I don’t remember ever seriously believing in Santa during my childhood. I considered him at best a benign if inscrutable fictional character, a belief I kept secret even from my classmates. For some reason, I couldn’t understand the philosophy behind his global yuletide generosity, though I did enjoy receiving the alleged fruits of that generosity every Christmas morning in my family’s suburban living room (thus the secrecy, at least to my kin; I always had little to say to my classmates in general, and vice versa).
On Christmas Eve in 1973, I sat on my living room couch as a pajamaed eight-year-old sleepless with giddy anticipation over the next day’s haul. My two sisters (aged six and five) and my brother (aged two), also in their nightclothes, bounced around the house in similar fits of greed.
Then at 9:30 PM, my father received a very special phone call from a certain rotund bearded bloke at the North Pole. After ten seconds my father hung up the kitchen phone and told us children “Santa Claus is on his way” and that we should go to bed immediately and let Mr. Claus deliver our presents in peace. I felt even giddier. Although I knew it was actually my uncle who’d called (I’d secretly seen my parents discuss the ruse a few minutes earlier), the familial excitement of that call knocked out my incredulity.
Then suddenly, a clamor arose in the darkness outside. I flew to the living room window and saw two figures running up the sidewalk. Oh boy! Have Santa’s elves arrived? Has Santa himself arrived?
My exhilaration vanished a few moments later when I saw the figures start knocking over the luminaria, those lit Christmas candles in white paper bags, that lined the outside of the house. Santa’s elves were actually teenage vandals.
As my father yelled out the front door at those pesky kids, I returned to my previous Clausian atheism. I don’t know if my siblings witnessed the bag-knocking. Nonetheless, no one in my family ever discussed the incident again.
First published, in slightly different form, in the Pittsburgh City Paper, December 16-23, 1998. Reprinted with permission.