Santa and I have long had an uneasy relationship. It began a few weeks before Christmas in 1962, the only time in my life when I looked good in cranberry velvet. My mother had ventured with me into Macy’s in Herald Square for my first real holiday experience. An experience that ended with me kicking Santa in the face with my shiny patent leather Mary Jane’s as she tried to pass me off into his enormous gloved hands. I was under two but at close range the Mary Jane’s had enough force from my sausage encased white clad thighs that Santa sprouted a cut lip and a drop of blood on his snowy beard. Santa’s helper promptly thrust me back into my mother’s arms while another Elf called for a wet cloth and bandages. My mother thought she heard Santa utter an expletive while she slinked away under the glare of angry parents and their wailing red-faced children who obviously thought I had killed Santa.
Coming from a large Italian-American family where church was something you did, not really explained, we all trooped to mass every Christmas Eve save for my grandmother who seemed to be excused by the man himself preparing the Feast of the Fishes while we were gone. Christmas Eve services: I was always hot, itchy and overdressed – wearing too many layers of clothing: tights, slip, sweater, blouse with peter pan collar, plaid skirt, wool coat, a hat, and gloves. I would slip slide along the pew, kicking my feet against the padded kneeler, crawling over my mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins until I reached my grandfather’s lap, where I would fall asleep. The singing would wake me and I would be carried from church by my grandfather out into the night where everyone who greeted us assured me that now, Santa would be coming soon and somehow I took that to mean that since church was over, SantaJesus, one and the same, was cleared to deliver the gifts. I remember thinking I should have paid more attention inside the church, that maybe now he won’t bring me that Chatty Cathy doll. In my mind the two have forever become one.
Singy. The following Christmas, my great uncle returned from a trip to California with a special gift for me: Singy. So christened by me who was insistent, obviously on combining then shortening SantaJesus. Singy was a compact little man about sixteen inches in height with a hard plastic face and molded features. His painted blue eyes were affixed so it appeared he was permanently looking off to the side in a mischievous kind of way, his mouth partially hidden by a fluffy white beard, a solid, sawdust stuffed body covered in red and white flocking, a black belt with a buckle and hard plastic white boots for feet. In the pictures that year I am sitting on a small wooden chair in front of a soaring tinseled covered tree in my grandparents’ living room. I am wearing plaid flannel-lined corduroys rolled at the ankle, a sweater with snowflakes and flyaway pigtails that barely touch my shoulders. Singy is tucked beneath my arm, his eyes turned toward me like he thinks I’m going to hit him. I hadn’t been back on Santa’s lap since the Macy’s incident and my wary expression says it all. I’m afraid if I put him down he will be angry so I clutch him to me all night long, but when we go to sleep that night I turn his face to the wall.
When we were small enough not to care, my brother and I shared a room, twin maple beds at right angles to the other. A night light between our heads. My brother’s bed was covered by an army of stuffed animals. On my bed my mother propped Singy, brought out of Christmas storage and he grinned at the wall evoking anything but visions of sugarplum fairies. But I am still nice to him. I include him in all our games. I bring him to the table. I insist we set a place for him and give him some food. I shove his plastic head up the dirty fireplace to show him how it’s done. Just in case.
On this particular Christmas Eve, my brother and I crawl into bed exhausted, aching from too much food, overheated houses, relatives of all shapes and sizes pinching our cheeks. We are wearing our Christmas pajamas. Me in a candy cane striped nightgown and matching ruffled sleeping cap and he in red and green plaid pajamas that button up the front purchased from the pages of the 1967 Sears Wish Book. It is not too much later when rustling noises at the bottom of my bed wakes me. I open my eyes and there is SantaJesus, resplendent in red suit, white beard, black sack rumpled on the floor at his feet. I had twisted my brother’s fingers in church tonight and made him cry after he broke my candy cane and so I think SantaJesus’ appearance in our room may have something to do with that. He is not as tall or as round as I imagined him to be and at first I try and pretend I didn’t open my eyes, but I can feel him watching so I flutter open my lids just in time to see him press a gloved hand to his lips. I pull the blankets up over my head but create a flap where I can peek out. He hangs our stockings on the posts at the end of our beds and then he exits the room, leaving the door just slightly ajar like my mother always remembered to do. I can see a Pez dispenser, the vivid green asymmetrical head of Gumby, the hook of a candy cane and the metal curve of a Slinky popping out the top of one stocking. While I’m debating whether I should go back to sleep or wake my brother, the door to our room swings open and my mother enters with SantaJesus. I am still hidden so she can’t see me. SantaJesus has his arm around my mother’s waist and she says something into his ear and he turns his face to her and presses the side of his white beard against her head and they both smile before leaving the room. I don’t know what to do with this piece of information and I ruin Christmas morning, ignoring the Barbie in the red plaid cape with the moveable arms and legs to pester my parents’ with questions. I spend the rest of the day searching for clues, but find nothing and instead come to the conclusion that because my mother’s name is Mary just like SantaJesus’, mother, then the two of them must somehow be related and I had better start paying attention during mass.
By the age of twelve I have long known that SantaJesus doesn’t exist, although I am still unclear on the reason why I must go to church. As far as I can see the pay-off of life ever after up in the clouds is just too far fetched of a concept for a girl who has yet to be kissed here on earth. During mass, instead of watching the altar, I stare at the ceiling hoping to see the face of Jesus in the shadows making me special and possibly a candidate for absolution of past and future sins. The only thing that holds my attention is the drama of benediction, where the priest swings the smoking incense filled bejeweled ball and speaks in Latin. I have long suspected that this is what SantaJesus smells like and a few years later, as a teenager, when burning cones of incense becomes the thing to do, I alternate between feelings of guilt over becoming a lapsed Catholic and intense longing to sit on SantaJesus’ lap.
But that December of my twelfth year I was still a semi obedient willing to please Catholic school girl. So when Sister Jean, the director of our Christmas Pageant had emergency surgery, Sister Mary Catherine announced there might not be a play unless a volunteer from the class came forward. I offered myself as writer and director. I constructed a play about an angry Santa and a Mrs. Claus who longs to travel and a few reindeer that refuse to participate in Christmas along with a monster and a wayward Elf. The storylines cobbled together from every televised Christmas special I have ever seen. I also, to please the church loving crowd, throw in Mary and Joseph and in the cradle, where the baby Jesus is to lay, I place the precious, albeit mangy, Singy with his shifty eyes turned to his supposed stepfather, Joseph
At the end is the big production number where we dance to Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and I instruct the boy who played Joseph to toss Singy into the air for a grand finale. That is when, carried away by the music, the end of the play, the bag of candy kisses that I had backstage, the jubilation that we are done, Singy becomes the holiday equivalent of a hot potato. He is catapulted over and over again by greedy little fists that punch him, volleyball style, higher and higher into the air. When I finally get him back his beard is torn, the pom-pom from his hat is hanging by a thread, his belt is gone and the stitching on the side of his left leg has come unraveled.
That night when we get home my mother salvages his leg with thread and glues his beard back to his face. When I wake up in the morning I see that she has placed him at the end of my bed, his shifty little gaze looking off toward the wall. I sit up and stare at Singy; I demand that he look at me. Under the covers I rattle my feet so he moves. His squat little body tilts to the right, as does his gaze. Look at me, I say again.
Understandably, our long and tortured history not withstanding, that painted twinkle in his eye gave me a glimmer of hope.
But he refused.