I grew up experiencing three sides of Christmas Eve. The first side was developed as soon as I abandoned my terrible two’s and accepted that I didn’t know more than my parents (although I’d relapse into that emotional quagmire as a teenager). On my third birthday, armed with a vocabulary expanded sufficiently past “No” and “I want,” memories of powers that ruled the mystical world outside my crib began forming. The first major holiday following that third celebration of my birth was Christmas, therefore my first holiday memories are tied to that day.
Born to a Christian household, the concepts of Jesus Christ and Santa Claus arrived simultaneously when strings of brightly colored lights appeared on the eves of our house, a miniature nativity scene popped up in our front yard and flakes of pure white snow began falling at night. I didn’t grasp the difference between naughty and nice at three, but by five I realized my typical day contained a bit of both and I’d better keep naughty to a minimum or Santa would put me on the wrong list. I wondered if Jesus kept lists, too, since knowing if I’d been good or bad from wherever Jesus and Santa each spent their days seemed like a shared skill set. Between Sunday School and bedtime stories I understood that Jesus would be there in the end, but Santa made stops at our house every year. Whatever I planned for the short or long haul, I’d better stay on the straight and narrow.
The smell of freshly baked cookies placed on the end table beside a glass of cold milk each Christmas Eve remains with me to this day. Somehow those treats were gone in the morning and toys – some wrapped and some just positioned strategically under the Christmas tree with a little gift tag taped to them – appeared on Christmas morning. Sometimes there were clothes and books. Those were OK too. I checked the fireplace for sooty footprints or other evidence of Santa’s ingress or egress, but never found anything. By seven, I knew this Santa cat was a slick customer and I wasn’t going to catch him in action if he didn’t want to be caught.
I can’t recall exactly when I learned that baby Jesus grew up and left the manger and Santa Claus had contracted with my parents to make toy deliveries late at night on Christmas Eve. It seemed like a natural evolution of things within the limits of my understanding of the mystical link between real life and spirituality.
The second side of Christmas Eve was revealed somewhere around the time I was eight years old, laid bare by advanced Sunday School lessons and loose lips on the elementary school playground. Jesus was actually around all the time in His own way and Santa was a legend perpetuated by loving parents, Hallmark and the holiday shopping industrial complex. I accepted these realities with ease, because nothing much changed. In fact, I now had a direct gift list pipeline to the people who would actually buy my Christmas presents. No more petitioning some far-off entity to whom I was probably just another name on a list seemed like a better deal.
The third side of the Christmas holidays took shape in adulthood. At some point, I accepted responsibility for passing on to future generations the traditions of the first side of Christmas and all that I’ve learned since then. It’s an easy task with nice benefits, including that now I get to choose what to leave out for Santa Claus. For years I followed the cookies and milk tradition, but as my responsibilities for gift delivery increased I began kicking Santa treats up a notch. My transition to a more modern menu started with replacing milk with wine. Nice cheeses, gourmet meats and sometimes a short loaf of French bread or assortment of fresh crackers took the place of cookies. I like to think that if Santa came out of retirement and stopped by my place to make a Christmas Eve drop, he would approve.
Still think Santa is real? If so, you’ll want to monitor tonight’s deliveries on the Official NORAD Santa Tracker. There’s a part of me that wants to hedge the bet that he still keeps a list and is trying to be good, just in case.
Merry Christmas! What will you be leaving out for Santa, traditional or modern?