Other than excessive drinking, eating, and my cousins and I playing tag until we ripped our good dresses, there was one Christmas tradition that was kept more sacred than Sunday mass: Santa’s arrival. Each year on Christmas Eve, my cousins Sandy, Debbie, and I would conspire to convince their parents to let them sleep over. It would be nearly midnight when my aunt and uncle would begin to collect the shopping bags filled with unwrapped gifts and Tupperware containers of leftovers from my mom, ready to pile into their station wagon and head back to Hicksville, a seemingly interminable half-hour away from my house.
“Can we stay over?!” my cousin Sandra would exclaim, the princess and the youngest in her family of three kids. Well-accustomed to getting her way, it only seemed sensible that she’d ask first, as the three of us had determined that her parents would likely acquiesce immediately, succumbing to Sandy’s blond, pouty powers.
“No, sweetie,” my uncle would respond, searching for his coat among the pile of anonymous parkas on the couch, his cigarette and car keys already in hand.
“But we’re already heeeeere, and in pajaaaaamas,” Sandy’s older sister, Debbie, no more than ten, would diplomatically exclaim, yanking on whatever new pajama set that Uncle John had given the three of us girls, all identical, all pink, every year. (He’d still send them to us now, but he doesn’t have our addresses. Intentionally.)
“No. Santa’s going to come and you’re not going to be there…” their mother, Aunt Jackie, would say, exhaustion causing her words to run together, as though she, too, were excited for Santa’s arrival.
“But. But. But,” I’d stammer, the youngest, the dumbest, the one unused to negotiations since my parents had always just drowned out my whining with their marital spats. I was an only child and therefore unfamiliar with the UN Counsel-like statecraft of larger families.
“If Santa comes and you two aren’t home, he’s going to leave and not put any gifts out,” Aunt Jackie would finish, as though she’d known some poor child in her youth who’d suffered the grave effects of not being back at his house in time for Santa to do his work. A reputable Santa authority, that’s what my aunt was. She would then search the house for my cousin Vince, three years older than Debbie, twelve years older than me, and find him, wearing all black and cuddling with his goth girlfriend in front of some horror movie they’d brought to watch in lieu of partaking in the festivities. Vince and Quiet Scary Girlfriend did not seem to care about Santa, and they certainly weren’t clamoring to stay for the night.
Up until the age of seven or eight, the rest of the evening would go as followed: I’d hop around my stumbling parents singing, “Santa! Santa! Santa!” unaware of the fact that, after seventeen straight hours of hearing Johnny Mathis or Elvis sing about Christmas, punctuated by nothing more than liquor and a child screaming the word, “Santa!” like some Tourette’s-suffering cheerleader, my parents were regretting their shoddy methods of birth control. My mother would meekly succumb to my requests, leaving carrots out for the reindeer
“Why don’t you peel them like you do for me?!”
“Let’s peel them, mom!”
“No. Reindeer like the carrot skin. They need it…for their coats.”
And then we’d leave cookies out for Santa.
“Let’s leave out the oatmeal cookies!”
“Um. How about just chocolate chip? Santa loooves chocolate chip cookies.”
“How do you know what type of cookies Santa likes? Have you met Santa, mom?!”
And then we’d leave a note that I would then insist on writing.
“’Dear Santa, I hope you like the cookies and that the rain deer like the carrots with the skin for their coats. I am sure their coats are soft and shiny. If you want to wake me up and let me pet the deer like Rudof that would be really, really fun. I have been very good and so I should get a pony and if I do not get a pony I hope I get a Barbie and…” and…and…Mooooom! What should I say next?…”
Seemingly hours later, my mother would tuck me into bed.
“Let me stay up so I can say hi to Santa?!”
“NO. No, no, no. Santa, er, Santa can’t work if every child stayed up, honey. He would, um, he would lose a lot of sleep. Time. He would lose a lot of time and not all of the children would get their toys. You really wouldn’t like that, would you, to cause Santa to neglect any little girls or boys?”
Guilty and still unconvinced, I would wait to hear my mother and father finish whatever clean up they were doing downstairs. This was often when, after hours of sugar-binging and Santa-obsessing, I’d pass the fuck out. If I didn’t, and silence finally descended upon our house, I’d sneak back downstairs and crouch under the dining room table, waiting to see Santa, so I could tell Sophie Steinbeck and Diana Baxter at school, and then maybe they’d stop calling me Anal-slee and pushing me in my locker.
As soon as I’d assumed my crouching post, the Catholic guilt would creep in. What I was doing was wrong! It was going to cause Santa to mess up…for the first time ever! I had to go to sleep, or I would ruin Christmas…for everyone!
Terror would seize my stomach and I’d race back up the stairs to my bedroom, hunkering down under the covers, hoping it wasn’t too late. Angry Old Testament God and Santa would get switched around in my head. I would be kept awake, plagued by fears that I’d get up the next morning to find Santa pitched over under our tree, frozen reindeer and bag of undelivered goodies on the roof, all because I’d try to spy on him.
Of course, if you’re an adult, you know that the Santa carnival can’t continue forever. (And if you’re a kid, let me just say, SPOILER ALERT.) I assume that most parents discuss how to best dispel this magic, they debate the safest way to burst the fairytale bubble and let their child down easy, teaching them that the true meaning of Christmas is rampant consumerism, religious skirmishes, and debating whether or not eggnog is a disgusting means of getting drunk. Of course, I wasn’t blessed with most parents. And so it was bound to happen.
I must have been around seven, maybe eight years old, that fateful Christmas. My cousins had been collected and said their goodbyes, I had showered and changed into my new pink nightgown. Downstairs was quiet. As always, I was convinced that maybe, just maybe, I could hide and steal a glimpse of Santa without destroying the holiday globally. If I didn’t interrupt him and stayed hidden and maybe held my breath, I reasoned, perhaps he wouldn’t lose any precious minutes. I could brag to my bullies and Santa could continue on his annual gig none the wiser.
The stairwell that separated my bedroom from the rest of the house was long, at least to an eight year old. Though more than a decade and a half has passed since I believed in Santa, I can remember counting the seventeen steps, taking them agonizingly slowly, creeping through the dark like Tom Cruise creeping through the darkest parts of his inner closet. The tree twinkled from the living room, I could see its multi-hued lights reflected in our polished floor. Once downstairs, I figured I would crouch in the corner, behind the table and chairs, a perfect hiding spot where I could blend in with the other homey objects in the dark. You know, side table, easy chair, curled-up eight year old asphyxiating herself.
“…of course you say it’s “not being a big deal,” you don’t have to lift a goddamn finger!”
My mother stormed out of my parents’ bedroom, clutching the fuzzy red stockings, swollen with gifts, to be hung by the chimney with care.
“If you weren’t so fucking uptight about everything…” a man’s voice hissed.
My father followed my mother out of the bedroom, a stack of presents barely obscuring his wine-flushed face.
“Uptight?! I have to do everything by myself around here! You just fucking sit there all la-di-da like a king!”
And, lo, the shattered marriage of my parents came upon me, and the glory of eternal single life shone around me. And I was sore afraid…until a little voice inside myself said, “Fear not! For, behold, if you go to bed and pretend that you didn’t see anything, you can at least have them think you still believe in the Easter bunny in April.”
So that’s just what I did. The next morning I was a little glum, but able to keep quiet about what I had seen. And, as spring arrived, I looked forward to getting my chocolatey treats, though suddenly the fact that I’d ever thought an overgrown rabbit brought easily-breakable baskets filled with candy to Catholic and Christian girls and boys seemed stupid. I mean, I’d seen live rabbits. They didn’t seem to have the capacity to discern religion just by looking at people, and they pooped a lot. My mother, ever influenced by the seasonal magic of holidays, cooed to me about how the Easter bunny was going to come. I smiled a wan smile. It was when she used it as a threat to get me to wear a new, lace-trimmed dress that I had to draw the line.
“Come on, Ainsley. Get dressed. It’s time for Church. If you don’t behave the Easter bunny won’t come and…”
“You don’t have to pretend that the Easter bunny is real. I know he’s not real. Just like Santa.”
If my parents marital spats had caused them to have any rift, the panic that seized them both that day was a uniting force. I was not the type of little kid to keep secrets. Weak, sensitive, prone to tantrums and fits of crying, I was nothing if not predictable. I’m sure my parents had each individually anticipated the histrionic blowout that would occur on that day in the future where the other parent would inform me that all of these whimsical, generous holiday figments were lies. Instead they got a resigned, crestfallen little kid sighing her way into a frilly dress, aware that the holidays were just a whole lot of stress over nothing.
I hate to say it, but it took a long time for me to get back into the Christmas spirit. I think I didn’t enjoy the holidays again until I learned to drink. (And then, once alcoholism took over, I had even more reason to dread them, Santa be damned. Sorry, family, for that whole thing with the screaming and the gravy boat.) This year, for the first time in nearly a decade, I’m looking forward to Christmas. Sure, my cousins are older, all but one married and creating families of their own. And, yeah, Santa is still make-believe. I don’t have kids or a husband, but I have a Chihuahua and a loving family, and being able to revel in a day that’s dedicated to warmth, cheer, goodwill, generosity, and some whimsical tale of giving is enough. I hope that, no matter what holiday you celebrate, even if you don’t celebrate any holiday at all, you’re able to enjoy it, dear Internet.
And if you have any doubts about whether or not you should get married, or exactly why we need to make merry, hide in your parents living room. There the true meaning of Christmas will be revealed.