Behind the beard

(Disclaimer: This column is not intended for audience members under the age of 12 or anyone who believes that X Boxes are made by cheery elves in a remote workshop on the frozen tundra.)

It may be the season to be jolly, but I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable every year come December. Bear in mind, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, up until I had kids, it was just like any other month, except for more liver damage. Then it all changed, and this half-baked, portly, adult fabrication in a red coat and white beard was forced upon me.

That’s right, at the risk of spoiling it for everyone, I’m talking about the big guy with the bulbous nose (I don’t care what anyone says, I still think it’s a gin blossom) and affinity for matching red velvet suits. He goes by several aliases, but let’s just say his initials are “S.C.”

Don’t get me wrong, aside from the fact that we’ve convinced small children it’s perfectly acceptable to allow strange, “jolly” old men to sneak into their houses late at night, the old guy’s got his good points. You better believe I’ve gotten plenty of mileage out of the lump of coal line. It’s just that if there’s one thing I’m an abysmal failure at (more so than most, anyway) it’s lying. Even the little white ones, like “that’s a great color” or “no one’s going to notice but you” are tough for me. And well, let’s face it. This whole S.C. concoction is a doozy. Sure, I think someone back in the day was on the right track. In fact, I’ll even venture to say, black-mailing bad children with a mythical, gift-bearing figure is pure genius. But then, like everything else, some marketing schlep got a hold of it and next thing you know, we’ve got flying reindeer with glowing noses, talking snowmen, giant electrical snowglobes and perpetually happy toy-making midgets. I mean, I’ve heard of bad acid trips that were less scary. And to be quite honest (which, as I’ve mentioned, is something I excel at), yes, I do get a little nervous when being cross-examined by a 4-year-old on the finer points of S.C.’s ESP abilities. Suffice to say, “because” stopped working years ago, and lord only knows how long the “S.C. hotline” and “UPS” will hold.

Perhaps my skepticism (I prefer “keen sense of reason”) all stems from my own falling out with the fat guy up north. Through no fault of my own, I was jaded on the whole thing at a young age. It was Christmas 1975, and my two older sisters lovingly took my tiny hand in theirs and escorted me to the downstairs hall closet. Then, in the brutally masochistic fashion that only an older, more experienced sibling can wield, they flung open the door. There, in the dim half-light of a late December afternoon, I could make out the unmistakable shape of shopping bags. I watched with wide eyes as my oldest sister climbed atop the enormous heap and dug in, like an archaeologist unearthing King Tut’s tomb. “Look. Here’s my ‘Mystery Date,’” she said, head burrowed deep in the bag, arm waving her find. “And here’s the ‘Baby Alive’ that Megan wanted. And this is Matt’s King Kong action figure. And this, this is yours,” she continued, holding up the Skipper Barbie Doll I had pined for. Meanwhile, my other sister stood guard at the door, arms smugly folded, nodding her head in agreement. “Mom and dad are S.C.,” she exclaimed, as if she had just unraveled one of the world’s great mysteries.

Sure enough, it was all there. Donnie Osmond records, Easy Bake ovens, Light Brights, Matchbox race tracks and enough Legos to build a luxury Malibu cottage for Skipper.

I was dumbfounded, although I’ll admit, up until then, I’d had my suspicions. Particularly when each trip to the mall yielded a vastly different man in red, and sometimes two in the same outing. And somehow, my 5-year-old mind couldn’t quite wrap itself around a global circuit in one night or reconcile why my best friend up the street got her gifts neatly wrapped in fancy paper and bows while ours were haphazardly heaped into piles.

Of course, being of such a young age, I was far too excited to consider the long-term ramifications such a discovery would have on my tender psyche. But, several years later, as I found myself answering questions about why S.C. doesn’t just buy his presents at “Target Mart” like everyone else, I began to realize that the sour apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

So, in a last ditch effort to save his innocence, even if it meant several more years of blatant deception on my part, I enlisted him for a trip on the Polar Express. I’d seen the way he was mesmerized into a helpless vegetative state by the movie, hypnotically nodding that “yes,” he did believe. But no sooner had he arrived at the “North Pole,” then he began to detect the smell of a rotten sugar plum. He looked out the window, scanning the familiar horizon like a young Sherlock Holmes in superman jammies. “Hey,” he protested, growing wiser by the second. “I know where we are.” And when the bearded imposter in the red suit and his pointy-toed sidekick boarded the train, the gig was up. “This stuff is all fake, and those guys are in costumes,” he declared.

Suddenly, I was ashamed at myself for forwarding such elaborate propaganda, to not only my own flesh and blood, but children everywhere. I had basically been lying to him since the day he was born, would he ever be able to trust me again? I looked deep in his eyes for forgiveness and came clean. “You’re right, buddy. It’s not real,” I confessed. Although I was relieved that at least now I could stop living a lie, I was also saddened that this magical, innocent and easily manipulated time of his life had ended so abruptly. No more vegetable blackmail at the dinner table; no more fake phone calls to the North Pole to discuss jumping on the bed; no more sibling harmony forced by the prospect of a coal-filled stocking. But, most importantly, I was hoping that, unlike my premature rude awakening, he could ride the Santa train for at least a few more years.

“That’s OK, mom,” he continued, taking the news surprisingly well for a 4-year-old who had just learned the truth about the biggest conspiracy ever predicated on modern childkind. “But next Christmas, I want to go on the real Polar Express.”

–Missy Votel



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