Love, Santa

Love, Santa
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I wasn’t sure how it worked: if I could clasp my hands and pray to Santa or if one had to actually write letters to the North Pole to get a wish granted. Not that, at twelve, I believed in Saint Nick, but in my desperation I wasn’t above begging for a miracle.

And yet, when I woke that Christmas morning, I knew it was too late for any wish, prayer, or even bargain with the devil to prevent my father from ruining Christmas.

As I watched my pajama-clad half-sisters, dad, and stepmom giggle and rush down the staircase, I knew there was nothing I could do but hope that when I got downstairs, I would not see a horse in the living room.

*

I always knew that I didn’t fit in with my dad’s new family.

While Dad and his new wife, Susan, loved hunting, fishing, and cooking their kills, I was a vegetarian. While my half-sisters grew up rowdy, loud, and tough, I was never happier than when I was inside, alone, with a book. And even though Dad was passionate about his horses, owning two and riding them daily, I always preferred fuzzy, lazy cats.

Such differences were small, however, compared to our conflicting opinions on Christmas.

Call me a Scrooge but, growing up, I never liked the holiday.

I simply couldn’t understand why anyone would want to drag a full-grown tree indoors. Putting up snowflake decorations in 80-degree Southern California weather, I decided, should be considered court-accepted evidence of insanity, not proof of having a “holiday spirit.”

Plus, even from a young age, I hated the idea of Santa. I could never convince myself to look forward to the prospect of an old, unshaven man shimmying down my chimney. It sounded like a story from a late night episode of Dateline – not a tale found in children’s picture books.

Sure, I liked the two-week break from school and I loved those seasonal pie flavors at Denny’s, so I never thought of Christmas as a complete failure. But Dad and his family were strangely enchanted by every last thing about the holiday: from the tallest inflatable front-yard snowman, to the smallest piece of stupid tinsel.

Every year, Dad and Susan counted down the days until Christmas. They hung too many lights and watched It’s A Wonderful Life until the film from the VHS came out. They blasted Christmas songs from the CD player, proudly displayed their A Christmas Story leg lamp, and covered the house in Santa-and-his-reindeer themed anything.

So it was unfortunate that my parents’ post-divorce visitation schedule landed me at Dad’s house every Christmas morning.

From the beginning, Dad knew that I’d never be one of those darling children who dreamed of snow or magic elves. He wasn’t dumb. He knew I was never going to send letters to the North Pole, asking for a pony or a rocket ship.

But it didn’t matter once my half-sister, Allison, was old enough to sit on Santa’s lap. She danced around the house whenever a Christmas carol came on the radio and her young life revolved around the ABC Family holiday marathons. She covered her curly blonde hair with a cotton ball-tipped Santa hat to celebrate the season and even wrote letters to the North Pole in July.

She loved Christmas so much, she practically had cranberry sauce running through her freaking veins.

And coincidently, Allison seemed to naturally share a lot of Dad’s other interests, too. Even as a baby, Allison loved going on the family fishing boat and she adored Dad’s horses.

The year I turned twelve; Allison was six, and our youngest sister Avery was three. Like every other year, the house was transformed into a winter wonderland by October. There were Christmas trees in almost every room and light-up reindeer animatronics on the front lawn. Bits of holly hung from the stair railing and the whole house smelled like pine. It was festive. It was wintery. It was jolly.

I hated it.

As a non-believer in Santa, I was allowed to listen in on the adults’ Christmas present conversations every year – as long as I didn’t accidently tell my half-sisters what gifts they were getting. Late one night, after Allison and Janine went to bed, I sat with Dad and Susan as they talked about going “all out” and buying Allison a pony. Dad’s blue eyes lit up as he explained how it was the perfect way to combine Allison’s love of Christmas and horses. Susan, wearing her bathrobe, her brown hair still wet from a shower, added that it was a practical gift, since Avery would be old enough to ride the pony in a couple years, too.

“A pony? You’re actually going to get her a pony?” I asked. “A live, literal pony?” I was convinced they were kidding. Dad was known to play a joke every so often, but Susan was serious to a fault. They both nodded at me, grinning like the elves at Macy’s.

They continued to brainstorm, talking about how they’d bring the pony inside early on Christmas morning. They’d lead it into the living room right next to the tree. He pony would have a bow on its head, and a note, stained with tea leaves to look old and more official, with large, ornate lettering spelling, “Love, Santa.”

This was the stupidest gift idea I’d ever heard of. “Being given a pony on Christmas,” I explained, “will ruin a six-year-old for life. You’ll spoil her.”

They didn’t respond. Instead, Dad watched as Susan furiously scribbled the idea down onto a yellow pad of paper.

As if shecould forget to buy a pony.

I argued against the gift idea, explaining that Allison would never remember to feed or walk the pony, and the duties would fall on the three of us. I added that presenting her with a big present now would make her expect an even bigger one next year, and the year after that. “She’ll be the only second grader with a car.” I said, “The only seventh grader with a space ship.”

Unmoved, Dad and Susan continued brainstorming.

When I finally started up the stairs to go to bed, I could hear them still planning in the living room. “It’s just like finding a puppy under the tree,” Dad said.

Yeah, a big puppy, I thought. With bigger poop.

When mom picked me up Sunday night, I told her everything.

“A pony? Like P-O-N-Y? Pony?” she said.

“Like a small horse.”

Mom said they would never do it, but I wasn’t so sure.

Weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Mom dropped me at Dad’s house after church, as usual. I hadn’t heard anything else about the pony, so when I went to sleep that night, I still didn’t know what Dad and Susan decided to do.

The next morning, Allison gathered Dad, Susan, Avery, and me, leading us all downstairs. I held my breath as I walked into the living room, and noticed one thing immediately: the room was absolutely pony-less.

Apparently, Dad and Susan had decided against the pony. Good. I quietly saluted their wise decision and watched as Allison danced around the Christmas tree, giddy with excitement, ignorant of the pony her parents had denied her.

The morning crawled on, and I slowly realized Dad and Susan had actually skimped on Christmas this year. There were plenty of presents, but they were all small toys or things that we needed, like pajamas and socks. Generally, I liked more practical gifts: I always welcomed a new sweatshirt or beach towel. But I tried to hide my disappointment when I ripped open a gift labeled “To Jillian, From Santa” and found a bottle of body wash, men’s body wash, with white beads floating inside. By the way the liquid didn’t quite reach the top of the bottle, I could tell it had already been used.

I looked at my dad, waiting for him to say, “Oh, woops, how did that get in there?” Or maybe, “You should have seen your face! Soap! For Christmas! Wasn’t that funny?” But he said nothing, just reached for another present.

Only then did it become clear to me: this wasn’t a joke. Dad had probably taken the shower gel from his bathroom and wrapped Christmas paper around it.

Did he think I smelled? Was this a very direct hint that I needed a more vigorous scent and a “20% more free” size bottle to handle my new, pre-pubescent smells? Or was this something else?

I looked down at the bottle of blue gel, then to my sisters’ piles of dollar-store dolls and plastic hair barrettes, and suddenly I felt sick. My throat dried out as if I had just eaten gingerbread cookies with no milk.

It was obvious now that Dad and Susan probably hadn’t officially decided against the pony. They just couldn’t afford it. Here I was, afraid Allison would get a too-extravagant gift when clearly, the family was having financial trouble. That was why they’d dropped the pony topic so suddenly.

As I watched Dad hand Allison another gift, which she happily unwrapped to reveal a new shirt, I understood then that I didn’t actually care about the pony. I was just jealous.

And I wasn’t jealous of the possibility of Allison getting such an impressive gift. After all, I wouldn’t have wanted a pony for myself. I was envious of the bond Allison and Dad shared. They were close and I wanted a relationship like that with him too.

Perhaps, I thought, I was just going about it the wrong way.

Maybe Dad and I didn’t have that much in common and maybe I felt like I didn’t quite fit in with the family – but I could fix that. I decided, right then and there, that in the new year, I’d stop being jealous and find a way to bond with them all. I’d make a better effort to do the things they liked to do. I’d willingly go on a camping trip, even help plan one. I’d try to be more interested in things like horses and fishing, and I’d try harder to like Christmas. It would take some work but eventually, my relationship with my dad and his new family would be stronger and I’d fit in.

When all of the gifts had been opened, Dad looked around the tree, playfully itching the spot above his temple with one, hooked finger.

“Well, I thought Santa had one more gift left,” he said.

“But everything’s opened,” Susan said with an overly exaggerated shrug.

Dad pulled a large, white envelope out from under the tree skirt and gasped. Allison’s eyes lit up like twinkle lights and she hurried over to him, Avery toddling behind her. Dad held the piece of paper up to the light, as if he were having trouble reading the words.

“Don’t do it,” I heard myself say under my breath.

“Dear Allison,” he said slowly. I cringed. “Look outside for your last present. Love, Santa!” He said the last words with cartoonish emphasis, drawing out the words as his eyes got wide with mock surprise.

Before I could even get up from the couch, Allison, Susan, Avery, and Dad were opening the front door. From my seat, I heard Allison squeal with excitement in the yard. Dad laughed as I, too, hurried to the front porch.

“We knew it would all be over once she saw him,” Dad said. He stood in the doorway, talking to me over his shoulder. “So we had to save the big present for last.”

I looked past him and saw it – a brown and white Christmas pony, with a red bow on its back.

At first, I crossed my arms over my chest in protest, but as I looked out at the yard, watching Allison hug the pony and pet its mane, I felt happy for her. I’d dreaded the idea of Allison getting a pony for Christmas, but somehow, I wasn’t upset. I don’t know if this was due to the fact that, just moments ago, I’d decided to make more of an effort to get along with the family, or if seeing Allison’s wide smile softened my mood. Either way, I was happy that my sister would always have this memory of getting a real, live pony for Christmas.

And then, I remembered: Santa didn’t bring her this pony, her parents did. As it turned out, there weren’t money problems as I’d imagined. Dad and Susan got Allison a pony, and for that very same Christmas, they’d given me used soap.

I didn’t know what to say as we all stood there on the lawn that morning, so I just watched as Allison climbed onto her Christmas present. We all stood there, together, and watched as the present slowly began eating the lawn.

Later that morning, we had breakfast, and Dad loaded everyone in the car to take the pony to the stable. I stayed home, waiting for my mom to pick me up. Finally, she did.

As was customary for Christmas day, Mom drove us to my grandma’s house. On the way, I told her the story, leaving out the part about the soap. I made jokes about how crazy Dad and Susan must be to actually buy a pony and I smiled when I talked about how surprised Allison was. I wanted to sound like I was happy about the whole thing, but by the time I finished, I felt my throat go dry again, and I didn’t know what to say.

Looking back now, I know I wasn’t old enough to be able to describe, or even understand what I was feeling that day in the car. But as we drove, I had the distant idea that maybe it wasn’t my fault that Dad’s family and I had never been close.

I remembered the times Dad left me home alone because I didn’t want to go fishing with him. About the times Mom drove me the hour to their house, only to find that they went on an out-of-state camping trip without bothering to tell us. I remembered all the times I felt left out or unwanted or forgotten. I understood, in a small way, that it wasn’t our different interests that were the problem. That the problem between me and my dad was maybe, just – my dad.

After that year, I spent every Christmas with my mom. I still visited my dad’s house every other weekend for years, but I decided that I was old enough to make my own holiday plans.

And while I’d never liked Christmas before, the holiday felt different after that year. Mom and I made our own traditions: making waffles on Christmas morning, buying matching sweaters to wear to Grandma’s for dinner, and stopping for second helpings of pie at Denny’s on the way back home. Suddenly, I was happy, even jolly, during the holidays, like a child who got exactly what she wanted for Christmas. Maybe because I had.

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