The first Christmas holiday after my parents’ divorce, our father led my siblings and me through the stuffy corridor to his apartment. He stopped us short of entering, and instructed us to wait in the hallway. My siblings and I waited, swaddled and sweating in our scarves. Then, with a twinkle in his eye that shown all the way to Bethlehem, Pops appeared at the door and ushered us inside.
The apartment was dark, except for a warm red glow illuminating the sitting area.
I saw Santa, but I could say nothing.
This Santa, or one of its many million incarnations, was typically found at garden centers or department stores in the aisle marked “Yard Ornaments” or “Outdoor Lighting.” Not “Living Room Fixtures” as my father had seen fit.
And yet there in his living room, standing all of 3’5”, Santa shone. A bright red beacon, arms outstretched, proffering a sackload of waxy, colorful presents. Santa, who, among the rest of my father’s furnishings – from the Ethan Allen Mid-Life Bachelor Collection – stood out like a garden gnome at Versailles.
My father crowed, “It’s SANTA!!” as we stood around the yard ornament in the living room, “Look at him! Isn’t he the jolliest fellow you ever beheld?”
I stood at a distance, my mind swirling with the significance of Santa. “Doesn’t anyone else find this INCREDIBLY SAD?!” I wanted to cry.
Our father was living in a one bedroom apartment whose lobby smelled like armpits. Just last year, we had all enjoyed Christmas in a large living room, charmed by the smell of pine from our real Christmas tree. Suddenly, I felt as though we had been exiled to a trailer park, one where yard ornaments had to be kept indoors.
“Yeah,” Pops said, “Maybe once it snows we’ll put him out on your porch.”
Santa never got any fresh air that year.
My first semester away at school, mired in final exams and completely oblivious to the holiday season’s arrival, I called my father during a study break.
As Pops reported on all of the festivities, his voice crescendoed, “And, of course, Santa’s waiting for you.”
I choked at the thought of my brother and sister eating Christmas cookies and watching Claymation specials in their pajamas – all within Santa’s jocund gaze. I was so homesick.
After all of my exams were turned in that first semester, I came home to friends with photo albums and boys under mistletoes. But I also came home to Santa, whose hollow plastic barrel looked good enough to hug. What once was an emblem of my sadness had become a token of home for the holidays.
During my last year of college, my father remarried. Julie brought two cats to the relationship. My father brought three children. And one Santa. They moved into a home on a tony street of white light holiday schemes.
One day, Julie came home to Santa on her porch.
Try as she might to convince my father, her new husband, that he was single-handedly bringing down the property values for the whole neighborhood, Pops could not be dissuaded.
This did not come as a surprise to my siblings and me. Pops is not a particularly recalcitrant person. It’s just that he so fervently loves the holiday season and guards the spirit of the season as sacred.
Last year, I received a call at work from my father during the day, an oddity, which caused for alarm.
“I’m in bad shape,” he said. He was on his way to the hospital. He had fainted in an elevator at work and now he couldn’t keep food down. The doctors discovered a hole in his esophagus due to stress. He underwent a blood transfusion for severe anemia, and his esophagus was patched. While my father was recovering from surgery, I spoke with Julie on the phone. She had been hard-pressed to get my father to a doctor after his initial fainting in the elevator.
I asked her how she cajoled him to take time off work to go seek medical help.
“I threatened to call off Christmas,” she explained. “I said, ‘I’m not putting up the tree. No cards. No gifts. No Santa.’”
The last ultimatum had been the prompt that he needed.
Santa arrived late to his post on the porch that year. The neighbors probably thought Pops had retired him for good. Upon his reinstatement, the neighbors balked.
But since Santa may very well be the single most important reason my father is still alive, Santa is going nowhere. My family and I – Julie included – have embraced Santa as our own. He is our home team mascot, and no one boos for his home team.
Santa’s cherry nose has faded since he first came into our living room and our lives, but no amount of burned out bulbs, or the sneers of white lights-loving neighbors will ever banish him from our hearts.
Santa represents for us the childlike whimsy that Pops loves about holidays. The spirit of the season which is most palpable for him. The love and joy that are meant to be held right out in front, right out on the front porch.
This piece originally appeared in the Dorchester Reporter in December 2007.