The dark Dodge “Journey” still had some sheen from the factory finish. Five kids surrounded it, each with a large brush and a paint jar—red, blue, green, yellow and white. Their job was to un-detail the car as fast as they could, and as ghoulishly as their imagination let them: no cutouts to follow, no stencils to constrict—just slap, dash, twirl and giggle! When I passed them on my morning walk they were sorting their “palettes.” On the way back twenty minutes later, they were almost done. The owner stood by trying to appear disinterested, but one could tell that the transformation pleased her.
I’m glad it wasn’t my car! Looked like a plaything with all those paint smears. While I contemplated the carnage, something stirred in my memory: Yeah. Art follows life. Maybe it was the time of year—Christmas was “around the corner”! The wanton desecration of the car prodded me into thinking of a jolly fat man in a red suit who has also been un-detailed. Mercilessly.
How and when did it all happen? It may have started when Jimmie Boyd threw the first bucket of paint at Saint Nick with his song about that Christmas Eve kiss an inquisitive lad caught “Santa Claus” bestowing on his mommy! That was in 1952, a time when Mother Church could act decisively, and did, banning the song from a few American sees.
Perhaps Phyllis McGinley, the American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (ironically, the author of many children’s books), may have inadvertently flung the next spattering. In her 1956 book, The Year without a Santa Claus, she wrote about a physically burnt-out Santa who decided to skip his Christmas Eve run. His wife impersonates him with hilarious consequences. The book became a TV special in 1974: around the same time we were being warned by our leaders of the dangers of television. We didn’t listen.
Then the folks from the print and electronic media with their many “Know-It-All’s” and their private agendas, began to spin their vexations against the status quo. It was a time when heresies flourished, and Santa Claus was a soft target. It was labelled a “lie;” what’s more, children’s psyches could be marred permanently, and parents might even lose their children’s trust. Psychologists, psychoanalysts, other intellectuals—they were all aboard with paint and paint gear, determined to mar the sheen of Saint Nick.
All of this meant nothing to this village boy growing up in Crooked Tree in the 40’s/50’s. To us, Santa Claus was at the heart of Christmas. He appeared in our church’s yuletide pageants, on Christmas cards, and on magazine pages pasted onto our kitchen walls to keep out the draft and bugs.
Next in importance was the Christmas tree. Our dad took two of us with him to find and cut that perfect tree. It had to be carried home—no dragging. There was no electricity in the village then. After the tree was positioned and “trimmed” (tinsel, acorns and anything flashy that was at hand), he hung his big flashlight directly over it. On my oath, the effect has never been equaled. Santa left our gifts in stockings hung from pegs and bedposts —not under the tree.
By the time I got to high school, Santa Claus was a distant memory—a harmless passage to late childhood and teenage super awareness. We all saw through the ruse, and Jolly Saint Nick became just a stored password to maturity. No one appeared psychologically scarred from the journeys with him and his elves. We were armored for this new post-Primary experience, where our concern was grades, gender rails and graduation. No un-detailing from us.
One of the things no one can deny is that at a certain age, children wallow in fantasy. Populate any story with ghosts or magic, and they are all ears. Just watch a little girl at play with her doll, or a boy grooming his stick horse. This is the reason I believe there’s need to always have a Santa Claus.