Authors: Augusten Burroughs
Tags: #Humor, #Family
Stories for Christmas
St. Martin’s Press
The names and identifying characteristics of
some people have been changed.
This book is dedicated to the people of Australia
who lost everything there is to lose in the
February fires of 2009.
And to everyone who still holds their breath to listen
for the sound of distant sleigh bells in the sky.
This book was written on a Linux-powered
computer using open-source software that is
available to everyone, free.
I am grateful to my friends and family, publishers and management, both here in the United States and abroad. Most of all, I am grateful to my readers, who have made me feel so less alone in the world.
I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store, and he asked for my autograph.
T’S NOT THAT
I was an outright nitwit of a child. It’s that the things even a nitwit could do with little or no instruction often confused me. Simple, everyday sorts of things tripped me up.
Stacking metal chairs, for example. Everybody in class just
seemed to know
exactly how to fold the seat up into the back and then nest them all together like Pringles potato chips. I sat on the floor for ten minutes with one of the things as if somebody had told me to just stare at it.
Concentrate hard, Augusten, try and turn it into an eggplant with your mind. You can do it!
The other children appeared to be born with some sort of innate knowledge, as though the action of folding and stacking child-size metal school chairs was genetically encoded within each of them, like fingernails or a sigmoid colon.
I seemed to lack the ability to comprehend the obvious. From the very beginning there had been warning signs.
Like every kid just starting school, I had to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance—something that would in many towns today be considered
and therefore forbidden; akin to forcing a child to drink the blood of a sacrificial goat or unfurl a Tabriz prayer rug and kneel barefoot on it while facing Mecca.
While I managed to learn the words, memorizing isn’t the same as
And of course I was never tested on the meaning of the pledge. It must have simply been taken for granted that even the dimmest child would easily grasp the meaning of a phrase such as
I pledge allegiance,
especially when that phrase was spoken while standing at strict attention and facing the American flag, hand in a salute above the heart. There was so little room for misinterpretation. It was the Pledge of Allegiance, not
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
If one of the teachers had asked me to explain the meaning of those words—which I chanted parrot-minded and smiling each morning—they certainly would have been shocked to hear me admit that while I didn’t know
what it was about, I knew it had something to do with Pledge, the same furniture polish my mother used and that always, inexplicably, made me feel sunny. So each morning as I spoke those hallowed words, it was the bright yellow can with the glowing lemony scent that I pictured.
It was another, more profound misunderstanding that caused so much trouble.
As a young child I had Santa and Jesus all mixed up. I could identify Coke or Pepsi with just one sip, but I could not tell you for sure why they strapped Santa to a cross. Had he missed a house? Had a good little girl somewhere in the world not received the doll he’d promised her, making the father angry?
My confusion may have stemmed from the fact that I was being raised without religion, except for a brief and entirely baffling period of Sunday school. But I certainly never detected any theological undertones in my Sunday school sessions. Mostly it was just a dank, gloomy day spent in the basement of the Unitarian Church where we were expected to play with old-time toys made out of metal; little figures like a nurse in a white uniform, a policeman, a child, a mother holding a skillet. The rest of the world had long ago moved on to plastic
; the newest ones with articulating arms and legs. Many were even holding guns. What kind of crazy school made kids spend the day in a basement and play with some dumb nurse with a little cap like they only wore on black-and-white
Leave It to Beaver
? About the only thing you could do with these old things was pick away the lead paint and nibble the flecks—tiny crunch, salty.
They didn’t even have real teachers, just a bunch of ladies that were old and papery and drank all our apple juice.
While I’d heard the words,
I never connected them to Santa or Jesus. I assumed they were geographical terms, like
Everything I knew of God and Jesus—along with Santa, for that matter—I knew from television.
And this just confused the issue further. Because both Santa and Jesus appeared in continuous rotation on television at the same time each year—and both of them were pushing Christmas.
Just after Thanksgiving it would begin: the parade of holiday specials. There was
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Davey and Goliath
’s “Christmas Lost & Found,” where they lived in what appeared to be a corrugated-steel storage unit. I loved dogs, but I despised that preachy, do-gooder of a cur, Goliath—always Davey’s killjoy.
“C’mon, Goliath, let’s go grab a little girl by her ponytail and make her eat yellow snow.”
“Gee, Day-vee, I’m not sure we should be doing that. That doesn’t sound sanitary. And cleanliness Day-vee, is next to godliness.”
I swear. If I were Davey, I would have fed that thing a bowl of warm mayonnaise and nails.
Davey and Goliath
it was on to
before moving along to
The Three Wise Men
. It was a jumble of mixed messages: One minute, I was told the “magic” of Christmas was a jolly man in a red suit, slinging a sack filled with packages over his shoulder. And the next, it was drilled into my head that the real “meaning” of Christmas was Jesus, just a little baby on a stack of wheat. Then they would show him as a grown-up hippie dressed in a skimpy little outfit like the one Ginger wore on
He walked around casting spells on kids with harelips and other deformities, and making cripples magically rise from their wheelchairs—which I assumed he had given to them for Christmas in the first place.
So while it was Santa during prime time, those shadowy, almost-but-not-quite hours before were often given to Jesus.
But in both, December twenty-fifth was the big day. Even I knew that much.
What I didn’t know was why you might see Jesus in front of one house—even a whole barn scene with the wheat and everything—but then the next house might have a sleigh and reindeer and then Santa himself on the roof. Or sometimes, somebody would have it all: Jesus on the wheat, Santa on his sleigh, and even Frosty, waving at the traffic and starting to melt. They always showed him starting to melt.
Frosty made me sad because everybody knew that he was going to die. That in and of itself was confusing, because why hadn’t Jesus visited him and used a spell? Jesus could have turned Frosty into a block of ice for all of eternity, if he wanted to.
The music of the season further added to my confusion. How was I supposed to tell Santa and Jesus apart when we sang, “He knows when you’ve been bad or good,” when it was Jesus who watched you all the time? And then when we had to sing, “Oh, come let us adore him,” which one did they mean? I figured Santa, because it was on his lap we were allowed to sit. I imagined you’d probably get in trouble if you tried to sit on Jesus. From what I’d seen on TV, Jesus could touch
pretty much anywhere he wanted but you could get turned into a hedgehog if you touched him. My mother had a friend like that, one you couldn’t touch. She wasn’t able to turn you into a hedgehog or anything, but she would shriek if you bumped her elbow by accident, and even if you said you were sorry, you could see her trying with her eyes to turn you into something.
So I wondered, was Santa Jesus’s father? That made sense to me except for the confusing matter with the Three Wise Men and Joseph.
My understanding was that back in the olden-days before electricity and Santa, they made old bums hand out the presents. But in those days they had only junk to give—stinky incense, sticks, and little bits of camel-tail yarn. I figured these were the kinds of presents Jesus probably gave the cripples today. Gifts that the regular children, like myself, wouldn’t want or even notice were missing, but that the cripples would be thrilled to receive and could weave into pot holders.
Then they had to go and throw Joseph at me. Who the hell was Joseph?
It turned out, he was Mary’s husband, so that made him the father of Jesus. But I had been under the impression that
was Jesus’s father. So was Joseph God? Was Joseph also Santa?
When Joseph just kind of vanished, I figured he was probably in the basement drinking, just like my own father.