There's a patch of green space about half a block from my house called Fireman's Park, named for the big metal bell that sits in the center as a memorial to firemen killed in the line of duty. Every Christmas, our fire department puts up a manger alongside the bell, replete with the baby Jesus, the wise men, a goat and a donkey, and they string multi-colored lights all along the perimeter of the park. On Christmas Eve, four fire trucks pull up to the park, sirens blaring, and one of the firemen, who is dressed as Santa Claus, descends from the hook and ladder. He then takes a seat by the bell, and children wait in line for an opportunity to sit on his lap and tell him what they want for Christmas.
This year, I took my 23-month-old son, Eddie, to meet him. Eddie had been coughing for the last several days, the kind of cough that sounds like a barking seal, but I thought seeing Santa would cheer him up. As we waited on line, eating ginger snaps and drinking warm cider, we bumped into a boy from Eddie's class, whose father told me his son had croup but that he had gone to school for several days before being diagnosed. It's highly contagious, the father added. So that's what my son has, I thought. Sometimes, your child's diagnosis comes not from your own doctor, but from the doctor of the kid who got him sick.
As we talked, a stout woman with a ponytail and glasses walked down the line telling everyone, "Santa has a hernia. He can't have anyone on his lap."
By the time we reached Santa, it was raining.
"Is it true, you have a hernia?" I asked Santa, holding Eddie in the air above the man's lap.
He didn't answer. He just reached his arms out for my son and sat him on his knee.
"And what would you like for Christmas?" Santa asked.
Eddie had been saying, "San-ta! San-ta!" over and over again all week, but now that he was face-to-face with the man, he just sat there and said nothing. He didn't look particularly happy, and yet he didn't look particularly sad or frightened. He simply sat there as if Santa's lap was a chair like any other.
"What would you like for Christmas, young man?"
"Tell him what you want," I said.
Eddie looked up at Santa and then stared out into the park. I shrugged my shoulders, snapped a photo, and then lifted my son off Santa's lap. A woman dressed as Mrs. Claus then handed Eddie a candy cane filled with green and red Spree, and I was handed a heavy paper bag whose weight made you think it was laden with all kinds of delights but I knew from having received one last year that all it contained was two delicious apples and an orange.
Christmas morning, Eddie opened his gifts and then starting taking other people's gifts from under the tree, saying, "San-ta! San-ta!" in that syncopated manner in which people talk when they're speaking a language other than their own.
A few days after Christmas, we headed upstate to visit my brother and sister. My sister's boyfriend, Rip, has broad shoulders, a white beard and moustache, rosy cheeks and a twinkle in his eye. As soon as he walked in the room, Eddie's eyes grew wide like saucers. "San-ta! San-ta!" he said.
Rip played up the resemblance and lifted his big beefy hands in the air and pretended he had a pen in one hand and a pad in the other, and said, "I have you on my list for next year. You better be good."
Throughout dinner, Eddie would look up at Rip and stare. Rip would then lift up his hands and pretend to make a list, and Eddie would lean over toward my husband and whisper something, though he doesn't yet speak in full sentences, so much of it was gibberish. After a while, I tried to distract Eddie from staring by placing in front of him a pooping deer I'd just bought on sale at a drug store. The deer is fed brown jelly beans, which then come out his rear end if you press down on his tail. But there was something blocking the hole through which the beans are released, and I spent much of the meal trying to dislodge the blockage.
After dinner, we went back to my brother's house for dessert. After we finished eating, my nephew brought out his hermit crab and set it on the table. It looked like just a shell until the crab began to crawl out and make its way across the table. Eddie kept saying, "Eeew," and every time the crab would head toward him, Eddie would shout, "San-ta! San-ta!" and Rip would gently turn the hermit crab so that it veered off in another direction.
Having Santa at our table put me in a dilemma. If I told Eddie that Rip wasn't really Santa, it would imply that there really was a Santa, and I wasn't sure I wanted to reinforce that notion. If I told Eddie that Rip couldn't possibly be Santa because in fact there was no such thing as Santa, it might crush his sugar-coated little heart and all his hopes and dreams. Of course, I could just let Eddie believe that Rip was Santa and that our family had really good connections. For simplicity's sake, that's just what I did.
By New Year's Eve, I would have thought Eddie would have forgotten about Santa. But as I got dressed to go out, I propped Eddie up in my desk chair, and as he rifled through my desk drawer, he found my Christmas address labels, each of which had a little cartoon drawing of a snowman, a Christmas tree or Santa Claus. We'd been playing with these address labels since they arrived in late November. Every time he pulled them out of my drawer, I'd ask him which cartoon character he wanted, and once he chose, I would cut the character off the label and stick it on his hand. Santa was the perennial favorite. This particular morning, he bypassed the address labels and reached deeper into the drawer and found a set of Forever postage stamps that had Santa on them. He was about to begin sticking them all over his hands when I caught him and took the sheet away.
"San-ta!!" he shrieked. "San-ta! San-ta!"
"They're stamps!" I said, folding them up and putting them in my pocket.
That evening, we attended a New Year's Eve party down the street. There were about 10 of us seated at two tables that had been pushed together to form an "L." About halfway through dinner, Eddie got up from the table and even though I was seated just one chair away from him, the chairs were jammed up so close to the wall, he had to walk all the way around the entire "L" to reach me. He grabbed my hand and began tugging on it so that I would get up from my seat. He then pulled me to the front door, where outside, he could see the multi-colored Christmas lights of Fireman's Park. The woman hosting the party lived right across the street.
"San-ta," he said, pointing outside. The lights obviously reminded him of the night he met Santa in the park. "San-ta," he said again. He was now tugging on my arm to take him outside.
"He's not out there, buddy. He'll be back next year," I said. I was now enlarging the myth of Santa, but my back was against the wall.
Eddie began to cry, and I felt like I'd once again failed to shield him from life's disappointments. But as we walked back to the dining room, Eddie spotted the wood truck one of the dinner guests had given him earlier in the evening.
"Truck!" he said, and he sat down to play with it.