A Christmas Story, by Me
~The Dark Santa~
(in the spirit of “Chucky the Doll meets Scrooge McDuck”)
The holiday festivities once again roll back around and the Dark Santa is trolling in the background to keep order and decorum. In our house, he is never relegated back into the box; he is always on guard and looking out over the children, good and bad, tinkering his bells to announce his arrival and ready with his switch to be used on misbehaving bums. But this year he has a special message to deliver, and this evening before Christmas, he comes gently in the night to remind me of a few things.
I created this particular Dark Santa and a batch like him back in 1992. I don’t think we made more than a couple dozen, me and the good wife, back in the days BC (before children). I would watch the local PBS station on Saturday morning as my hero Rick Bütz, the Adirondack woodcarver, would turn a hunk of wood into something real and alive. My teaching career was just underway, and Laura and I had just moved from my parents’ house, where we had shacked up in desperation as poor newlyweds, to a beautiful new home that my good friend had built. We were young and independent, free with time and money. The road was wide open. Then one Saturday Rick created a belsnickel, and as he brought the block to life, he told the story of Santa’s cranky cousin. From the history pages:
“He is typically very ragged and disheveled. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand. A few nights before Christmas, a rap would come at the door. A cross-looking man wearing furs would step through the door. He held a hickory switch in one hand and a sack laden with candy and nuts in the other. One by one, he called the children in the house forward and asked them to recite a poem, a Bible verse or math equations. He’d warn them to behave. Then he’d toss the goodies on the floor — but woe to children who forgot their manners and greedily dove for the candy and nuts. They might feel the sting of the switch on their backs. But there was still time to mend their ways before Santa visited on Christmas Eve.”
For some reason, the little guy just spoke to me. I went on a tear, laying out the template and carving away, shaping the body, incising the eyes, and curving the lines down in his beard with the compact woodcarving kit my youthful wife bought me. She would paint his robe and the mittens, I would drill and nail his free-swinging arms in place, complete with broomstalk switches, and we would move on to the next one. So off the toy assembly line they marched, the first one finding his way to my parents’ mantelpiece over the fireplace—Mom and Dad just loved him. The rest were dispatched to many of my closest friends and relatives, and maybe to some of their friends; I don’t think I sold any.
Two decades plus later, my late parents are a warm memory. My not-so-young bride and I wake up nights and worry for our own children, our students, and other loved ones in this fouled-up world, as my folks surely did for us. And coming down the stairs one morning recently, Dark Santa jumps out at me from his perpetual place on the window ledge, as if to say, “Okay, bud. Now it’s your turn.”
I decide to fetch the camera, take his photo, and not exactly in the true spirit of Christmastime, I post Dark Santa up on my Facebook page, shouting but not writing the words I am feeling:
Happy Holidays, World. You have been a bad world, full of ignorance and intolerance and demagoguery and divisiveness. Maybe it’s time you felt the switch.
But maybe that’s not what the little guy had in mind. In response to my post, one by one, our friends and relations post pictures of him and stories of how this gift they received from us years ago still takes an honored place at Christmastime. And I notice that most of the soldiers in the dark army of Santas we sent marching out into the world two decades ago have returned without the switches of days gone by.
Today the little guy spoke to me again. On this day before Christmas break, I head into school, still not entirely with the mood—today is the darkest day of the year, after all. But first thing, one of my young charges bounds into the room before her scheduled class time. “Good morning, Mr. Rozell. Would you like a candy cane?” She is shiny-eyed, smiling, radiating goodness and purity and love and everything that is right with the world. Though I harbor a distaste for candy canes, I am powerless to refuse and take one from the box with a simple ‘thank you, sweetness’. She smiles again and nods and turns and bounds off again. I’m comforted, somehow. But as soon as she leaves, I set it down and go back to pick at my mindless mountain of paperwork.
An hour later and she is back in the room and settling in to be lashed with a day-before-vacation exam. But before the test can begin, she is up out of her seat and excitedly rushing my desk like a linebacker barreling in to drop the quarterback, with phone in hand. And that is exactly what she is going to do. A hundred-something pound girl is about to drop me. Alyssa has to show me a photograph that she just received from her teacher-mother in a neighboring school district.
She turns the phone towards me, and standing on a school desk miles away is the DARK SANTA who has been lately making a good show of interrupting my life. Her mom had found him in her elementary school classroom and just now turned him over, and there was MY NAME burned into his underside, a generation ago—and it looks like this guy’s switch is also missing in action.
Like the proverbial bottle cast out to the sea in my youth—full of hope and promise—this Dark Santa returns to me again, specially hand-delivered by Goodness, Purity, and Love, on the darkest day of the year. I can only figure that my mother, who had once nurtured children in that very school, is responsible for this somehow:
Feel the warmth.
See the good.
Be the light.