148: The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Suit
Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Oh come all ye faithful, joyful, and triumphant, and let us have, for once, a rational, adult conversation about Santa Claus. You're listening to a special Christmas edition of This American Life from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.
And let us head back my friend, back for a moment before Christmas lights were invented, back before Macy's department store goes up on 34th Street, back before the moment Charles Dickens writes A Christmas Carol, back, my friend, to the molten lava core at the very center of modern Christmas, the day that someone first believed in Santa Claus. Someone has actually figured out when this happened. And it's in 1822, in America, in New York City.
And who do we have to thank for the whole thing? A bunch of rich guys. And not just any rich guys. Aristocratic rich guys who all agreed that there were big, big problems with the entire American experiment, then very young, then more young to them than the Star Wars trilogy is to us. And these guys did not like it one little bit. They were very suspicious of democracy, modern capitalism, Thomas Jefferson.
They just saw it as chaos, and as a takeover of the city, and, really, the whole country, by the mob.
This is Stephen Nissenbaum, who has written a history about all of this called The Battle for Christmas.
Ordinary people, by which they really meant the middle classes, were taking over the city commercially and politically. They called these people the mob.
Now one of the dreadful areas of mob rule, from their point of view, was what happened at Christmas every year. There was all this public rowdiness at Christmas. It was celebrated the way we celebrate New Year's Eve now.
Yes, exactly. If you were worried about the mob, the one time of year when you probably had to be most on your guard was the Christmas season.
During Christmas, roving bands of toughs went from door to door, demanding drinks and making threats. There was riotous noise-making, massive public drunkenness. You can understand why these rich guys just hated it.
And so they set out to create new traditions, traditions that they hoped might replace all this debauchery. Starting around 1810, they tried to convince people that a certain fourth century Catholic saint, Saint Nicholas-- you may recognize the name-- was, in fact, the patron saint of New York. For about a decade after that, they tried to make his saint's day, which is December 6, into a regular December holiday on the island of Manhattan.
Now these guys were very serious about the whole business of creating new holidays for the new nation. At least one of them was involved in the creation of Washington's birthday, Columbus Day, and the Fourth of July. But this Saint Nicholas thing, it was just not catching on. And if you saw the way that they portrayed Saint Nicholas in a handout that one of these guys had printed in 1810, you might see why.
That picture doesn't look at all like the modern Christmas Santa Claus that we know. In fact, he's a very dignified, magisterial bishop.
He's in clerical robes.
He's in clerical robes. He has a bishop's mitre and sceptre, a cross. Everything about him looks like one of those medieval saints.
He has a halo.
He has a halo around him. That Saint Nicholas comes to punish every bit as much as he does to reward.
Saint Nicholas appears in a book in 1809 and a couple of poems over the next few years. It is not until 1821 that somebody mentions him arriving on Christmas Eve or describes him in a sleigh pulled by a reindeer, one reindeer in this case. And then in 1822, one of these rich guys, a man named Clement Clarke Moore, changes everything when he writes a poem. How often do you ever get to say that? He changes everything when he writes a poem.
This is the poem that begins, "Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."
I actually find it kind of incredible in reading this history a century and a half later that the poem that actually created Santa Claus is one that is still around.
Yeah. But what he did was he transformed Saint Nicholas utterly. No longer in this poem is Saint Nicholas a dignified bishop. In fact, there's nothing bishop-like about him. He's short. He smiles. He's fat. A guy who just loves kids.
It's all there in the poem, the stockings hung with care, the reindeers' names, the fact that he comes down the chimney. And note Santa's clothes the next time that you hear the poem, a fur coat, a short pipe, a bag that he carries over his shoulder, like an ordinary Yankee trader, not a bishop. This was the key to the whole thing, Nissenbaum says.
This takes him out of the aristocracy and makes him a regular working man. Middle class, even before there was a name for middle class. A perfect hero for the new nation. And Clement Clarke Moore didn't have any idea how popular his vision of Santa might get. And so, incredibly, he didn't publish the poem. He just passed it around to a few friends.
If he had wanted this to become the American ritual, he probably would have taken steps to publish it. But he didn't. The story has it that a niece of his took it upon herself to publish it the following year in a newspaper in the Hudson River town of Troy.
And it was republished, and republished after that. And within a few decades, the Christmas described in the poem, a Christmas spent at home, with Santa bringing toys and kids with parents all indoors, that Christmas replaced the big, drunken, loud, carousing out on the street kind of Christmas. So the aristocrats got their way. They killed the noisy version of Christmas, though accidentally.
Well, today on our program, we bring you stories about Santa and the many, many ways in which he is seen. Act One, The Red Velvet Underground, in which one brave man heads out into the desert to wrestle with a devil named Claus. Act Two, If This Sleigh is A-Rockin', Don't Come A-Knockin', in which Sarah Vowell explains why so many pop songs show Santa getting all jiggy. Act Three, It Takes a Nation of Santas to Hold Us Back, a story of two little boys and a man that they hope at least has some pull with Santa. Act Four, Santa in Handcuffs, Prometheus in Chains, in which we are proud to present an all-new story of The Most Fantastic Crimefighter The World Has Ever Known, who single-handedly heads from department store to department store to stop a red and white menace. Act Five, Santa Versus the Easter Bunny, in which writer David Sedaris tries to promote cross-cultural understanding-- so badly needed everywhere these days, my friend-- for the holiday season. Stay with us.
Act One: The Red Velvet Underground
Act One, The Red Velvet Underground. We begin our program today with a story with the most idealistic possible vision of Santa and a quest for something lost about Santa. From Mike Paterniti.
I guess I'd somehow become OK with the death of everything, the death of faith, honor, idealism. I thrived in the country club of the death of everything until a newspaper headline caught my eye, "Santa Faces the Sack." Bloomingdale's in Manhattan had fired its store Santa, and Macy's was adopting an interactive North Pole. Santa Claus was on the verge of extinction. I got thinking about that, and, I don't know, something in me kind of snapped. I can't recall the exact Christmas I parted ways with Santa, nor am I sure how I lost him.
As a kid and as the oldest of four brothers, I believed in Santa Claus way past the point of healthy. I was a fanatic. At the slightest provocation, I'd defend Santa's honor with a flurry of punches against any nay-saying elementary school punk. My fervor was pure and scary. I remembered that feeling now. And I knew one thing, I wanted it back.
It's a couple weeks before Christmas. One minute, I'm futzing with recyclables, living what constitutes a basically normal life. And the next, a plain brown package arrives at the door, a little gift I've sent myself, something I'm not sure I want the neighbors to know about. I'm 33 years old, and I bought myself a Santa suit. It's a strange moment unwrapping that box, cardboard and paper giving way to rich, red cloth and oodles of white wig hair. It stirs a feeling.
You really can't explain something like this to the people in your life. What? You're going to infiltrate the Santa underworld as Santa yourself in the name of proving he exists? So you don't explain. Here's what you do.
You stick that Santa suit in your garment bag and go. You let momentum take your body, rocket it from a tarmac, hurtle it through space like a satellite, and land it on another planet, changed, a place that looks a lot like the Pole itself.
It's Minnesota actually, but close enough. The night before my first appearance as Claus, I take my Santa suit from the garment bag. It's a deluxe model with luxurious, deep red velvet, faux fox fur trim, blacks spats to wear over my boots, and Santa glasses with little, square, plastic lenses. To beef up my belly, there is a big cushion like a catcher's protector.
Christmas in America means a trip to the mall. And tomorrow, I'll show up at the biggest one I could find, the mall of malls, the Mall of America. I've already been given a crash course in Santa 101 by the mall star Santa. But it doesn't matter. I fall asleep with pangs of doubt. Do I have what it takes? And what the hell does it take?
Morning comes. An inauspicious start. The costume is hot and itchy, especially the wig and the beard. And until you're Santa, you never know little things about yourself, like I'm a real peripheral vision guy. I like to know who's coming at me with a blackjack. Also, I enjoy oxygen. Trapped in all that synthetic filament, I find myself gasping for air.
Finally, and perhaps most damning, I don't like being the center of attention at all. I mumble at people, unreeling halfhearted ho, ho, hos. Attempting something more theatrical, I lift my hand and wave mechanically. "Maaa-reee Chrees-maas, everyone." It comes out as if I were just off the boat from Transylvania.
Moving on, I spy a group of older kids, maybe 12-year-olds, wearing baggy jeans pulled low, delinquent skateboard nihilist types. My first impulse is to try to slip by them, make it seem as if I'm window shopping. But of course, I'm not. The fact that they're looking at me requires a response. But before I've thought it through, I actually hear myself addressing their leader. "What's up, cuz?" Someone giggles. Everyone else starts backing away. A sober and depressing thought occurs to me. I make a sucky Santa.
Even if I have been a disservice to Christmas, my failure drives me forth. Out of curiosity and secret shame, out of righteousness and mad purpose, I take to the sky in the spirit of Claus and make house calls. In New York, I ride a bus along Fifth Avenue with 50 volunteer street corner Kringles on our way to a Santa parade. "You got to get down with the people," one of them, a man named Socrates, tells me. "You got to jing-a-ling for the cha-ching."
In California, I lay a wreath on the grave of the great Jewish Santa, Herman Epstein. He would eat his latkes and matzah balls and then suit up as Big Red to visit sick kids at a local hospital. He did it for 50 years. And then in Redmond, Washington, I go to Microsoft headquarters dressed as Santa just to see. I camp myself on a corner, and a Mercedes sedan pulls up. A middle-aged man leaps out, piping mad. He's a Microsoft public relations person. He points at me, Santa, and sputters, "I am god damn sick of your guerrilla tactics," as if life at Microsoft is a constant parade of angry trolls and elves.
I have a friend in Los Angeles named David Punch. And when he hears what I'm up to, he decides to join me. He instantly comes up with a green felt elf costume with impressive knee-high candy cane socks and a cap that makes him look a bit like a Danish sous chef. He's an unusual elf at six foot, three inches, but he too wants to believe. Santa christens him Fancy, and we take to the streets with no particular plan.
We get in a rental car and track the planes to LAX at sunset, then decide to meet and greet the hordes as they arrive from Asia and Africa. Even if Santa is in decline here in America, he's still big-time abroad and growing in places where you would least expect it. In baggage claim, I'm received like a celebrity. A flight from Taiwan, they pat my stomach wide-eyed, and so I share a good belly laugh with them. A flight from Egypt, they want to touch my impressive beard. A flight from Sierra Leone, they want pictures with their extended families.
When I wander outside, a cab driver pulls over and rolls down his window. "Hello, my friend Mr. Claus," he says, gesturing for me to come over. "Hello, yes, you are American?" I tell him, "Yes. But, ho, ho, ho. I'm also a citizen of all nations. And I live at the North Pole." "Yes, a citizen," he says. But he is oddly intense and emotional. And though he knows I'm not looking for a ride, he has pulled his banged-up car on the curb to-- to what? Say hello to Santa Claus?
Yesterday, I was a refugee from Afghanistan. And today, I am a citizen too. He reaches into his glove compartment and pulls out a fresh envelope. "My papers, Mr. Claus. I'm an American like you." He smiles, eyes watering and grabs my hand. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Claus," he says. And then suddenly, he's gone, two more taillights lost in the sea of traffic.
Fancy and I hit the road, headed east toward Vegas into the desert, driving with several bag lunches because Santa's appetite has become insatiable. Gassing up in Barstow, I chat with a nice fellow in a cowboy hat at the self-serve, quiz him about the local color in these high desert parts. "You like drinking?" "There are really only bars in Barstow," he says, "and I don't recommend them unless you feel like getting beat up." Still, there's something about the look of this place, the weird metallic taste of it in the air, the dead-endedness of it.
So we take a drive around, me in my red cap, Fancy in his pointy hat, and happen upon a four-corner with a cement structure and neon beer signs lit in the windows, one of those promised rough and tumble bars of Barstow. It's a bleak, Santa-less place. Inside are a couple of pool tables, a dartboard, and a long row of weathered-looking, tattooed human beings, still parched after guzzling an afternoon's worth of drinks. As Santa bellies up to the bar, everyone stares, including the bartender, who says, "What do you need?" "I'll have what he's having," Santa says, pointing to the first broken-down hombre to his left, "and he'll have another." Suddenly, everybody wants something, tequila or whiskey shots, a pack of cigarettes, and Santa flutters more bills at the bartender.
"There's nothing rough-and-tumble about it at all," thinks Santa. But just as that thought arrives, a voice slurs over Santa's left shoulder. "Who the [BLEEP] are you?" When I turn around, I'm standing nose to nose with a man wearing a camouflage jacket. Long, stringy hair falls from his baseball cap. His knuckles are dirty and scabbed. His breath smells of mash and lighter fluid. His smile is lopsided, not friendly, but menacing.
"Who the holy freaking [BLEEP] are you?" He says again. It's a fair question, one that maybe should have occurred to me before now, before I came in here looking as I look, in red coat and fake, hoary beard. Or, for that matter, before barnstorming the country in search of something that is nearly impossible to explain and perhaps more impossible to find, but boils down to a simple belief in, well, Santa. But then there doesn't seem to be a lot of him here at the booze-hole. My answer is automatic and uncensored. "I'm Santa Claus," I say, "and who the [BLEEP] are you?"
There is stunned silence at the bar until somebody snorts. Someone else guffaws. And then, like a wave crashing and unfurling along a shoreline, there's hooting, and hollering, and laughing that passes down the length of the entire bar. "You hear that, boys? Santa's about to rip Billy a new [BLEEP] hole." The distraction confuses my new friend.
"His name's Billy Budd, and he ain't going to touch you," says a kind-looking man with a Van Dyke and a cigarette who has abruptly stepped between us. "Because if he does, I'm going to run his head through that window, right Billy?" "Oh yeah, Donald," Billy says with a sudden smile. Billy Budd is drunk and perhaps just bipolar enough to immediately forget that we were in the middle of a conversation full of passion and unanswered queries.
And now we're suddenly chatting, Billy, Donald, and I. They're both homeless. Billy Budd counts himself as an anarchist. And they sell crystals.
I buy them a couple beers. And in return, they give me a crystal, a special Brazilian one with amazing properties meant to protect me against evil and bring light into my world. When I insist on paying for it, Billy Budd says, "Your money's no good with us, man. When you're with us, you're a brother." It's Santa's first gift.
"What do you want for Christmas?" I say to Billy Budd. We're standing nose to nose again. It seems that's the way Billy Budd likes it. "If I tell you, are you going to give it to me?" "Yeah, I am. I'm Santa Claus, right?" "Anything?" "Anything at all." He ponders, begins to speak, stops. "Yeah, I reckon we could use a few cases of Natural Ice."
So I go with them and another one of their friends-- a man who looks just like Santa too, but without the outfit-- to buy beer. Afterward, we drive up to their encampment on a ridge north of town, just some sleeping bags and empty beer cans and the embers of a fire flickering in the desert, somewhere that seems utterly nowhere. Billy Budd presses a can into my hand. "Here you go, Santa." Together, we drink.
The air is cold, and the sky is spackled with stars, the brightest at the highest point above our heads. The beer tastes salty and good going down. And when Donald offers me a cigarette, I take it, though I don't normally smoke. When I go to light up, I nearly set my beard on fire. We talk about everything, about America, its prettiest spots, its most lowdown. We talk about home, where it is, why we're not there right now.
These men, dressed in dirty jeans and jackets, slugging Natural Ice, open up to Santa. Not to me, but to Santa. They're good people who have drawn a hard lot and then somehow have been dismissed, driven out of America to live at its forgotten edges. Not that they see it that way. No, the amazing thing is that they're standing here with pockets full of crystals. They gave Santa his first gift.
And now Donald is talking about God and how Christmas will probably be spent right here on this patch of sand. And it will be the holiest, most rollicking beer-swilling day of celebration they can put on. Billy Budd says, he's going to cook a turkey with stuffing. And Donald smiles at him and says, they'll give thanks to the Lord for their freedom, for all of this. Then he points up at the sky, to the North Star. "I know it don't seem like it," says Billy Budd, "but we're looking for the answers too."
Christmas Eve, a mall somewhere in the middle of America. A grown man dressed in a red hat, and red jacket, and red pants with white fur trim. It seems he's worn his Santa robes for so long they've become comfortable. And the beard, it almost feels natural. He keeps a Brazilian crystal in his pocket. He catches a reflection of himself in a store window. Santa.
The people here come fast and furious. An old woman reaching out for his hand now. A teenage punk strung out on something saying, "Hey, Santa, don't forget me. OK?" A Jamaican man calls him "Papa Noel," and tells him he needs his wife back for Christmas. They come in all ages. They come to touch him, or stand nearby, or flash a picture, to confess or ask a kindness, to make it real.
Every time he thinks he might feel tired, after all the hard work of bringing Christmas to the world, he feels energized. Somewhere near the mall fountain, just beyond the food court, humanity parts in a light-filled glade. And there are two twin brothers, clutching hands, wearing the same blue corduroy overalls, pointing at Santa in complete shock and awe. They don't know whether to run for him or run far, far away. But then it doesn't take much.
Santa comes down on one knee and opens his arms. And the two boys break into huge toothless grins and bust into a sprint, just leap right into Santa's arms simultaneously, one in either arm. Sometimes people wonder what it's like to be Santa, if it gets heavy carrying kids like that. But I'm here to tell you, you never felt something so light. Like birds when they lift off the ground, they don't weigh anything at all.
Mike Paterniti lives in Portland, Maine. A version of this story has appeared in Esquire magazine.
[MUSIC - "WILL SANTA COME TO SHANTY TOWN?" BY EDDY ARNOLD]
Act Two: If This Sleigh Is A-rockin', Don't Come A-knockin'
Act Two, If This Sleigh is A-Rockin', Don't Come A-Knockin'. When the poem says that Saint Nick has a little, round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly, for most of us, that is about as real as we want to get when it comes to Santa getting all physical. But the makers of popular music do not respect this simple boundary. No, no, no. And in today's program, as we try to understand all the various sides of Santa, Sarah Vowell decided to explain this one.
Even as a child, I loved Christmas songs almost as much as Christmas itself. I loved their arcane language, "round yon virgin," "feast of Stephen," verbs like "hark" and "deck." But there was one Christmas song I couldn't stand, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." That one made me nervous. And it made me suspicious of Santa's good intentions. I thought, if he went after someone else's mother, mine might be next.
Yeah, what a laugh. My poor, unsuspecting father, the man who went to all that trouble setting out the milk and cookies, catches mom in the act with Father Christmas? What happens then? She ditches us, runs off to the North Pole, and my sister and I are latch key kids by New Year's Eve. I was probably 21 before I figured out that the smoocher in that song was supposed to be the dad. But still, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" is just one of the many gossipy, musical reports about that sexpot Saint Nick.
A sweep through the Santa song catalog corroborates my childhood suspicion that Santa is not just a friend to children, he is a ladies' man. December 1976 was Elvis Presley's final holiday season, but it was my first with his Christmas record. And this became my favorite Christmas song, "Santa Claus Is Back In Town."
[SINGING] Got no sleigh with reindeer, no sack on my back, you want to see me coming in a big, black Cadillac. Oh, it's Christmas time, pretty baby.
I hear that song now, and I can not believe my parents gave me this as a gift on Jesus's birthday. It is filthy, which you could expect from a home wrecker like Santa. Listen to this part.
[SINGING] Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the light, Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight. Oh, it's Christmas time, little baby.
You think that's dirty? Get a load of Clarence Carter's song "Back Door Santa," and you'll know why Santa goes around saying, ho, ho, ho. Because he is a ho. He's less interested in little children than in their mothers.
[SINGING] I keep some change in my pocket in case the children at home. I give 'em a few pennies, so that we can be alone. I leave the back door open so if anybody smells a mouse. And wouldn't old Santa be in trouble if there ain't no chimney in the house? They call me back door Santa. I make my runs about the break of day. Looky here. I make all the little girls happy while the boys are out to play.
This is what happens when pop music and Christmas collide. The project of Christmas, to celebrate the birth of a messiah who will die to save our souls, is at odds with the project of pop music. The project of pop music is love, specifically, romantic love and not the for-God-so-loved-the-world kind.
If a pop musician is going to perform a Christmas song, he or she doesn't have that much to work with from a let's do it point of view. There's the infant Jesus in swaddling clothes. There's Bethlehem, that swaddling town. There's Joseph and his wife Mary, a virgin, assorted wise men and animals, and there's Santa Claus. From a getting it on perspective, you can see how the craggy, old, fat man wins by default.
Take Madonna. Though most famous for being named after Jesus Christ's mother, Madonna took some time out of her busy missionary schedule to cover this Eartha Kitt classic as a benefit for charity. It is not the babe Jesus she croons to, but the babe magnet, Santa.
[SINGING] Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree for me. I've been an awful good girl, Santa baby. And hurry down the chimney tonight.
Santa's job is to fulfill a child's wishes. And it makes sense that, as a child grows up, she might wish for something a little steamier than two front teeth. A letter to Santa, then, is a blank page on which the heart writes what the heart wants. Listen, for example, to that six-foot-tall valentine, RuPaul.
[SINGING] I saw daddy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night.
In all these songs, Santa does not live on the North Pole. He lives among us. Santa is us with all our flaws, flaws like lust, infidelity, and all the pleasures of the flesh. Experts no less than Cheech and Chong point out that Mrs. Claus is famous in their neighborhood for her brownies. Martin Mull does a song in which Santa is giving up dope. And here's the subtly-titled ditty, "Santa Came Home Drunk."
Clyde Lasley And The Cadillac Baby Specials
[SINGING] You talk about Santa Claus. You want to know what he's all about? Santa Claus got drunk last night. Everybody tried to throw him out. And I want to tell you, folks, how it all began. Santa stopped at a neighbor's house and started drinking good gin.
At some point in our lives, most of us were at least a little afraid of Santa's judgment, of that list he's checking twice, who's naughty, who's nice. What a relief to picture a Santa with all our human frailties, all our sex, and drugs, and rock and roll. A mommy-kissing chimney-comer-downer, bottle-hitting, sugar daddy Christmas.
That's a Santa who would do well to remember the words of the birthday boy, Jesus Christ. "Thus saith the Lord, judge not that ye be not judged." And you know what they say about Jesus, don't you, Santa? He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows when you've been bad or good. So be good for goodness sake.
[MUSIC - "SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN' TO TOWN" BY THE JACKSON FIVE]
Sarah Vowell lives essentially on the same block-- no kidding-- where Clement Clarke Moore, the author of the poem "'Twas the Night before Christmas," once lived on Manhattan island nearly two centuries ago. She's a columnist for the online magazine Salon. Coming up, when is Santa not Santa? Another riddle solved in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three: It Takes A Nation Of Santas To Hold Us Back
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of different people to tackle that theme. Today's program, The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Suit, stories about Santa and the many different ways that we see him. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, It Takes a Nation of Santas to Hold Us Back.
As we said in the first part of today's program, belief in a Santa who comes down chimneys on Christmas Eve bearing gifts is, at best as anybody can tell, something that began here in America. And so many other variations on what Santa means are also American inventions. Riz Rollins tells this story from his boyhood here in Chicago.
Rosie only dresses us like this when we're going somewhere really important. Even the weekly haul to church doesn't get the matching gray, flannel outfits, the ones that cause everybody to ask whether my brother and I are twins, which we adamantly are not. We wear these clothes usually only when we're going downtown. And we only go downtown when there is a local premiere of a new Disney feature, after which we might lunch at the counter of Woolworth's, co-mingling like immigrants in the new world of de facto integration.
My grandmother works as a laundress in an orphanage in Chicago's North Side and makes the long trip to the city's downtown area daily. But she rarely stops there to visit a shop. She prefers to do most of her shopping on the commercial strip that crawls under the elevated train on 63rd Street on the South Side, closer to her home. It's not just that the goods and services she seeks are less expensive on the South Side. In many cases, they aren't. But commerce there wears a face that closely resembles her own.
Even now, after living here for over half a century, there is much of the city she has not seen. The rules of interracial decorum will never change for her. They are God-made. Each with their own kind, the Bible says. But both my brother and I are sure that the Bible is not the only word of authority in life.
Today, as my well-dressed brother and I are led through the high stone corridors of this world by Grandma's hand, we never notice the bitter cold. We are blinded by the lights of Christmas and the season of getting. Grandma Rosie is taking us to meet the man. He has made his way from the northern land, perhaps just this day, to receive the supplications and petitions of children who have kept his precepts and awaited his graces. While we have been raised to fear the mysterious grace of God, the grace of the fat man in the red and white suit means more.
Children know Santa keeps residence in one place in every city. In Chicago, his cathedral is in Marshall Field's. And his holy-of-holies is somewhere on the third floor near the toys. My brother and I have been here many times before through many years. So imagine our panic as we continue walking past the first entrance of the block-long store. We say nothing, not even to each other. Perhaps Rosie is taking us on a shortcut to see the crimson saint.
We maintain silence until we stand at the end of the street beyond the last entrance to Marshall Field's. This is our last chance to make our desires plain. "I thought you were going to take us to see Santa Claus," I blurt out in desperation. My grandmother replies with unbelievable patience considering the stakes of her mistake, "We are, but this year we're going to a different place." My brother and I can not conceive of Santa at a different place, for even we know that there isn't any store downtown or anywhere else that matches the commercial grandeur or Marshall Field's. So where else would Santa want to be?
We pass the various stores along the main downtown shopping strip, disheartened with each passing block. We bypass Carson's, then Montgomery Ward, then smaller shops and boutiques further away from the expensive deities, closer to the affordable ones. At this rate, we'll be lucky if we see any elves or reindeer poo.
Finally, we stop at our destination, Sears, Roebuck and Company. This is where Grandma intends us to have an audience with the king of dreams? We stand shivering with horror at the obvious heresy. "This is where Santa is this year," Rosie postulates confidently. She is full of adult authority. And we know that we should take what she says with the same faith as we do all her other gospel. But how can we? She has never been so obviously mistaken in all the time I've known her.
We enter Sears through two large doors, rather than the perpetually revolving doors of Marshall Field's. We march up a stairwell, rather than ascending by escalator or elevator. And towards the back, next to a section of toys that have their source in the pages of Sears catalog, rather than in the frigid magic of the North Pole, sits my grandmother's version of Santa.
His throne is not raised like the throne of the Santa we have come to believe in. It's mundane and accessible. There is no line of acolytes waiting to petition Santa. There's no promise, or grandeur, or terror. In fact, it is as plain to me as the nose on my face that the man in loose-fitting, red and white uniform is the biggest impostor that I've ever had the chance to lay eyes on. For the man underneath the fake, silver beard is black like me.
My grandmother had not prepared us to expect this change in Santa's ethnicity. Most likely, she was trying to provide a vision of goodness that resembled us. Maybe she was secretly tired of relying on the white Jesus, watching her children gyrate to their white Elvis, losing sleep waiting for white Santa. But what she did not know was that until that day I hadn't noticed any difference between black and white people. I'm sure that we had seen white people before, but usually from afar. Santa was the only white man we had a personal relationship with.
That day, my brother and I silently agreed to let the ruse continue. I remember half-hoping even if this man wasn't Santa that perhaps he had connections to someone who might know Santa. But unknown to me, or my brother, or Grandma Rosie, was the fact that now the lid was off the box that held the knots and confusions I'd wrestle with for the next 20 years. Nothing would be safe from doubt, no benevolence, sincerity, or article of faith. For the first time, I saw things are not what they appear. And I thus began to search for the little lies behind every truth. And I learned that every gift is purchased with sweat, and tears, and sacrifice.
Riz Rollins is a DJ and writer in Seattle.
Act Four: Santa In Handcuffs, Prometheus In Chains
Act Four, Santa in Handcuffs, Prometheus in Chains. What if someone actually did patrol the department store Santas for the forces of good? You know what? We do not even need to speculate about what would happen. Because right now, right at this moment, we can bring you a brand new episode of a very old radio serial that answers this very question.
And now another exciting episode in the life of The Most Fantastic Crimefighter The World Has Ever Known. Chickenman.
He's everywhere. He's everywhere.
And Santa Claus, I want a Tiffany doll. Not the Tiffany doll that wets herself. The Tiffany doll that is a nightclub singer.
Department Store Santa
Ho, ho, ho, ho. Well, if you're a good little girl, Santa will see what he can do.
Are you really Santa Claus?
Department Store Santa
Well, of course I am.
Halt, vicious criminal impostor. I'm arresting you for being a vicious criminal impostor.
Department Store Manager
Hey, bird-face, who do you think you are?
Who do you think you are?
Department Store Manager
I know who I am. I'm the manager of this department store.
Oh. Well, I am the wonderful, white-winged warrior, Chickenman, fighter of crime and/or evil, defender of those who are undefendable. That doesn't sound right.
Department Store Manager
Oh, don't I look impressed? You can not come into this department store and arrest our Santa.
Well, your Santa is not a real Santa. And he fibbed his fat face off to that little girl.
How do you know he's not Santa?
Because I can pull on this phony beard, and it will come right off. Boy, it's really glued on tight.
Department Store Manager
Oh, will you stop, you silly goose?
Actually, I'm a chicken.
Department Store Manager
The beard will not come off because it's a real beard.
Winged warrior, what's going on here?
Commissioner Norton, what are you doing here?
I am waiting to see Santa.
Oh, don't be a dope. You've been duped, dope.
All right, Commissioner. Thank you for apprehending a major threat to the holiday dreams of our children, not to mention the American way of life.
Thank you, Officer--
It's Kowalski. And I'm talking about you, bird-brain.
Moi? The wonderful, white-winged warrior, defender of the defensible? Still doesn't sound right.
This is the 17th Santa Claus you've arrested, including his honor, the mayor, who was playing Santa at the Midland City Community Center Christmas party for underprivileged politicians.
He was an impostor. Oh, how nice, a gift of matching bracelets for the holidays.
I think they're called handcuffs, winged warrior.
Hold everything. The commissioner of police will vouch for me. Go ahead, sir.
I've never seen this chicken before in my life. How long before I can see Santa?
Oh, for crying out loud. I'm allowed one phone call, am I not?
All right. But make it fast, feather-face.
My phone is in my beak. It will just take a second. 555-876-5436-8907.
Miss Manley? It's me, the winged warrior, defender of--
Yeah, what do you want this time?
Well, I've gotten myself into a little trouble here by apprehending all the Santa Clauses in town, including his honor, the mayor.
I heard about that. And I will be forever in your debt because he is such a noodge.
Good. And I need someone from the mayor's office to vouch for me, since the Commissioner is here, and he won't.
Well, I do not vouch, honey, during the holiday season. I am too busy dreaming of a white Christmas, walking in a winter wonderland, and getting my chestnuts to roast by the open fire.
Oh, well, I'm sorry to have troubled you.
Well, I have to leave now, officer. I have to find a Santa chicken-puss, here, hasn't arrested.
What about me, commissioner?
I never saw you before in my life.
Well, if the commissioner doesn't recognize the winged warrior and Miss Manley is busy roasting chestnuts by an open fire, pray tell, what will happen to our hero?
Thank you. At least someone cares what--
Not you. I mean the one in the red suit with the big belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly.
Oh, I hope the jail holiday meal isn't chicken.
This has been another exciting episode in the life of The Most Fantastic Crimefighter The World Has Ever Known. Chickenman.
He's everywhere. He's everywhere.
That episode of Chickenman was written and produced for our program at the Radio Ranch in Los Angeles by Christine Coyle and Dick Orkin. It featured the voices of Christine Coyle, Dick Orkin, and Rod Roddy.
[MUSIC - "SOMEBODY STOLE MY SANTA CLAUS SUIT" BY THE CHRISTMAS JUG BAND, FEATURING DAN HICKS]
Act Five: Santa Claus Vs. The Easter Bunny
Act Five, Santa Claus Versus the Easter Bunny. A while back, writer David Sedaris moved to France, where he enrolled in a school to study French. He was the only American there. As he explained to an audience at City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco, the teacher could be kind of mean.
Oh, she would throw chalk at people, and stabbed someone in the eye with a pencil one day, and would hold your homework paper over your head and show everyone the mistakes that you made. So I wrote a story about her. And she read it, and I got thrown out of school.
This is another story about her, and about the big religious holidays, and the sheer arbitrariness of the way we celebrate sometimes. Easter eggs, Santa filling the stockings, all the non-religious icons.
Printed in our textbooks was a brief list of major holidays alongside a scattered arrangement of photos capturing French people in the act of celebration. The object was to match the holiday with the corresponding picture. Today's discussion was dominated by a Russian nanny, two chatty Poles, and a pouty, plump Moroccan woman who had grown up speaking French and had enrolled in the class hoping to improve her spelling.
She had covered these lessons back in the third grade, and took every opportunity to demonstrate her superiority. She had recently transferred to the class. And we could not wait until she was booted up to her appropriate level. Midway through the first day, she had raised her hand so many times her shoulder had given out. Now she just leaned back in her seat and shouted the answers, her bronzed arms folded across her chest like some great grammar genie.
We had finished discussing New Year's Eve, and the teacher had moved on to Easter, which was represented in our textbook by a black and white photograph of a chocolate bell lying upon a bed of palm fronds. "And what does one do on Easter? Would anyone like to tell us?" It was, for me, another one of those holidays I'd just as soon avoid.
Growing up, my family had generally ignored the Easter celebrated by our non-Orthodox friends and neighbors, leading to the suspicion that we might be either Jews or Communists. As Greeks, we had our own Easter which was usually observed anywhere from two to four weeks after what was known in our circle as "the American version." The reason had to do with the moon or the Orthodox calendar, something mysterious like that. Though our mother always suspected it was scheduled at a later date so that the Greeks could buy their marshmallow chicks and plastic grass at drastically reduced sale prices. "The cheap sons of bitches," she'd say, "If they had their way, we'd be celebrating Christmas in the middle of god damn February."
A brave Italian was attempting to answer the teacher's latest question, when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, "Excuse me, but what's an Easter?" Despite having grown up in a Muslim country, it seems she might have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. "I mean it," she said, "I have no idea what you people are talking about." The teacher then called upon the rest of us to explain. The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability.
"It is," said one, "a party for the little boy of God who call hisself Jesus and-- you know, like that." She faltered, and her fellow countrymen came to her aid. "He call hisself Jesus, and then he die one day on two morsels of lumber."
The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the Pope an aneurysm. "He die one day. And then he go above of my head to live with your father." "He weared the long hair. And after he died the first day, he come back here for to say hello to the peoples." "He nice. He make the good thing. And on the Easter, we be sad, because someone made him dead today."
Part of the problem had to do with grammar. Simple nouns, such as "cross" and "Resurrection," were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive verbs as "to give of yourself your only begotten son." Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.
"Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb," an Italian student explained. "One, too, may eat of the chocolate." "And who brings the chocolate?" The teacher asked. I knew the word, and so I raised my hand saying, "The rabbit of Easter." "He bring of the chocolate."
My classmates reacted as though I had pinned the delivery on a house cat. They were mortified. A rabbit? A rabbit?
The teacher, assuming I had used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wiggling them as though they were ears. "You mean one of these? A rabbit, rabbit?" "Well, sure," I said, "he come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand, he have the basket, like for a bread."
The Moroccan rolled her eyes, and the teacher sadly shook her head as if this explained everything that was wrong with my country. "No, no," she said, "here in France, the chocolate is brought by a big bell that flies in from Rome." I called for a time-out. "But how do the bell know where you live?" "Well," she said, "how does a rabbit?" It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes. That's a start.
Rabbits move from place to place, while most bells can only go back and forth. And they can't even do that on their own power. On top of that, the Easter bunny has character. He's someone you'd like to meet. A bell has all the personality of a cast iron skillet. It's like saying that come Christmas, a magic dust pan flies in from the North Pole, led by eight flying cinder blocks.
Who wants to stay up all night, so they can see a bell? And why fly one in from Rome when they've got more bells than they know what to do with right there in Paris? That's the most implausible aspect of the whole story. Because there's no way the bells of France would allow a foreign worker to fly in. There's no way the bells of France would allow a foreign worker to fly in and take their job. That Roman bell would be lucky to get work cleaning up after a French bell's dog.
And how does a bell hold the candy if it doesn't have any arms? How does it get into your house without being heard? It just didn't add up. I suppose similar questions could be asked of the Easter bunny. I had just never thought about it that hard.
Nothing we said was of any help whatsoever to the Moroccan woman. Clearly disgusted, she just sat there, her lips positioned as if to spit. I wondered then if, without the language barrier, my classmates and I could have done a better job making sense of Christianity, an idea that sounds pretty far-fetched to begin with. In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. Why bother struggling with the lessons of a six-year-old if each of us didn't believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve? I'm not sure how that fits in with the Resurrection, but if I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. A bell though, that's [BLEEP] up.
Here, I had spent all this time feeling intimidated by French people and for nothing. The next time the teacher humiliated me or someone at the market gave me a hard time, I'd just roll my eyes like the Moroccan woman, thinking, "Well, what can you do with a nation of people who'll apparently believe in anything?"
Writer David Sedaris.
Well, our program was produced today by Blue Chevigny and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, and Julie Snyder.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who I would describe this way.
His knuckles are dirty and scabbed. His breath smells of mash and lighter fluid.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
Not friendly, but menacing.
PRI, Public Radio International.