When I was a little kid Christmas was the most important thing in my life. I loved everything about it. I loved the music, the lights, the church service, spending time with my family, spending time with my friends, like I said, I loved all of it. Christmas, with its mythology, and its mystery was what the magic of childhood was all about for me. Sure, my birthday was always nice but there was something about Christmas that was different. I suppose that something was Santa. The fact that there was a man that watched us, that judged us, kept track of what we did, and who rewarded us or punished us out there somewhere and no one stopped him fascinated me. Don’t get me wrong, I believed in him, I sorta had to or else, according to my older sister who insisted that once you stopped believing that you stopped getting presents, but the idea that this man, this god, existed was incredible. Any questions I had were answered with kiddie books, television specials, or old songs and nothing else. It was as if he existed above and beyond anything but God Himself. So, there I was, a seven-year-old just a few weeks shy of eight and as excited by Santa as I was just as frightened by him. That fascination ruled my childhood, until I was seven and then that fateful Christmas Eve came and changed everything, for all of us.
We were not a rich family, not by a long shot, but dad had a good job and mom did some floral work for a funeral home and they did OK. We weren’t rich but me and sis never wanted for anything and mom and dad seemed happy as far as I could tell. Christmas meant a lot to our family. We weren’t really religious, going to church on Easter, on Christmas Eve, and a couple times in the summer, but mom and dad drove into us that this was a time of year for giving and of honoring the sacrifice of the Savior. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that Savior guy but they told me that Santa served the Savior and I figured, well, if that was the case then he must be a pretty good guy. Late at night sometimes though I have to admit that the idea that the man that watched and judged me was serving someone else, well, that gave me the creeps because it meant someone was watching him watch me. It was a lot for a little kid to worry about so I tried to push all of that out of my head to focus on the good things about the holiday. Every Christmas there were presents under the tree and we’d all go out together and pick out and buy something for a family from town that weren’t doing as well as we were and that was part of the joy of the season for us. Christmas Eve night, after the midnight service, we came home, said a prayer, and then went to bed with Christmas music playing on the radio all night and the tree left on as well. I would lay in bed listening to that faded holiday music, staring out my bedroom door at the glow of the lights and slowly I’d drift off, wondering whether Santa would think I’d been a good boy or not that year.
There had been no plan to stay up to see Santa the night I did. I had been lying in bed, thinking, my mind bouncing between thoughts of presents and thoughts of coal – or worse – when I noticed someone go past my door and out towards the living room, where the tree was. None of us put presents out before Christmas Day, mom saying that the time between Midnight and seven were Jesus’ and that our presents could wait. I didn’t know what that meant but I went along with it because so long as I stayed in bed until seven in the morning there were presents out there waiting. One year my sister had gotten up early, when I was still really little, and because of that there’d been no presents until noon that day. We didn’t get up early after that. My first thought was that Paula was out there, snooping for some reason, and so I was up immediately, wanting to make sure she didn’t get us both punished. I got up and out of bed as quietly as I could and slowly padded out of my room and down the hall. The closer I got to the living room the brighter and louder things got, the hall lit up in a rainbow of warm colors and sounds from the tree and radio. Even then, knowing I was risking trouble I couldn’t stop the lightning that I felt in my heart and hands as I approached the living room.
There was carpet through the house which softened my steps but I felt like there were eyes on me just the same. A chill ran through me as I thought of Santa watching me then, wherever he was, and knowing I was awake during Jesus’ time. Knowing and judging. But I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop moving. It was as if someone else was in control of me and driving me forward. In two more steps I was at the end of the hallway and I finally got control of myself and stopped, looked around, then leaned my head forward and started to speak when I saw that my sister wasn’t alone. My mouth dropped open as my eyes adjusted to the blinking lights of the large tree that sat in the far corner of the room and I saw who the two figures were.
I closed my eyes and shook my head like I had seen people do in the movies.
I opened them and looked again.
It was him.
A large man, taller than dad, which put him close to seven feet tall. He wasn’t fat and jolly but looked stocky and thick, his stance wide. Sitting on the floor beside him was a worn black sack. I watched as he approached my mom, removing a sequined green glove, and held his hand out to her. His hand looked strong in the dim light and as her own small hand took it a shiver ran through me. Mom wasn’t a tall woman, barely standing over five feet, but he dwarfed her, making her look like a child. I closed my eyes again and shook my head. I had to be wrong.
I suddenly remembered that silly old song about Mama kissing Santa Claus and realized that this was just dad. Dressed up and playing. I hadn’t seen right because of how dark it was and how much nervous energy I had. Dad. Geez. I opened my eyes and smiled at how stupid I had been. My smile dropped as I looked again and saw mom kiss the back of the large man’s hand.
It wasn’t dad.
It wasn’t Paula.
It was my mom and a stranger.
It was mom and Santa.
The cold reality of the full scene poured into my brain – Santa was real.
He was real and he was here and he was trying to kiss my mother.
I felt a scream well up in my throat but before it could get free, I was grabbed from behind and pulled back into the hall. I turned, horrified into silence, and saw my father, the rumor of scruff on his face and his eyes bloodshot and ringed in darkness.
“No. No. You can’t see that. You’re not meant to see that.” Dad whispered.
I opened my mouth to speak but dad pushed his hand against my mouth to stop me.
“No. Come with me, into your room. I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you everything.”
Saying that dad turned and headed for my room, stopping only for a moment to look over his shoulder, not at me but towards the living room, before disappearing into darkness. I turned and looked into the living room and saw the large man embracing my mother as he leaned down towards her, eyes closed. He had a hand on her side and his right hand I couldn’t see but knew it was on her hip. Or lower. I saw mom turn her gaze to me and watched as a tear ran down her face then I retreated into the hallway and into my room.
Dad was waiting for me.
“Paula doesn’t know, and I beg you not to tell her. I know you have questions but please, just listen. OK.”
“I found out about Santa when I was your age. All I had wanted in the world was proof that my brother, your uncle, was wrong, and that Santa was real. I waited behind the tree, hidden by presents, for him to come. I was asleep when I heard the sound of bells jingling. I looked out between the branches of our tree, all lit up in red, and saw the man in the suit. It was the best moment in my life. It was proof. Proof that the story was real. I started to step out from behind the presents and tree, to speak to him, when I saw my mom. She looked like she was in a dream, her hair in curlers, her tattered blue robe open revealing something red and silk that showed more skin than I had ever seen before. I felt myself blush. She went to Santa and he held his hand out to her and she kissed it and he grabbed her, rough, like he owned her. I watched them kiss, watched him grab and hold her in a way I had never seen dad do and then I closed my eyes. I had seen to much. Too much. I heard the bells again and they seemed to get louder, louder, louder and then I felt hot breath on me and I opened my eyes and looked up and there he was, as large as god, bent and staring at me with dead eyes, empty eyes. As if he saw something but not me. ‘Shhhhhh,’ he told me, then reached towards me but my mom grabbed him and begged him ‘no!’ and he stopped and turned and left me and I watched as he put an arm around her waist, put a finger to his nose and then they were gone. Just gone. That’s why you never met your Gramma Ann. She’s, she’s just gone, son. Gone. With him. One of his…brides.”
Dad was crying. Shaking. He took a breath and continued.
“Santa is real. Christ I wish he wasn’t, but he is. I dunno what he is, what he really is, but he’s real. How many people know he’s real I can’t tell you but it’s not everyone. He doesn’t come see everyone. Not anymore. Maybe there was a time when he could, thousands of years ago, but he can’t anymore. Heck, maybe he can. I dunno. I think I have met three people in my life that knew he existed and they were other kids whose mothers disappeared at Christmas just like mine had. They knew. I think, I suspect he takes a new bride every year. When he visits your home he leaves presents, special presents. When he leaves with a bride, he leaves something…else.” I opened my mouth to ask him what it was but dad shook his head in response.
“I don’t know what he leaves, if that’s what you were going to ask. I saw the present, clear as day, but dad opened it that Christmas and it disappeared afterwards without me ever seeing what was in it. I just don’t know. We knew he was coming this year because your mom started having the dreams. Dreams of him. Dreams just of him watching her and over the last month he got closer in the dreams until tonight. Tonight, he came. She told me about the dreams and I knew what it meant. What it means. I never told her about my mother. Never. And I never told her what might happen tonight. I don’t think I needed to. I think…I think she knew.” He grew silent.
“But…is he going to take her?”
“I don’t know, son. I just don’t know. I know enough not to try to stop him. There are stories, if you look for them, about disappearances and deaths on Christmas Eve. Stories passed down in families and in the news. Stories that tell you that you shouldn’t try to stop him. You just pray that he doesn’t decide to take your, your…” He sobbed then clamped his hand over his mouth quickly.
In a moment he spoke again.
“We just pray, son. We pray that he takes his kiss, what he usually comes for, that Christmas kiss, and nothing else. This is his holiday, we are his, and if we don’t do as he wants, as he demands then…” He grew silent again and we sat in the dark, sitting on my bed and waited silently.
Five, ten, twenty minutes went by and then we heard the sound of bells jingling and getting closer, and closer, and closer, then we heard them next door, in Paula’s room. Dad grabbed my hand. We held our breath and then heard the bells again and heavy strides moving down the hall. We heard mom scream and dad was up and out the door before I knew it. He ran down the hall and I sat on the bed, staring out into the hallway as the lights of the tree cycled through their colors. I sat listening to mom and dad as they screamed and moaned, the lights flashing red, purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and trying not to think of anything at all. Santa’s face forced itself into my mind. The long, thick beard, matted and yellow. His calloused hands. The one thick gray brow that crossed his forehead. The leering smile. The way he had looked at my mother, as if she was a thing. A possession. I thought of these things and I suddenly thought of Paula, my sister, and I started to cry.
My sister disappeared on Christmas Day when I was seven years old. We don’t know what happened. She was thirteen and headstrong and dad told the police that she had been upset about not getting something for Christmas that she really wanted and had threatened to run away because of it. I didn’t remember things that way but the more time has passed the more it sounds about right. The truer it becomes. It’s been twenty years since that night, dad is gone, mom is in an elderly home. We never celebrated another Christmas after that year. We put the decorations up. We shopped for a donation present. We went through the motions, but we never celebrated. Never gave or got gifts in the family. And we never went to church again. We did what we had to, and that was all. Because he was watching. He was always watching.
I never married. I never dated seriously. I never got close to anyone. Not women. I can’t tell you why. I just didn’t want to. I keep to myself, mostly. I go to see mom when I can but the later in the year it gets the quieter and more distant she gets. When Christmas finally comes these days I take time off of work, I hole up in my house with some liquor and a gun and I wait, and I wait, and I wait for a sign that Santa’s on his way.