The Red Menace

Santa, be gone for goodness’ sake.
Back Home Again, Indianapolis Monthly, December 2011

It is difficult to be objective about someone you’ve known all your life, but allow me to relate, in as dispassionate a manner as possible, my well-founded suspicions of Santa Claus. From the photographic evidence available, it appears we first met when I was 5 years old. The encounter took place on the square of my hometown, in front of the Danville State Bank, in early December of 1966. Though he introduced himself as Santa Claus from the North Pole, I would later learn his real name was Vernon McClure, and that when he was not engaged in identity theft, he operated the town’s dime store. Deception is not the basis for a positive relationship, so Santa and I were off on the wrong foot from the get-go. I would soon discover  that Mr. McClure falsified his identity in order to generate business for his dime store, a violation of the public trust from which I have still not recovered.

Thus our relationship began with a lie, and it did not improve. Over my fervent protests, I was placed on Santa’s lap, ironically by the same mother who had for so many years cautioned me to beware of strangers. As I struggled to make my escape, Santa held me tighter, badgering me with questions.

“Now, what would you like from Santa?” he asked.

“To be left alone,” I answered, trying desperately to squirm away.

“Sit still so I can take your picture,” my mother ordered. Santa held me tighter, pressing my face into his beard, which reeked of mothballs.

“Santa thinks you should take your mommy and daddy to the dime store,” he persisted.

“Tell them Santa promised you a new bicycle.”

He finally released me, but not before sternly warning me to be a nice boy. “Santa sees everything,” he said. “He knows who’s been naughty or nice, and he doesn’t visit bad boys and girls.” A Peeping Tom hardly seemed a qualified judge of morality, and my poor opinion of him grew.

A few weeks later, my mother said Santa would be visiting me. “He’ll come see you tonight,” she said, pulling the covers over me. “He visits all the children after they’re in bed.”

It was not our custom to lock our doors, but that night, after everyone had retired, I slipped downstairs, dug out the skeleton key from the junk drawer in the kitchen, and locked the doors. But Santa, like many shady characters I have known, was not deterred by a locked door. When I awoke the next morning, evidence of his infiltration was apparent. I inspected the doorframe for jimmy marks.

“He came in through the chimney,” my mother suggested.

I studied the fireplace opening, wondering how the portly man I had met had wiggled through such a small gap. Then I remembered something my father had told me about snakes and rats and their ability to squeeze through the slightest opening. Malleability is a common trait among the sinister.

“Oh, look what Santa brought you,” my mother said, holding aloft a three-pack of tighty-whities.

It seemed then, and now, to be an inappropriate gift for an old man to bestow upon a young boy.

“Look what he brought your sister!” my mother gushed on. “A nightgown!”

There was, of course, no new bicycle. Not that I had expected a man so well-schooled in deception to keep his word. I unwrapped my last gift—a Roman Catholic version of Monopoly. Instead of landing in jail, you were sent to purgatory, where you could be released only after saying three Our Fathers and two Hail Marys.

“Isn’t Santa nice to get you all these wonderful gifts?” my mother said.

I’ve never understood my mother’s naivete, nor her doting attachment to this man, which persists to this day. A December never passes without her asking me, “What would you like Santa to bring you this year?”

For the past decade I have told her, “Not a thing. I have everything that I could possibly need or want. I don’t want anything from Santa.”

She is not discouraged, and moves on to my children: “I bet you boys would like a visit from Santa!” Like me, they are deeply suspicious of old men who slink around in the dark and urge little children to sit on their laps. And although they politely decline, he seems to show up anyway.

The first sighting of Santa Claus, in a form recognizable today, occurred in 1823 when The Troy Sentinel of Troy, New York, warned its readers of Santa’s propensity to enter children’s homes without permission. Regrettably, the safeguards were not then in place to properly protect children against such threats, and before Claus’s true danger could be realized, he had, by virtue of his charismatic personality, gained numerous and influential supporters. By the time I met him in 1966, no jury in the land would have convicted him. Indeed, he had gotten so bold as to ransack cupboards, helping himself to milk and cookies, but this seemed only to endear him to others, some of whom encouraged this thievery by placing the refreshments in plain view to save him the effort. Now he is 190 years old, and I’m not optimistic he can change his ways after all this time.

Christmas is upon us, and I will see him again this month, lurking around toy departments, making himself the center of attention wherever he alights, promising more than he can deliver, terrifying young ones, and sneaking a smoke at the loading dock out back of department stores.

But that’s not the worst of it. Captivated by his feigned jollity, we will overlook the wanton exploitation of his workers—short men with deformed ears, smuggled in from God knows where, pressed into grinding labor the months before Christmas with little hope of remuneration. As for Santa’s reindeer, it appears even PETA has been charmed by this slave driver. Where is the outcry when slightly built reindeer are harnessed side-by-side and forced to fly? Onward he pushes them, relentlessly from rooftop to rooftop, visiting every home in one night, solely to preserve his reputation for on-time delivery. They collapse at night’s end, gasping for oxygen, while the tyrant who recklessly lashed them forward—“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”—is once again hailed for his generosity.

I intend to raise these matters with Mr. Claus the week following Christmas, after he has had ample time to rest, and I have exchanged all the things he brought me for stuff I really want.


Illustration by Ryan Snook.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.