The Year Santa Went Soft

by Kerry Dougherty

Far be it from me to say anything bad about Santa Claus, especially on Christmas Eve. But there was a Christmas, ages ago, when I was a tad disappointed in the old boy. In fact, I thought Mr. Claus — Father Christmas, Ole St. Nick — was getting lazy.

You see, back when Eisenhower was president, when TV shows were in black and white and movies weren’t rated because they didn’t need to be, Santa not only brought toys. He brought the family Christmas tree.

At least to our house. Maybe we were special, although at the time I assumed he did the same for every family in the world.

That’s right, Santa dragged a 7-foot fir down the chimney along with the toys. Then he set it up, tossed on the lights, hung every ball and draped every icicle. And he still found time to eat a plate of cookies.

What an industrious guy.

I assure you, there is nothing quite like getting up on Christmas morning and casting your little eyes for the first time on your tree all aglow. Somewhere in my attic today are reels of 8mm film of my brother and me staring in slack-jawed amazement on Christmas mornings as we got our first glimpse of the tree.

For a few magical moments, the tree was grander than all of the packages under its boughs. It even overshadowed the Dougherty family’s most treasured Christmas accessory: the fake fireplace. A must in a hearthless house. Ours had a black cardboard mantel and an orange tissue paper “fire” with a blinking light behind it. If you squinted hard, it actually looked like a flame flickered there.

Forgive me, I digress.

One year, I can’t remember which, Santa phoned my folks to tell them we’d have to start getting our own tree and decorate it ourselves. Looking back now, that coincided with a time where our toys were increasingly difficult to assemble and our parents looked like zombies every Christmas morning.

It took me about 20 years to connect the two.

In fact, we were stunned by the news that a Christmas tree was now our responsibility.

“Why?” my brother and I chorused.

My father thought for a minute.

“Santa joined the union,” Dad replied. “Dragging around trees and lights and tinsel aren’t in his job description anymore.”

My father had been a proud member of the Seafarer’s International Union. We didn’t know diddly about fireplaces, but we knew all about unions.

“What union is he in?” I asked suspiciously.

“The teamsters,” Dad replied, adding, “the reindeer teamsters.”

“Well, shouldn’t it just be new houses that don’t get their trees put up by Santa anymore?” I asked.

“Nope,” my dad replied. “We’re not grandfathered in. This is it. He’s no longer doing trees. He says it takes too much time. From now on, it’s up to us.”

“It’s not like his job is that hard,” I sniffed. “He works at Christmas then he sits around the rest of the time drinking cocoa.”

Dad indignantly reminded me that Santa ran the world’s biggest toy shop and worked there all year long. On top of that, he had to deal with all those pesky elves.

The tree tasks were killing the old guy.

Then my father dropped the bomb. If we refused to take over tree duties, he warned, there was a chance St. Nick might go on strike. No tree. No toys. No reindeer paws on the rooftop.

Santa had us.

From then on, trees were our business. But each time we dragged a Scotch pine across the rug a few days before Christmas, we’d reminisce about those magical times when a fully illuminated tree just appeared in our living room on December 25th.

Those were the good old days. Before Santa got his union card. And went soft on us.

This column is republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed & Unedited.

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9 responses to “The Year Santa Went Soft”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Greatest Christmas Memory (well, one of them.) 1963. A piss ant little Air Force Base in Turkey, outside Izmir. Somehow the USO picked us not only for the Bob Hope Show, but for the Christmas Day show. Hope and the crew arrived on a transport in the late afternoon Christmas Eve with the entire base applauding and waving. My Dad was in charge of building and setting up the stage in a hanger, and had the special fun of finding out what he had done that was NOT to Hope’s satisfaction, apparently not an inconsiderable list.

    But we heard all that later, after the incredible show. Tuesday Weld. Jerry Colonna. Les Brown and his Band of Renown (maybe that’s where I got the stage band bug.) If you watched the show you saw maybe three minutes of our base, but we got the whole show. Officers and their families in the back of the audience, EM front and center. Exactly right. Not sure if the Turks grasped it all, but quite a few were there.

    Hope didn’t need to do that every year. I’ve always been grateful for that service he gave to the military, which went on for a long time.


  2. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    This Christmas. 2020. Still upright, and the spousal unit said, “Let’s not exchange gifts this year.”

  3. My greatest childhood memories were rushing downstairs in the wee hours of the morning with my brother to get our stockings full of small items from Santa. (We had to wait until our parents got up to open the presents under the tree.)

    As an adult, it was when our children were very young. I’ve not yet experienced grandchildren, but look forward to it. Christmas is especially fun when young children are around so we can see it through their eyes.

  4. Paul Sweet Avatar

    Santa also set up our tree in the early 50s. I read or heard somewhere this was a German custom. He had to tie it to the window trim to keep our cat from knocking it over. If I remember correctly we bought the tree ahead of time, but left it outside in a bucket of water.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  5. John Harvie Avatar
    John Harvie

    One of my fondest memories is actually when as an adult, one other gentleman and I in our Wellington neighborhood just south of Alexandria played Santa.

    It was elaborately staged with the childrens’ parents having delivered one gift per child to a central point with a description and name of each child, along with a personalized message. On the night in question porch lights were to be off.

    The other Santa and I (visiting houses away from our own so our voices couldn’t be recognized) arrived at the door amid loud ringing of sleigh bells. In we went along with our toy sack.

    The looks on the childern’s faces were amazing, especially when we could deliver a personalized message to each child like, “Billy, I hear you are brushing your teeth all by yourself every night without being asked” or “Suzy you surely got a nice report card from school this month”.

    The considerable time and effort involved were well worth it.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    At a very young age, I got suspicious there were so many Santas everywhere we went…..

  7. Old Santa was not necessarily always a nice guy.

    He (Bishop Nicolas) attended the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. A representative from Egypt, one Arius, was teaching that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father, one of the great disputes of the day. Nicolas became so enraged that he walked up to Arius and punched him in the face.

  8. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    Coming to a neighborhood near you.
    More murders paroled… uh, pardoned. Same thing.

    Oh, and Merry Xmas, Kerry!

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