I am a Christmas-a-holic. I’m addicted to the Christmas season – decorations, music, food, gift-giving, and time spent with loved ones. I’m filled with joy when the holiday season arrives. Every Christmas is shaped from memories and traditions that were part of my childhood. Growing up, there was one thing that didn’t jingle my bells about December 25, and that was the man in red – Santa Claus.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want the gifts or doubted his existence. I didn’t want to sit on his lap or be anywhere in his vicinity. I had a “Santa safety zone” and it was at least a football field in size. Anything closer and my knees grew weak and visions of monster sugar plums lurched before my eyes. Even being downwind of a peppermint scent made me queasy.
t was a contradiction that I had such a fear of the jolly old elf. He represented the spirit of giving and the belief in a magical holiday. Who else had flying reindeer and could visit children around the world in one night? I liked his work ethic and gift-giving. I just didn’t want direct contact.
Being in love with Christmas and having an unexplainable dislike of Santa, was like loving roller coasters but not liking heights, or loving the ocean but hating the waves. I wasn’t alone in my fear of Mr. Claus. I’d seen many kids, screaming in terror as they were forced onto his lap. I don’t know exactly what frightened other children, but I’ve tried to analyze my own issue.
Mixed into my Santa-phobia was that he was a large, authority figure with a scary beard and a huge belt buckle. Plus, he could magically break into my house and move about the premises. We didn’t have a chimney that led to a fireplace, so he couldn’t enter our house in his normal style. If he went down our chimney, he was going to end up in the furnace. I’m not sure which frightened me more, the thought of him roaming around my house in the dark, or his body turning to ashes in the basement. No flaming Santa for me – I wanted my gifts.
My list from the Sears Wish Book would reach him by way of my parents. I supported the middle man. Like a union negotiator, my parents delivered my list of toy demands to good ole Santa. In effort to bypass the lap visitation, I prepared a very detailed list. There wasn’t a doubt about what I wanted. My spreadsheet included the page number, the item number, the name of the toy, and the price. I knew somewhere at the North Pole there was a Sears catalog store where Santa placed his orders.
I’d watched movies and TV specials about the North Pole and all I’d ever seen were elves hammering on wooden trains, wagons and rocking horses. It lacked modern technology. I never saw G.I. Joe’s and Mouse Trap games being made. It was okay if Santa needed to order toys, as long as he fulfilled my wishes. Deliver the wooden stuff to kids too lazy to use my format.
I was comfortable with my parents being the all-important couriers of my list. I’d never encounter the scary guy. When I was a child, the Santa’s were not the new millennium well-dressed, real-bearded, child psychologists that hold court in local malls. I recall fake beards, cheap faux fur, and patent leather boots. These Santa’s were doing community service as a holiday gig. They were a bedraggled lot sitting in Woolworths waiting for the end of their shift and a drink at the local bar. After a day of leaky children, a cheap Santa suit smelled worse than a locker room after some serious reindeer games. “Stay away from me Smelly Claus.”
I was told Santa’s in the stores were just his helpers. They took children’s wishes back to the North Pole. Another reason I didn’t want to go near the red suit. If I was going to lose serious childhood playtime standing in a line of ADHD kids, I wanted to meet the real Santa Claus. I didn’t want an understudy.
My parents told me that sometimes the real Santa would make an appearance in a Christmas parade or in a big city department store. This became an issue and a few sleepless nights when my dad decided to take me to Philadelphia to see the holiday lights and displays.
I’d never been to Philly, and we only lived 45 minutes away. When my dad asked me if I’d like to see the decorations at Lit Brothers, Gimbels, Strawbridge’s and John Wanamaker’s, I was ecstatic. The answer was a resounding “Yes!” He scheduled a Friday trip. Which meant I had a parentally approved day off from school. This is an extremely rare occurrence like Hailey’s Comet or an intelligent remark by Donald Trump.
Anticipating the big day – I couldn’t sleep, and I counted the seconds until it arrived. I remember my mom bundling me up for the trip and proudly walking to the bus stop with my dad. He wanted me to experience the fun of riding on the official bus to Philly.
The trip felt longer than a transatlantic voyage. Somewhere on the endless highway dad turned to me and said “You can see Santa Claus today. I heard the real Santa is going to be in Lit Brothers.”
Somewhere on the Ben Franklin Bridge my heart sank into the Delaware River. I was being bused to a Santa showdown. As my coronary arteries drug through the dirty Delaware I knew I had to escape the bus. Could I kick out a window and make a dash for freedom? I felt like Dr. Richard Kimble from The Fugitive. Was there a one-armed Santa waiting for me? I was on the bus to holiday hell. Had my dad tricked me? He wasn’t that type of man, so I was perplexed.
Negotiations had to be made. Santa would not be touching my anxiety-ridden body. No photo would be snapped of me laying collapsed in Santa’s lap clutching a candy cane like a demented toy solider grasping his trusty rifle. Philadelphia, from a child’s perspective, was large, crowded, noisy, and filled with Christmas wonder. The department store windows were decorated in holiday splendor.
When we entered Lit’s, I broke out in a cold sweat. Did Santa have my name on his list of children he was expecting to see that day? I didn’t want to disappoint, but it wasn’t going to happen. Santa’s Wonderland was filled with busy shoppers. The line to visit the official superstar of the holiday season snaked around stanchions. There was no way to know how long it would take to make it to his big throne. I told my dad I could see him, and I’d deliver a hearty hello wave to him across the crowed room. We were on a time schedule with a bus to catch, so time was important if we were going to see the sights of the city holiday regalia.
Dad really wanted to see The Enchanted Colonial Village exhibit Lit’s displayed every year, so he opted for that queueing line. It took a village, but it saved me from Santa. I don’t know if my father was disappointed that he wouldn’t have a photo of me tied to Santa’s lap, but he never said a word.
I was confident I’d make it through childhood escaping Santa’s lap of terror. I’d achieved my goal until age ten. Then entered my Aunt Dot. My perfect record was snatched away by her sharp talons. My father’s sister was a cantankerous, mean woman. She was a combination of the Grinch and Cruella Deville. I believe in her childhood she took a Hitler Youth correspondence course.
For all her rottenness, she liked me. I don’t know if it was my blue eyes, cleft chin, red outfits or she wanted to plump me up and shove me into an oven. One Christmas, she invited me to a luncheon at the VFW. Looking back, I should have realized that going to a VFW wouldn’t end well.
Upon arrival, she told me Santa would be there, and I’d be able to tell him what I wanted for Christmas. That meant I was expected to sit on his lap – alarms sounded. I told her I was too mature to sit on his lap. She wasn’t buying it. You didn’t say “No!” to Aunt Dot – it wasn’t tolerated.
Before I could escape her clutches, I was being forced into the Santa receiving line. I looked back in desperation. I saw her crooked finger, motioning me to move forward. The finger was like a laser pointer and it was directed at a bad Santa. He had a fake beard and the cheap suit. The white fur might have been from a cat, because he was shedding. I tried to move out of line, but I heard the shrill voice of my taskmaster.
“Get back in line young man. Santa’s going to give you a gift.” That was true – the gift of cardiac arrest. I grew faint and started sweating. A panic attack was on the way. Watch out Santa your beard is about to go flying into the punch bowl.
Finally, the moment arrived – I was face to face with Krusty Kringle. He patted his leg for me to sit down and I blindly obeyed. I felt my throat close up, as he asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I wanted to point to my aunt and say “please kill the gargoyle with the cigarette hanging out of her snout,” but instead I whispered “you should have received the Sears list from my parents.”
He looked at me and chuckled with his beard flapping from his chin. I was handed a wrapped gift and promptly dismissed. I don’t remember what I received – some forgettable toy. There were no big-ticket items at the VFW Christmas lunch. I was far from Ellen’s Twelve Days of Giveaways. It was probably a two-piece jigsaw puzzle or a marble.
I rode home in my aunt’s Chevy Impala in silence, wiping cat fur off my pants. If my stare could destroy, my aunt would have melted into her upholstery. I never forgot she was the one who took my Santa virginity away.
The Santa Incident was shackled to my long-term memory. I told my parents I was forced onto the lap of the overstuffed gift-giver and had bruised a rib from his giant wrestling belt. “It’s only Santa,” my mom said. “Where’s the photo of you on his lap?” she asked.
After all the torment, I still had no physical evidence I had participated in a dreaded holiday tradition. If I’d had charcoal and some drawing paper, I’d have sketched a reenactment and the issue would have been settled.
It took forty years for me to finally conquer my Santa-phobia. When my mom was in a nursing home with failing health, I wanted to give her what she had lacked for countless Christmases – a pic of me with Santa.
I found a great Santa – real beard and leather boots. Of course, I wasn’t going to sit on his lap. Santa didn’t need nerve damage or a blood clot, but I sat bravely by his side and smiled for the camera. The twinkle in my mom’s eye when she unwrapped the photo made up for all the years of red suit therapy.
She finally had what she had wanted – her son going through a holiday rite of passage. I no longer feared Santa. I’ve since chatted with him at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, and I wave to him whenever I see him at the mall. I still prefer some distance, and I fear his night invasion of my home, but every year he is an integral part of the holiday. He provides magic and wonder, and isn’t that the best part of Christmas?