It starts every year about this time, without fail: grownups begin to threaten young people over Santa Claus. The air is full of dire predictions about what might happen Christmas Eve if children aren’t something akin to saintly. It is the bludgeon used to produce clean plates at mealtime, tidy rooms, impeccable manners, and timely homework.
Of course, adults have been putting the evil eye on children’s behavior since time immemorial. My grandmother, for example, had a special word of terror for kids who trampled her flowers, tracked mud on her rug, or swung too high in her porch swing. “Nasty stinkin’ young’uns,” she bark, “I’m gonna pinch your heads off!” Mama Cooper was a sweet and kind person who never would have pinched the head off a radish, much less a child, but she could strike fear into her grandchildren. We were careful around her flowers, her rug, and her porch swing.
So the grownup weapon of fear is a time-honored tradition. But the direst predictions of ruin and misfortune, it seems, are always saved for the Christmas season. “If you don’t clean up your plate, Santa Claus won’t come.” “Act ugly one more time, buster, and you’ll find a bag of switches under the tree.” Well, baloney.
I came to my senses about the Santa Claus business when I met Jake Tibbetts, a crotchety old newspaper editor who appeared in my imagination one day and then took over the pages of my first novel, Home Fires Burning. Jake had a built-in bull-hockey detector and could spot nonsense a mile away. Jake’s grandson Lonnie lived with Jake and his wife Pastine, and when Christmas rolled around, Mama Pastine put the pox on Lonnie about Santa’s upcoming visit.
At the breakfast table one morning, Lonnie let a mild oath slip from his ten-year-old lips. Mama Pastine pounced. “Santa Claus has no truck with blasphemers,” she said.
“Hogwash,” Daddy Jake snorted. “Santa Claus makes no moral judgments. His sole responsibility is to make young folks happy. Even bad ones. Even TERRIBLE ones.”
“Then why,” Lonnie asked, “does he brings switches to some kids?”
Jake replied, “This business about switches is pure folklore. Did you ever know anybody who really got switches for Christmas? Even one?”
Lonnie couldn’t think of a single one.
“Right,” said Daddy Jake. “I have been on this earth for sixty-four years, and I have encountered some of the meanest, vilest, smelliest, most undeserving creatures the Good Lord ever allowed to creep and crawl. And not one of them ever got switches for Christmas. Lots of ‘em were told they’d get switches. Lots of ‘em laid in their beds trembling through Christmas Eve, just knowing they’d find a stocking full of hickory branches come morning. But you know what they found? Goodies. Even the worst of ‘em got some kind of goodies. And for one small instant, every child who lives and breathes is happy and good, even if he is as mean as a snake every other instant. That’s what Santa Claus is for, anyhow.”
Well, Daddy Jake said it better than I ever could. I believe with all my heart that he is right, just as I have always believed fervently in Santa Claus and still do. Santa Claus is for real. Just look in a kid’s eyes and you’ll see him.
Grownups are wrong when they threaten kids with the loss of Santa. We adult types need to grant the kids their unfettered moment of magic. If they act up, threaten to pinch their heads off. But leave Santa out of it.