You never really appreciate Santa until you have children. Sure, Santa is great when you’re a kid and he’s just that big guy in the snowsuit who flies reindeer and brings presents and eats a lot of cookies – which, let’s face it, basically boils everything that is great about childhood – presents, cookies, flying animals – down to its peppermint and gingerbread-infused essence and splatters a whole season with it – but once you’ve become a grown-up with your own children, Santa becomes something more. Something – some would say – better.
Santa becomes The Enforcer. A weapon, even. The Bad Moms’ Secret Christmas Weapon. Michael Bay should get on this.
Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about. There’s a whole song about it, about how Santa can see you all the time, even when you’re sleeping, and how he basically has a vengeful streak that runs second only to that of God in His Old Testament incarnation: he’s watching you, and if you piss him off, you’re going to be on his shit list, and maybe he won’t, you know, turn you into a pillar of salt or feed you to a whale or drown you in torrential rains while he saves pairs of meerkats and pigeons and tse-tse flies, but he might just dump a lump of coal in your stocking, and then wouldn’t you be sorry?
I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t use this on my kid. You know, sweetie, if you don’t go to bed/stop thumping your brother/release the cat’s tail/hand over the stolen cookies, Santa will know. Because he’s watching, remember? REMEMBER? And then I launch into the song, and I maybe – maybe – wag my finger a little bit at the end – so be good for goodness’ sake! – and try to not think about how that last line basically negates the whole point of the song, which is to be good for the sake of getting a good haul of Christmas presents. I also try to not think about how it turns Santa into a frightening, semi-divine figure who exacts retribution for innocuous crimes like cookie theft which, when you think about it, is kind of hypocritical given that he’s been known to lift a few cookies himself.
Yes, I feel guilty when I do this. I feel guilty because it puts a kind of menacing twist on the whole Santa mythos: presents are rewards for good behavior, and Santa is the arbiter of what counts as good behavior, and he’s a cold and calculating arbiter, wielding his list like a sword with which to cut down the dreams of naughty children. (Also, he watches you when you’re sleeping, which, if you follow any of the criticism of the Twilight books or movies, is totally not cool and makes you a stalker, which is, apparently, worse than being a vampire. Which Santa is not, of course, but he could be a stalker, and that’s a little creepy, which is my point. Anyway.) Do I want my children to think of Santa as a sort of stalker-cum-judge who keeps tabs on their every move and evaluates their behavior against some ill-defined standard of appropriate behavior? There’s a reason why we’ve struggled with the whole organized religion thing, and it has something (among a great many things) to do with the whole He knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good or you’re going to Hell business, so why would I – why do I – deploy Santa, sometimes, in exactly this way?
The fast answer is, because it’s easy, and because it’s there, and because my child – for the most part – understands the rudimentary lesson at the root of it: bad behavior isn’t, or shouldn’t be, rewarded. To her credit, she regards the whole ‘he sees you when you’re sleeping/he knows when you’re awake’ thing as suspicious – how does he see us, Mommy? Is there a camera? Where is it? Is it in the lamp? How does he see me in different rooms? Can he see me at school? How can he watch me and (insert schoolmate’s name here) at the same time? Why would he watch when I’m sleeping? I’m not doing anything bad when I’m sleeping. It’s boring. Why is he watching? Doesn’t he have other things to do? (this is a girl who will probably never understand Edward Cullen) – and so responds, usually, to my Santa-based admonitions with a suspicious glare. I’ll stop yelling, Mommy, she’ll say, but only because I decided to and not because Santa said so.
— What about because I said so?
Maybe. But I decided because you said so, and it was my decision. Will I still get an Ariel Bath Toy for Christmas?
She gets the message – there’s good behavior and there’s bad behavior, and sometimes these have a bearing upon whether or not one gets what one wants – but she’s suspicious of the medium through which the message is delivered, which is, I think, as it should be. The Santa Claus Is Coming To Town story does not, admittedly, pack a lot of explanatory force. Why obey Santa? Just because he is – supposedly – the font of Christmas gifts? Why does he get to say who’s bad or good? How does he know, really? And if Christmas bounty is all about reward for being bad or good, then why do some good people not get very much? Why do some good people get nothing?
The message, too, has its problems.
Santa doesn’t know that his authority is thin on the ground around here, but that’s okay. We’re fumbling through what it means to believe in Santa, to believe in anything that’s bigger than us, anything that can’t be seen or measured or rationalized, and I want us to fumble through that stuff, to try to hold in our hands and hearts and feel the awkwardness of it and the complicatedness of it, but also, the weight of it, the rightness of it, the compelingness of it, and to make every effort to hang on it even as it defies our reasoning and even as we suspect that we are, sometimes, doing it wrong. I want us to fumble through it. And I want us to keep fumbling. And to keep wondering and questioning and then fumbling some more.
And if that earns me a few lumps of coal in the process, so be it.
(Do you use Santa as a weapon? Or even just as a lightly wielded candy-cane-like stick that raps gently against the knuckles of cookie-grabbing smalls? Does your Santa carry lumps of coal and loom like God in the Old Testament? Or is he unfailingly generous and non-judgmental, you know, like Jesus? Or do you just avoid the whole thing altogether? HAPPY NON-DENOMINATIONAL WINTER FESTIVAL GIFT CARDS AHOY.)