Much of my growing up happened five years sooner than other kids my age. There are only five years separating me from my oldest sibling. Surely, Allison couldn't be told one thing at 8 years old and me something totally different at 3. Before I started school, my mother sat us down and told us that there was no such thing as Santa Claus.
"I'm going to trust you kids to keep this to yourselves," she looked at us seriously, her glasses just stopping at the end of her nose. Only a mean spirited know it all would blow it for the other kids.
I can only surmise that as a child my mother had been lied to by the adults in her life. So when Dr. Kaye rubbed the ice cold alcohol on my thigh and held the syringe up like a revolver -- a drop of the measles vaccine sliding down the menacing needle -- I asked, "Will it hurt?" searching my mother's eyes for a fairytale (that's not a needle, it's a feather.) She returned my stare and said plainly, "Yes, it will." She was right.
I'd been in the waiting room and watched newly vaccinated kids emerge. With tear stained faces they shot hateful glances at their mothers. They didn't take their hurt angry eyes off of the woman who said it wouldn't hurt a bit. "You betrayed me," their eyes said.
I was proud that my mother trusted me with the truth. I felt all grown up. I smiled politely when a kid at school showed me the quarter the Tooth Fairy left him. It was too early for me to be judgmental, but I did quietly question authority in kindergarten. I knew that doing the hokey pokey and turning myself around was NOT what it was all about. But I kept silent.
One morning in mid-December after we were done singing about being happy and knowing it, the teacher stood up and came from behind her desk and leaned over to meet all of our eyes. She was so excited for us that she slapped her thighs to punctuate every word, "Santa (slap) is (slap) right (slap) outside (slap)." The class went crazy. Kids leapt from their seats and charged the row of windows. The other half pressed themselves against the door and got on tip toe to see if they could catch a glimpse of him through the narrow window above the knob. I kept my seat.
Santa came in. Over the screams and shouts of my classmates, I could hear his well-rehearsed, "Ho, Ho, Ho!" He was wearing bright blue Levis that were a little too big. He had an ecru pillowcase full of unwrapped toys on his back. He handed little plastic dolls and matchbox cars to the kids that jumped up around him, some of them with tears in their eyes. It was newsreel footage of the Beatles arriving at the Hollywood Bowl. I took my doll from Santa and noticed that his hands and arms at the wrist were covered with coarse black hair. I could see the cuff of a blue flannel shirt under the dirty white cuff of his Santa coat. The white beard was tucked behind his ears and his black side burns. When he raised his hand to wave and wish us Merry Christmas, his sleeve slid down and revealed a small tattoo of a hair covered hula girl on his forearm. My classmates squealed wildly waving their dolls and little cars in the air. Apparently, I was the only one to notice the hula girl.
I grew up and learned to take advantage of the power of suggestion. If you really believe there is a Santa and nothing on Earth would please you more than to see this Santa in your kindergarten classroom, you'll never suspect that Santa is really a scrawny farmer. Your fervor to believe turns the farmer into the red cheeked fantasy of a Coca-Cola ad. As a marketing executive, I spent my first career crafting words to match powerful pictures to convince people that plastic packaging will save us, and that we should all live in professionally crafted log homes.
As a chef I've used similar tactics to promote the sale of pineapple upside down cake by claiming there was such a thing as a "coveted corner piece." I've also seen chefs with Santa-like celebrity. The crowds are in love no matter what comes out of the kitchen. All it takes is a clever spider who can spell "SOME PIG" and a tiny portion on a big plate with a month's salary dinner check gets rave reviews and the food blogs are abuzz over the latest untouchable. They raise their .99 cent plastic dolls with scratchy seams and painted on shoes to the heavens to make sure everyone knows they've got one. It could very well be a precious Madame Alexander. Plus the fervor is contagious. You certainly don't want that kid next to you to be screaming louder than you are. Not totally convinced its Santa? Shhhh. No one can know that. The Santa suit only works if enough of you believe.
I admit to entering a dark room to take the tooth and leave a dollar under the pillow. Perhaps because no adult in my life lied to me, I raised my kids with a tempered version of my mother's honesty. Will it hurt? Yes, only for a minute. But polio hurts more.
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