my family’s Christmas gift-giving the “unwrap-a-thon”: Children tear into gifts like starving wolves, barely acknowledging what they’ve just received. Aunts and uncles throw and catch balled-up ribbons in overflowing garbage bags. No one could accuse our family Christmases of being un-American. Maybe looking upon what he had created did not fill my father’s heart with the glee he envisioned when he scrounged to buy his business or left his family for work and made sure everyone tightened their belts.
Things have improved over the last decade as the kids are almost all adults and more thoughtful and we, the parents, aunts, and uncles are more judicious about the presents we choose. But a certain age range is tough, where kids believe they need what everybody else has and a lot of parents also think it’s a measure of their own self-worth to provide those items. Many never grow out of it. What must we do, short of banning television or moving to a desert island?
I’m happy to report (and am not surprised) my nieces and nephews have grown and are growing up to be fantastic individuals and strong but tender members of society. We have a registered dietician who is also a writer and taking care of a hospital’s nutritional demands, a licensed clinical social worker who work with special needs kids, an account manager, several musicians, artists, gourmands, and avid competing equestrians.
One friend told me an enlightening story about his two-year-old girl. For Christmas he and his wife had purchased her a bunch of presents but she was so taken with the art box that her daddy had made her, full of pencils and papers and stickers, that they decided to put the rest of the gifts away. She wasn’t interested in them and why, they wondered, should they push the culture of more stuff on her before she even understands? I think it’s brilliant. That was a few years ago and she’s not begging for Uggs and Juicy Couture yet. This past summer I saw a video of her smearing and flinging paint all over a giant canvas like Jackson Pollock.
But then even Jackson Pollock wrote to his father, “I’ll never be satisfied until I’m able to mould a mountain of stone with the aid of a jack hammer to fit my will.” Maybe there is a pull inside us that always yearns for more something. Maybe we’ve always known Santa can’t give it to us. And if we’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it we might see it around the edges of our loved ones’ smiles, or a dinner someone cooks for us, or a beautiful building we see everyday and take for granted that a fellow human built. And we might even appreciate it.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.