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Seeing Santa. December 23, 2012

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Today’s “Pickles” cartoon was priceless. (“Pickles” is a gently funny strip and one of our favorites.) It reminded our friend Ben of one of my most cherished childhood memories. In the cartoon, the grandson asks his grandfather if he’s ever seen Santa Claus. The grandfather replies that he saw Santa when he was about six. He heard a noise outside, went to see what it was, and saw a fat, white-bearded old man in a red suit walking through the snow toward the house. Then he notes that he thought it was Santa, but it might have been his grandfather in his red long johns coming back from the outhouse.

When our friend Ben was six, I too had an encounter with Santa. It was Christmas Eve, and all of us were in bed, when a loud crash shook the whole house. My Mama, who could certainly think on her feet, rushed into my room and announced that it was just Santa landing on the roof and if I looked, there would be no presents for me! Naturally, I didn’t look. But after that, nothing could shake my belief that there really was a Santa Claus. I was probably 12 before I finally learned that a bus had crashed into our ditch. (No one was hurt, but it sure made a racket.)

One never knows what will enhance the Christmas experience. Maybe it will be Grandpa in his red long johns; maybe it will even be a bus swerving into a ditch. But whatever the case, our friend Ben is all for it. Childhood memories of Santa are far too precious to pass up.

‘Tis the season… December 7, 2011

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…to be exhausted, and exhilarated. Silence Dogood here. Today, I decorated our living room for Christmas. It took me five hours, and that’s without so much as a five-minute break. And mind you, our friend Ben had already set up the tree and hung the wreath over the mantel. Not to mention hauling 12 Xerox boxes of ornaments down from the attic. And setting up our German schwiboggen, a delightful wooden winter scene illuminated by tiny white lights.

What could have taken five hours, you’re asking? Well, first I had to decorate the fireplace. Of course the stockings—our vintage stockings and stockings for our three cats and black German shepherd, Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special—had to be hung by the chimney with care. But then I created a display that completely covered the mantel, followed by one that covered the base of the fireplace, our wood holder, and our fireplace tool stand. (Poor Santa! I’ll know he’s arrived—that, or one of the cats has jumped up on the mantel—by a cascade of crashing ornaments, and a subsequent supply of switches and ashes in all our stockings.) I just hope we don’t have another power failure and actually have to light a fire in the woodstove!

Then it was on to the tree. I like to create layers of ornaments, so that people (including us) feel that they could look at it forever and still not see everything. It’s pure magic to see all the ornaments in the flicker of tiny white lights. We have inherited, been gifted with, and bought new and vintage ornaments over the years—thus the 12 boxes—and every one has meaning for us. But let me just say that unearthing them all, while enchanting, is not for the faint of heart. And then of course I have to decide exactly where to place each one for best effect.

Finally, the tree was done, every ornament in place. It stands beside the fireplace, and the effect of the scene, with white lights ablaze on the wreath and tree, is all that I could hope. But the real scene-stealer this year is on the other side of the fireplace, and it’s all thanks to our friend Ben.

A few years ago, I’d bought a Christmas church from a place that sells vintage ornaments. I have no idea if it dates from the ’40s or ’50s, but it’s about a foot tall, covered with white “stucco” and glitter to sparkle like snow, and has a nightlight-like bulb inside to shine through the “stained-glass” windows.

I also don’t know what people originally did with these, but I bought a rectangle of white cotton batting, also dusted with glitter, and set the church on the batting under the tree to create a tableau. It came with a white picket fence (metal, of course, not plastic) for the front yard, and I’d bought a number of vintage bottle-brush trees, including two with ornaments to flank the church’s front door, to add some landscaping.

Unfortunately, last year, the box containing the church failed to materialize—we always misplace a few boxes every year, and sadly, this one is no exception—and by this morning, OFB had forgotten all about the church. But he was enchanted by it. He insisted that we give it a more prominent location so it didn’t have to compete with all the presents for attention. As it happens, we have a wooden chest on the other side of the fireplace, and he suggested that I set it up on top of the chest.

I did, and it looked nice, but given its sudden prominence, I felt that it could use  more color. Then I had what a friend’s mother immortally referred to as a rush of brains to the head.

Last year, OFB and I had been fortunate enough to find a black German shepherd Christmas ornament. Naturally, we think it looks just like Shiloh, sitting with a pink tongue hanging happily out, and adorned with a cheerful red-and-green Christmas scarf. And this year, I’d found a red sleigh ornament in a bag of vintage ornaments from Goodwill. The scale of both was perfect for the church scene. I set the sleigh near the church door and put the Shiloh ornament in the sleigh. 

Since the Shiloh ornament is dark, it tends to get lost on the tree, but now it’s front and center where we can enjoy it every time we pass by. And enjoy it we will! I can’t wait until OFB gets home and can see for himself.

Fortunately, we’ve already decorated the front of the house. Now it’s “just” a question of wrapping presents and setting them under the tree—another three hours at least—and decorating our kitchen table (we don’t have a dining room). Wrapping presents is not my favorite chore, but it does have one advantage: You’ll realize immediately if you’ve shortchanged or, gasp, forgotten someone, and mercifully, there’s still plenty of time to do something about it.

I still have one more scarf to knit, and Christmas treats to buy and make, and of course, packages to mail and Christmas cards to write. But right now, I’m relaxing in the glow of the tree and wreath, listening to Christmas music while heavenly balsam incense burns in the background, bringing the fragrance of Christmas to the whole house. Everything is perfect. Everything is magic. Everything is Christmas. It doesn’t get better than this.

               ‘Til next time,

                            Silence

Have you seen Santa? December 29, 2010

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Our friend Ben has always been a big believer in Santa Claus. (Search for “I believe in Santa Claus: A true story by our friend Ben” in our search bar at upper right to find out why.) But this season, the Santa I didn’t see was the one standing ringing his bell beside the Salvation Army kettle.

Normally, during the Christmas season, Silence Dogood and I encounter Salvation Army Santas in the entryways to every local grocery, outside pharmacies and department stores, pretty much everywhere you might find yourself as you shop or run errands around town. But this year, there was a distinct absence of Salvation Army bells. Not one of our local groceries, pharmacies, or shops had a Salvation Army Santa posted outside. The lone one we encountered was outside the Moravian Book Shop in (comparatively) distant Bethlehem, PA.

Don’t tell me the Grinch stole Santa and his kettle this year, or that—gasp—the Salvation Army decided it couldn’t afford to send Santas out into the world. Our friend Ben and Silence always pitied those cold, shivering souls, but they were part of our Christmas, reminding us of, as Charles Dickens put it, “those who were in need of warmth and common necessities.” We would hate for them to become another memory of Christmases past.

The Santa-free zone?! November 10, 2010

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It’s not even Thanksgiving, and Santa’s already hogging the headlines. Every year, like all of you, our friend Ben witnesses the struggle between those who would like to preserve the magic and/or the religious aspect of Christmas versus those who view it as an opportunity to fill their coffers for another year. “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” billboards crop up around here almost as fast as the “See Santa at the mall!” ads. But going so far as to ban Santa entirely, as a German group, The Bonifatiuswerk of German Catholics, is proposing, strikes our friend Ben as positively Scroogelike.

I was stupefied to see a blog post yesterday, courtesy of our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, called “Do we need a ‘Santa-Free’ zone?” The post, by Kathy Lauer-Williams, reports on the push by this German group to do away with the Jolly Old Elf entirely, replacing him with the austere but compassionate St. Nicholas, 3rd- and 4th-century Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey, who was the inspiration for Santa. Forget “Ho, ho, ho!” and fireside cookies and milk. Forget a sleighful of toys pulled by reindeer. Forget Mrs. Claus, elves, Rudolph, and the whole North Pole thing.

Our friend Ben assumes that most people know that the transformation of the Bishop of Myra into the Jolly Old Elf was the work of Clement Clarke Moore and his 1823 poem, “The Night Before Christmas” (originally called “A Visit from St. Nicholas”). In the poem, the saintly bishop, who was known for secretly giving gifts to parishioners in need (most notably filling poor girls’ shoes with gold so they’d have a dowry and could get married), was transformed into a tiny, plump, red-cheeked, jolly fellow wrapped in furs, who arrived in a sleigh pulled by airborne reindeer, dropped down families’ chimneys on Christmas Eve, and filled their stockings and the space under their Christmas trees with toys.

Say what? Furs? Tiny? ‘Fraid so. Today’s Santa owes his incarnation to the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who created the big, hearty guy with the glistening white beard and pointy hat, the red velvet suit with white ermine trim, and the glossy black boots back in the 1860s. But though Nast and Moore were both Americans, we can’t shoulder all the blame. Instead, let’s blame it on Queen Victoria.

After all, it was Vicky who popularized the German idea of a Christmas celebration, including presents under a trimmed evergreen tree, after marrying her beloved Prince Albert. Christmas became a child-centric holiday of sweets and gifts, of magic and joy, the world of “The Nutcracker Suite.” Cards and cornucopias of treats and sugar plums and sweetmeats became the standard. In the U.S., where times were harder, stockings stuffed with nuts and an orange in the toe—a coveted luxury—and a few handmade toys were the norm. A candy cane of sugar and peppermint was a great treat, a new pair of mittens or skates a real luxury. 

Silence Dogood and I have a copy of a version of Tasha Tudor’s “The Night Before Christmas” in which she depicts Santa as Moore intended, tiny, swathed in furs, red-cheeked, enveloped in pipe smoke. We cherish it, as much for the animals who are having their own celebration on every page as for the depiction of Santa. But we have no problem with today’s corpulent, red-suited version, either. Jolly, joyful, and generous sum up our views of who Santa ought to be.

Okay, we find it annoying—even horrifying—to see Christmas stuff and visits from Santa advertised before it’s even Hallowe’en. Yes, it’s hard for kids to believe when there’s a Santa at every strip mall. But many of those Santas are freezing their behinds off to raise money for charities like The Salvation Army. Our friend Ben and Silence are sure that St. Nicholas would approve, as would our Lord, the Reason for the Season. It’s up to parents to keep kids away from the department-store Santas. And let’s not forget, even those Santas have found seasonal employment at least during the endless recession. Rather than shutting them down, maybe we should be congratulating them for finding a way to stay off food stamps and welfare.

But here’s the part that really shocked our friend Ben: The blog post claimed that the evil force behind today’s Santa phenomenon was… Coca-Cola! Coke featured Santa in its ads around Christmastime in the 1930s and 1940s. Coke’s colors are red and white. The blogger proclaims, “Is it a coincidence that red and white also are Coca-Cola’s colors?”

Well, probably. Maybe the Coke ad moguls were pleased by the coincidence, but they were probably more inspired by a clever ad campaign to link Santa to their famous beverage. Gee, with all that work to do in such a time-valued manner, surely Santa would appreciate a cold, carbonated shot of caffeine and sugar! (Our friend Ben is not sure if cocaine had been deleted from Coke’s ads at that point, but I’d guess so. “The ideal brain food” had been deemed too decadent in the face of two World Wars and the Great Depression.)    

Getting Santa as a frontman for your product would sure be cheaper than, say, Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan. And coming from the South, as Silence Dogood and I do, where Coke is king and Pepsi is revolting, this attack on Coke seems especially grating.

Let’s leave Santa alone, shall we, and take responsibility for keeping the sacred in our Christmases instead of proclaiming ourselves victims: “We’re fat because of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts!” “TV is sapping our strength!” Oh, please. We’re educated adults who can make our own decisions. We can stay away from the fast-food joints and the remote. We can celebrate Santa without making him a byword for overconsumption. We can enjoy Christmas as a holiday—a time for ceremony as well as celebration—rather than using it as yet another reason for division.

For most of us, Christmas is the best-loved time in all the year, a time when every family’s traditions are celebrated, when each house sparkles with lights and candles, when families come together for festive food, carols, worship, and Christmas stories, be they readings from the Gospel of Luke and Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” or beloved Christmas movies. “Joy” is the word that sums up everything about Christmas. Joy to the world and to each one of us. Surely there’s a place for Santa, the embodiment of joy, in our Christmases? The world would be a bleaker, more joyless and even more diet-driven (“You can lose weight over the holidays! Click here to learn how!”) place without him.

I believe in Santa Claus: A true story by our friend Ben. December 1, 2008

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Happy December, everybody! Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, we believe in the magic of the Christmas season. So we’ve decided to celebrate with a month of Christmas-themed posts. You’ll find everything from recipes for bourbon balls, Kentucky eggnog, and the (in)famous fruitcake to the coolest Christmas ornaments to the all-time best Scrooges, curious Christmas facts, and beloved traditions. But let’s kick off this series at the beginning: with a Christmas story.

Our friend Ben had a lucky childhood. My mother adored Christmas and decorated the entire house for the occasion. We had tons of little Christmas rituals—like reading Dickens’s A Christmas Carol aloud every year—that helped make Christmas extra-special. And most special of all was when my grandparents arrived from Kentucky to help us celebrate.

When my grandparents came to visit, they stayed in the second-oldest sibling’s room, and that sibling had to pile in with the youthful Ben, which could lead to considerable chaos and fighting but, at Christmas, tended to simply produce a lot of speculation and giggling. The year that I realized that Santa Claus was real, our friend Ben had just turned seven, an age when most kids are beginning to suspect that all is not as it should be with Jolly Old St. Nick.

That year, as usual, our friend Ben and sibling #2 stayed up way too late on Christmas Eve whispering about presents, treats, what would be in our stockings, and other interesting topics. Our eyes had barely closed—finally!—when a huge crash rocked the house. But before we were even awake enough to be scared, our mother, with her usual presence of mind, came into the room and told us to be very, very quiet and still: “That was Santa landing on the roof.”

Santa!!! In the excitement, it never occurred to the youthful Ben to wonder why I had never heard Santa crash-landing on the roof before. I suppose this was because a) it was my mama who told us it was Santa, and to doubt her was unthinkable to me, and b) I assumed I’d simply slept through previous seismic landings. (After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I was a toddler, and no earthquake, much less a mere crash landing, could have awakened me from my numerous naps.) But this year, I was awake, and I lay very quiet and still so as not to disturb Santa as he ostensibly was busy filling our stockings and setting out our presents under the tree.

Needless to say, after this spectacular event, nobody could tell our friend Ben that Santa didn’t exist. I still recall my second-grade classmate, Neal Horner, saying to our friend Ben that others in the class had told him that Santa wasn’t real. The fervor with which our friend Ben set Neal straight on this point would have converted a continent. I continued to believe for many and many a year. After all, I had heard Santa land with my own ears! Who could doubt the evidence of their own senses? Not our friend Ben! 

Many years after my beloved mother revealed that “Santa’s landing” had actually been a bus crashing into the ditch outside our house (mercifully, nobody had been hurt), our friend Ben still, in my secret heart of hearts, believes. So today I’m writing an open letter to Santa Claus, in the hopes that the jolly old elf is still up there reading:

To: Santa Claus

From: Our friend Ben

Re: Christmas presents 

Dear Santa,

I know you are very busy this time of year, so I’ll try to keep this short. I have been very good this year. So could I please have a flat-screen TV for Christmas? And a box of vintage marbles and a copy of Andrew Jackson: Lion in the White House? Silence Dogood would be very, very happy if you got her DVD versions of her favorite films (she still has them on video) and some excellent olive oil. I would like for you to get her her very own potted olive tree as well, if it’s not too much to ask. I think she’d be tickled to get a coffee tree and a tea bush as well. Please, Santa, could you find some shiny new brain cells for our adorable but clueless cat Linus, and a few more really good years for our golden retriever, Molly? Finally, if I’m really really really really good this year, would you consider giving me a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009? I could sure use one! 

P.S. I’ll put out an extra-big plate of Silence’s chocolate chip-toffee-oatmeal cookies and white chocolate-cranberry-oatmeal cookies for you this year. I know they’re your favorites! But don’t get carried away and drink too much Simms Family Eggnog! All that bourbon might mean you ended up at the South Pole on Christmas morning rather than the North Pole. I don’t think Mrs. Claus would like that.

Oh, and by the way, merry Christmas!

             —Your friend Ben