It is a little disconcerting. He sits back on his haunches, arms wrapped around his knees, back close up against the lower branches of the Christmas tree. At first impression, he looks like he’s trying to blend in with the rest of the presents, maybe some huge stuffed animal. The fact that he happens to be half as tall as the tree and covered with what looks like semi-flexible concrete-colored tree bark makes that initial impression unlikely.
“What on earth are you doing here?” I ask.
I’d heard a noise I didn’t recognize, that woke me from a sound sleep. It was a noise that didn’t belong coming from the living room at 4 a.m. on Christmas Morning. Worrying about some kind of house-breakers, I padded out to the living room and flipped on the lights, baseball bat behind my back. Ancient History professor that I was, I didn’t own a more modern weapon.
“I can see you, you know.”
Uncomfortable, he shifts his weight from one cheek to the other. In the process, he bumps into the tree, and one of the antique glass ball falls off an upper branch, bounces once on the carpet and rolls across the floor. It stops just short of the fire- place.
I wince. There are only three of them left after years of little helpers’ uncertain hands and shrieking-with-delight chase scenes. It doesn’t break, though, and I move slowly and smoothly to retrieve it.
“I want to see what this is for.”
I’m startled by his voice—deep and warm, not the raspy Vader-breath I was expecting. He sounds almost human. A little like Santa.
“What do you mean?”
“This– .” He sweeps his short, thick arm to indicate the room, and in so doing rocks the tree again. Another ball falls off. I retrieve that one too, and he groans softly. “I am not used to this,” he rumbles and begins to stand. The tree rocks again as his rough backside comes up under the bottom branches. The whole thing tips, hesitates, and crashes to the ground. The third antique ball bounces free of its branch, bounces once and disintegrates in red and silver shards. I groan.
He—or maybe it, not sure if they actually have those kinds of distinctions—raises an eyebrow. “What?”
“An antique, my mother’s mother….”
He bends over to examine it, then looks up with an expression that says either he can’t see it or he does not understanding what I mean.
“A tradition,” I explain.
“THAT is what I mean!” The house shakes.
I hear a sleepy voice from down the hall asking if they can come out now.
“It’s ok, honey. Don’t come out, though. Santa’s not ready yet.”
“There!” He moderates his voice so that only this end of the house shakes.
“Can we take this outside?”
“No! I need to understand this…. all of this.” He again sweeps his arm around the room, missing the mantle decorations by inches. The ashes in the fireplace stir and drift up the chimney. He looks suspiciously at them and then at me.
“Why a fire?” He stops for a moment and adds, “And a cut-down tree inside the house? The fetishes… What do they protect you from?”
“The what? Fetishes?”
He points at the mantle. It is covered with fake snow, miniature plastic trees, and ceramic houses and people. At each end is a red candle in a hurricane shade.
“Are those your people? What have you prepared for, what kind of attack?”
I am somewhat taken aback at his assessment of the decorations. When I approved them, I told the wife that any more would be just distracting. Fetishes, huh? As for the idea of an attack—I begin to see what he means. We did go a little heavy on decorations this year.
“Who is this Santa?”
“For cryin’ out loud, don’t you guys listen to the… ?” I hesitate.
How do foreigners learn about long-standing traditions?
“Don’t you guys keep current?” I ask. “I would think that of ALL people”—I hesitate, not sure if ‘people’ is the right thing to call demons. He might take offense, which wasn’t a good idea. And he is definitely a demon. The stink of sulfur is beginning to overpower the pine scent—a dead giveaway.
“Don’t you all know what this is all about?”
“This… isn’t going as planned. You have changed it. You always do. And now I want to know what is the meaning of this!” He begins to swing his arm again but stops. He also seems to have shrunk, maybe to fit the available space. Nice option, I thought. I could have used that at that Faculty party when…
He interrupts my thought with a question.
“Why do you always change it?”
“We change it?”
“Yes! This was supposed to focus you on what you could do for yourselves, without, uhm, outside help.”
What is that hesitation? What outside help? Or… Whose outside help? We both know Who is available to help, and Who is there to hinder. What on earth is wrong with this guy? Demons don’t have angst.
I figure I better stall.
“So, you came on a fact-finding mission?”
“As in, spying?”
“Who sent you?”
I give him the silent treatment, forcing an answer.
“I came on my own.” That is a lie. These guys never go anywhere on their own or for their own purposes.
More silence from me.
“Clearly you do not believe me.” He grows a little bigger. Maybe a little thicker. The light isn’t very strong and with the Christmas tree on it’s side, the shadows are all skewed.
“So, what exactly is your question?” I ask him. Might as well play along. The kids seem to have gone back to sleep. Wife is snoring, I can hear her from here.
“What is all this about?” he asks again.
And then it dawns on me.
“Are you asking me the true meaning of Christmas?” I am now reeling, either from the sulfur, which is much stronger now, or from the sheer emotional weight of the idea that a demon was asking a question that has bugged millions of humans for years. And of all people, he puts the question to me.
He tries to prime the pump. I think.
“It is designed to lead humans away from looking to… the unseen…. for help. It is supposed to give you hope that your race can solve its own problems, if you will each just give a little. We know you are always looking for ways to prove yourselves; this was designed to be the ultimate test. ‘Would you give at the worst time of year, give more than you can afford, to those you have already given to all year-long?’
He pauses, pondering the brilliance of the idea. Then he shakes his head slowly and frowns. “But you do. But… the idea has become polluted. It’s broken. It doesn’t, isn’t working like it should.”
It dawns on me that this guy–or girl or whatever kind of demon it is–really is struggling. This gift-giving Christmas set up was supposed to be the perfect downward spiral. It should have taken mankind into poverty and frustration and war. Here we were in the worst season, giving above and beyond what we normally give, giving what we couldn’t afford to give. We were supposed to get angry, fight and take each other out so we didn’t have to give.
This was designed to be the end game, and when we’re all dead, they win. And it wasn’t working. And it dawned on me why. We had made it into a holiday for and about kids, not adults. It was, at the root of it all, a kids holiday based on the story of a kid being born.
I bring up that idea to him and he considers it.
“We already have a kids holiday, in the spring.” he says.
I remind him that spring is the procreation time, and maybe that holiday is not such a good idea, either.
He nods and seems to make a mental note of it. But then he says, “What better distraction from the unseen? Procreation is so human, so do-it-yourself.”
Again I remind him that it technically is not do-it-yourself, but rather a small group activity, one that we all enjoy very much, both individually and as a group.
“It is far more individual than you realize.”
I let that go; I think he’s been on the internet too much. And I don’t really want to help him analyze either holiday, anyway. I can’t think of anything beneficial coming out of that.
He gets agitated and I ask him what’s up.
“Who is the invader?”
I have to think for a second. “Santa?”
“Him. He comes from the sky?”
“Uh, according to tradition, yes.”
“Yes, what do you mean, Tradition?”
“As in, we have always done it this way?”
He points out that we don’t do anything the same way, starting with the Christmas balls (“there are only three left. Were there not twelve to begin with?”) and ends with the mantle (“It was different last year.” You bet it was! One end of the greens fell in the fire and almost burnt the house down. Enough of that tradition!).
“So tradition is not the same every time, but rather is different every time,” he says. He gives me a look and it is not a Santa Clause kind of look. And honestly, I got nothing for him. He’s right: tradition changes in the retelling, the reenacting, every time. I guess the devil isn’t in all the details.
Now he is even more agitated and he is growing bigger. I ask him what’s wrong.
“I have to know what this is about. NOW!”
Just at that moment a small face in p.j.’s comes around the corner. Looks up at him, and with the sweetest, most innocent voice a parent ever heard, says:
For a few seconds, the room loses focus, or maybe it’s just me. But the tree tilts back to vertical. The two ornaments that were in my hands are now on the tree, in place, as is the broken one, but it’s not broken. The fire snaps and crackles and as things come back into focus, there I stand talking to the most picture-perfect Santa Clause I have ever heard or seen or read about, white fur trim and all.
“Yes, little one?” The voice is still the demon’s voice and the pj face lights up like a lamp. Me on the other hand, I am none too pleased about the stray kid watching me confront a demon in the living room early on Christmas morning.
“Young man, get back to bed now!”
Santa ho ho ho’s and kneels down.
“Give Santa a hug and kiss first, OK?”
He does, of course, with great gusto. Obedient child! Does what he’s told, with feeling.
“OK,” says Santa. “Now off to bed, I’m not quite done here.”
The pj’s disappear down the dim hall in a joyful pitter-patter. So does the red suit and beard. The tree and the fire remain.
“I see,” says the scaly one. And he is gone.
* * *
I watch the fire burn down and die, trying to decide what just happened here. Before I have a chance to finish arranging the presents, the whole family is jumping on me, waking me up. But the presents—they are all out there, with some extras that neither me nor the wife remember buying.
And at the top of the tree, right in the front, is a new ornament, an antique-looking gnome, sitting down with his arms around his knees and a satisfied smile on his face. And in on hand, a little sign reads, “Merry Christmas.”
© 2008 Gordon De Land. All Rights Reserved.