Things were a lot different back when I was a kid.
Back when cameras required flash cubes, before everything was recorded on video.
Somehow the snow seemed lighter—fluffier.
The anticipation seemed greater.
Commercialism was still there, but they were just starting to figure it out. They hadn’t quite reduced it to the methodical onslaught we’re now presented with from the day before Halloween until two weeks after the new year—before cable TV’s constant repetition of programming began turning us against the classic movies we’ve loved our entire life.
There were simpler, warmer times, when the only thing I saw was the wonder of it all. When I believed in Santa Claus and held tight the warm embraces of the season.
But that was before life came crashing down upon me, before the trappings of a cold, hard reality swept me up in its clutches and made me a cynical bastard.
Kindergarten was hell.
By the age of five, I took my holidays seriously.
Thanksgiving saw me sitting at a table alone—crying my eyes out because my Pilgrim hat wasn’t realistic enough. The girls all folded three-dimensional hats that looked like the real thing—so real, I was half convinced the Pilgrims invented white construction paper.
The boys, however, were given a single piece of black construction paper, and instructed to cut out three sides, leaving a rim all-the-way around. It looked like a paper toilet seat.
That just wouldn’t do.
I had grandiose dreams of constructing a real top hat through a series of tabs and a roll of scotch tape, but we were only allowed one piece of paper.
I needed at least two.
I was crushed. Thanksgiving was ruined.
So as my classmates ran around wearing paper toilet seats on their heads, I sat down and cried.
When story time came, the tale of the first Thanksgiving was drowned out by the sobbings of a tormented artist.
I blubbered through nap time and wailed through milk and cookies.
My teacher, one of the nicest, warmest, most huggable kindergarten teachers ever created, ultimately looked over at a weeping, future sensitive artist, and scowled,
“Oh shut up already.”
Holidays were a serious business, and I was all about authenticity.
The ante was only upped by the time December rolled around.
I’ve always loved Christmas.
As a kid, I’d get swept away in the mounting excitement of the season as it gained momentum like an out-of-control snowball rolling down the side of the Swiss Alps.
For weeks my body would vibrate and buzz, as if I were on an eternal sugar-rush. Mine was a seasonal hyper-activity that no amount of Ridlin could quell.
By Christmas Eve, I was worse than a junkie waiting for a fix. I’d toss and turn, occasionally rolling over to ask out loud, into the darkness of a sleeping house,
“Is it Christmas, yet?”
My father got used to sleeping on the couch, not because he was in the dog house with my mom, but to thwart the creeping steps of footed-pajama hoping to catch Santa in the act.
Once I could have sworn I saw him, “Ho-Ho-ing” and muddling about the tree, but memories are fuzzy at best.
By the age of five I had it pretty much all figured out. I knew how it worked.
If I was relatively good, the general trappings of boyhood youth not withstood, Santa would bring me stuff. If I was bad, well, I was screwed.
Fair enough. We seemed to have a pretty good understanding of where the other stood, a gentleman’s agreement if you will.
But I didn’t read the fine print.
When December rolled around, the tragedies of Thanksgiving subsided as my thoughts focused on candy canes, Christmas specials and most importantly, Santa’s impending visit.
Fluffy snow covered my little chunk of suburbia like a blanket and icicles dangled from every tree, house and car bumper, as if nature had decorated for Christmas.
My waking hours were a frenzy of excitement wrapped up in a literal winter wonderland.
That is, until she came along.
The very first day of kindergarten I saw her from across the room, wearing a yellow plaid sun dress with matching knee socks and two cute little afro puffs on either side of her head, like little Minnie Mouse ears.
She was, quite possibly, the cutest little girl on the face of the earth.
Once I finished my tearful good-byes to my mother and put my book bag in my cubby, I made a b-line towards her. She was playing with some building blocks as I approached.
“Hi, I’m Marcus. Wanna be friends?”
She finished stacking her blocks before looking up.
“You have bubble eyes, you look like a bug. Bug eyes.”
And that was that. In the blink of an eye, I was branded.
For the rest of my public education, and well into college I carried the burden of the name Bug Eyes, and all the low self esteem it generated. Like a stalker following me through my youth, it hid in the shadows with a tube sock full of nickels, ready to strike.
This was the first of many encounters with Nikki, who it turns out, might be the spawn of Satan.
i.e., She was one of those kids who could be so cruel.
And in 1978, she changed the way I’d look at Christmas for the rest of my life.
She changed the way I looked at the world in general.
When you’re five, faith isn’t something you struggle with. You haven’t learned to be a skeptic—trust is all you have when the world is new.
We don’t understand deception, well intentioned or not.
My parents told me there was a Santa. Like a stalker, he was always watching me—even when I was asleep. I didn’t have to see him, I just believed he was there.
They also told me the sky was blue and Jesus loved me.
Why would they lie?
Every day I got just a little more excitable, as I prepared both mentally and physically for Santa’s visit. I wrote my letter to him with the fervor and passion of a tortured Russian poet. I didn’t know my ABC’s just yet, so the letter was mere gibberish in purple crayon to the untrained eye.
But I knew Santa would be able to understand my pleas. He was fluent in kid.
At school we sang Christmas songs and decorated our class tree with home made ornaments made out of clothes pins and paper chains constructed in a well-oiled assembly line of safety scissors and edible paste.
With just a week to go, Santa’s impending arrival, hopefully with the Super Friends Fiddlesticks set in tow, was all I could think about—all I could talk about.
I was abuzz, aglow, and abound with a palpable excitement and anticipation like none other.
These were my very last moments of waning, ignorant bliss. The final days of complete trust in the world.
These were the fleeting moments of innocence that were abruptly shattered when I walked into class for our final day before Christmas break and foolishly asked Nikki one very simple question:
“Hey Nikki, what’s Santa going to bring you for Christmas?!”
I was wearing my new crimson velour Football Cardinals track suit.
To this day, I can’t watch the Cardinals throw a pass without getting a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Nikki stood there by the cubbies, in a festive green and red plaid dress, looking cuter than a puppy snuggling with a kitten in the arms of a newborn baby under a god-damned rainbow, staring at me blankly.
“You’re so stupid, Bug-Eyes,” she finally said, after a bat of the eyelashes. “Santa isn’t real. My daddy told me so, and he’s a policeman.”
With that, I felt my face get hot as the rest of my body went numb. The world began closing in on me and I suddenly felt very claustrophobic. My perception of life in general began twisting and warping. I felt dizzy.
I looked down at the little Football Cardinals helmet emblem sewn onto my track jacket.
Underneath the warm velour, my heart was breaking.
“Well, who brings all the presents?” I argued.
“Your mommy,” she responded without pause.
“Who eats the cookies and drinks the milk?” I parried.
She had an answer for everything.
The rest of the day was a surreal blur. I sat quietly, lost in the trappings of my own thoughts as the rest of the class glued cotton balls onto red construction paper, creating dozens of Santa portraits, all staring at me—mocking me.
“Don’t patronize me, fat man,” I thought to myself in slightly more innocent words.
I went home defeated, quiet. I walked right past the Christmas tree, fighting back tears as I headed towards my room for solitary contemplation.
I didn’t quite know what to think. My mind was swimming, my head was swirling.
I didn’t know what to believe.
I couldn’t ask my parents—apparently, according to Nikki, they were behind the mass conspiracy.
I began thinking about everything else grown-ups had told me, wondering if any of it was true. I felt stupid for believing in the first place. If Santa wasn’t real, what about the Easter Bunny? The Tooth Fairy? George Washington?
I began to wonder if the sky was actually blue—did Jesus really love me, or was it merely a clever ploy to keep me in line?
At the age of five Jesus and Santa were somewhat indistinguishable, aside from the fact that one looked like my grandpa and the other, like the dirty hippie who was always hanging out in front of the 7-Eleven smoking weird cigarettes that smelled funny…
Believing in either required the same thing; faith.
And for the first time in my brief life, it had been shaken.
Faith is a strange thing. Faith in one’s self, faith in mankind, faith in one’s preferred God—they all provide reasons to keep going.
Some people have it, believing with no questions asked. Others, start off believing, then find themselves proven otherwise, left feeling foolish for ever having believed in the first place.
Losing that faith leaves a man feeling hopeless. The future ceases to be a warm embrace.
It scared the crap out of me.
So I tried my best to keep believing, just in case Nikki was wrong and the fat man was actually watching.
Because to say there is no Santa Claus is to say there is no mystery left in this world, no hope in something bigger than the tangible. To say there is no Santa is to rob the world of youthful innocence and folly—to tear away our chance to dream.
The older I get, the more I realize how much I want that innocence and folly—how badly I need to hope.
Santa Claus is the childlike wonderment of imagination and faith—those fleeting moments before we grow old and cynical and begin questioning everything. He is our trust in something we may never fully understand.
He is a chance to believe in something.
Looking back, I don’t hold resentment over my parents for lying to me. It was neither deception nor conspiracy.
I don’t hold it against Nikki, either—because she was wrong.
Because 31 years later, I still haven’t been able to fully disavow his existence.
31 years later, I still believe in Santa Claus.
Let’s just hope he still believes in me.