Santa’s List: A Story of Naughty and Nice

Santa’s List: A Story of Naughty and Nice

Preface

An old storyteller once told me that story telling is equal parts art, magic, truth and bullshit. The trouble is he was telling me a story at the time and I am not sure which part he was engaged in at that particular moment. He also told me that the best stories are ones in which your audience can see themselves. To be sure, the story I am about to tell has all these elements and while most events are based on real people and situations, the story should be considered to be pure fiction. If you recognize yourself in these pages it is either because I want you to be recognized, or because it is pure coincidence. If others recognize you, it is pure coincidence.

As with all my blog entries, there is a Parkinson’s connection and this version is no exception. This Holiday Season remember to give to organizations who are fighting for a world without Parkinson’s and for a better world for those living with Parkinson’s. Thank you for your generosity.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

And I do hope you enjoy this story.

American Bittersweet IMG_5329

American Bittersweet Early December 2015  Photo: S. Marshall

The Story Begins with Santa

When my children were a lot younger, I used to entertain them, and to be truthful I would entertain myself as well, by telling stories that I made up as I went along. (Some say I still do.) The stories often had the same basic structure and perhaps some similar detailed content, and some returned over the years much as a dear old friend returns, slightly older, slightly wiser, but still fresh from the experience and joy of living and of being remembered fondly.

One such story is about Christmas and all this naughty and nice stuff of which Santa seems to be preoccupied – a little too much if you ask me. But then, no one really asked me and who am I to intervene, or I daresay interfere, in the all-important duties of Santa Claus? I do sometimes wonder though – who wrote the job description and duties for Santa? Undoubtedly, it included such elements as the following (these are not intended to be either exhaustive or exclusive):

  • Coordinate innumerable Elves in a humane, jolly, environmentally friendly sweatshop producing toys, gadgets, clothes and all manner of i-products, useful and otherwise, with varying degrees of quality and durability applied randomly across all products;
  • Provide husbandry for reindeer, those delicate and sensitive animals who are prone to taking time out to play “silly reindeer games” and must be educated on fundamental principals of human rights such as no discrimination against others on the basis of physical characteristics. These reindeer will be called on for only one night’s work per year but must be taught how to fly. Ensure that one reindeer has a bright red nose which is neither a consequence of environmental contamination and/or pollution, nor over consumption of alcohol;
  • Reindeer Not IMG_3184

    Nope, these funny reindeer are never gonna fly!  Photo: Courtesy Reindeer Flight School North Pole

     

  • Possess a valid Type “BRS” driver’s license [this is a big one] for a big red sleigh pulled by a nine-reindeer hitch, and loaded to overflowing with toys and goodies for boys and girls across the world. A road test and a written test are required. Driving skills must include the following abilities: to land on all types of rooftops covered or not with snow; to direct said reindeer to swerve unexpectedly to avoid all manner of obstacles and orbiting space debris re-entering the earth’s atmosphere after being launched into space decades ago; to direct said reindeer in such a manner as to ensure not only that the aforementioned overflowing presents do not to fall from the sleigh but that, in mid-air, they follow the sleigh in a smooth graceful arc that is so pleasing to the eye that a charge of reckless driving could never be upheld in any court [where do you find a jury of 12 peers for Santa anyway?]; navigate the reindeer and sleigh through mountain passes and forests of trees, through a maze of chimneys, over seemingly vacant and barren tundra and verdant grasslands without benefit of compass or GPS. [As an aside: we know from family experience that in the rainy season a GPS may take you along a road that is technically on a cartographer’s map and in the GPS program but in reality is covered with water and inhabited by ducks! If you purchase a new car that can drive on its own and is guided by GPS, you may wish to re-think whether you can afford to take a nap when traveling;]
IGPS Road MG_2393

Do you trust your GPS to take you down this road? Photo: S. Marshall 2014

  • Climb down chimneys even if there isn’t one;
  • Climb back up the same existent or non-existent chimney, especially after consuming the items in the two points immediately below;
  • Eat, or otherwise discreetly dispose of, tonnes of “snacks,” primarily chocolate chip cookies but may also include ham sandwiches, blood sausage, vegemite with crackers, cheese and/or tofu, among other delicacies;
  • Drink, or otherwise discreetly dispose of, milk, coffee, tea, beer, scotch, apple cider and other fluids as required;
  • Be able to convince all Scrooges, Grinch and other doubters that you are the “real” Santa Claus and not a mall santa. [No, this is not typo – mall santas are not entitled to use a capital “S” in their name – consequently they are always “santa.”] Further, you must be able to address all questions as to your true identity with a twinkle of your eye and the laying of a finger aside your nose [isn’t this the sign for something else? Rude perhaps?] – all within the flash of a momentary moment, maybe even a fast, quick, speedy, micro-momentary nano-moment delivered at warp speed. Well, I am sure that you get the point; and
  • Other duties as required.
Tricky Santa landings IMG_3449

Some landings are trickier than others. St.John’s,NL  Photo: S.Marshall 2015

The Naughty and Nice List (The List)

Well, back to the story – or is this the story? Anyway, a few hours before Christmas Eve Day, back in 1963 I think, Ratfink Elf, Clerk (pronounced Clark) of the Naughty and Nice List, hereinafter referred to as “The List,” called Santa on his new touch-tone phone from the big red sleigh in Santa’s workshop. To be clear, in 1963 there were no mobile cell phones, as we know them today. Oh, there were some fully automated car phones in Sweden but Santa discouraged their inclusion on Christmas lists as they weighed a hernia – producing 40 kg (88 lbs.) and Santa didn’t want to risk a scandal by plying his reindeer team, and himself, with enough steroids to slog that sac full of mobile phones around the world through the snow. Not to mention that Santa was under serious scrutiny from Christmas Doping Control (CDC) because of some anonymous complaints in 1799 that the white stuff around Santa’s nose when he returned from Christmas Eve duties was not just confectioner’s sugar or cake frosting. It didn’t help that Dunder and Blixem were AWOL in January 1829 only to be discovered in a field of interesting foliage in Jamaica a week later. After ten months suspension and rehabilitation, and when they were no longer flying 10 meters higher than the other reindeer, they returned to the team under their new names Donder and Blitzen. No one was fooled really.

But back to mobile phones for a minute, the USSR was ahead in this game as motorists in Moscow had a fully functioning equivalent mobile phone system in 1963 whereas in the United States only a small area around Brewster, Kansas could make the same claim. Mysteriously, the private company offering the service was shut down shortly thereafter and never reopened. There has been much speculation that the company was shut down by (take your pick:) (1) The Feds – the US government trying to break up a corporate monopoly that would inhibit the democratization of the American populace. (2) The Reds – the USSR trying to break up a capitalist victory that would open the floodgates for unlimited sales of cell phones in the future contributing to the democratization of all citizens of the world. (3) Big Red – Santa trying to break up a massive assault by the world population on the regulatory agency responsible for restricting the weight of cargo entering and leaving North Pole airspace, thereby overturning the limits on the size and weight of Santa’s sac – against Santa’s wishes. His back really was killing him.

It is difficult to ascertain the precise reason, as each possibility is plausible. Plausible possibilities are the bane of those of us who believe in reason. To reason a reason with too many plausible possibilities is to risk signifying impossibility and implausibility that surely leads us to a conjuncture beyond which we cannot pass or is impassable or impermeable. If the impermeable is permanent, the secret may well go to someone’s grave – and it is increasingly looking like it will be my grave if I keep up this line of reasoning much longer. In order to avoid my own untimely demise then, I shall not belabour this point except to say that we will never know just how close the “Big Red” option was to the truth.

What do Puffins Have to Do with It?

Once read, all letters and requests made to Santa by any means or mode of communication, and all information specific to the “naughtiness” or “niceness” of any of Santa’s true believers (children mostly but not limited to children) are sealed until 00:01 a.m. local time on December 26 each year when they are shredded, along with transcripts of the most outrageous political speeches of the year. [In 2015 the award for such speeches goes to Donald Trump.] The resulting shredded paper is re-purposed as nesting material on the most remote nesting grounds of the Fraticula arctica or Arctic puffins in Labrador and Iceland. As yet, the most determined minds have not been able to reconstitute even a small shred of Santa’s naughty or nice list once it mixes with puffin guano. [And you liked puffins just because they are colourful, cute little birds that fly funnily.] Guano generation for puffins is essential under the Santa Naughty and Nice List Privacy Protection Act (SNNLPPA) passed as companion legislation to the Creation of Santa Act (CSA.)

Puffin Nesting ground IMG_3332

Puffin Nesting Ground 2015             Photo: S. Marshall

Oh, you should also know that only paper originals of The List, labouriously hand written by Scribe Elf in meticulous cursive, exist. No electronic versions of The List are ever made, as Santa is well aware, from some nasty personal experience, that anything posted to the Internet can never be totally erased from the Internet. Consequently computers, miraculously, are not a large part of the equation in this particular story. Nevertheless, on other matters, Santa and the Elves get to try everything before it hits the mass market, as it is essential that they stay ahead of the curve. That is why they had a touch-tone mobile phone in the big red sleigh.

Breaking: Everyone is “Naughty” in Southern Manitoba Town

Ratfink Elf was the Clerk (pronounced Clark) in charge of making The List and checking it twice, in order to find out who was naughty and nice. Oh, you want to know why Ratfink was calling Santa on that particular morning in 1963? Well, it seems that Ratfink and all his little ratfinks noticed that there was a small town in southern Manitoba where no one was on the “nice” side of the ledger and everyone was on the “naughty” side of the ledger.

[Note: This particular community (herein after referred to as Community A) shall remain anonymous in order to protect the guilty. It appears there are no innocents to protect, but quite frankly, I am concerned that those who are “naughty” will overtly exercise some “naughtiness” on my person as crude retaliatory justice. Now, there are certain “naughty” behaviours that are permissible and pass through the “naughtiness” screen insomuch as they meet select hedonistic criteria without being self-indulgent. There is a fine line to such a distinction and I am not opposed to such endeavours, but if one does not have administrative control, it is a risky business, as they say. It is sometimes best to be cautious. So, despite protestations from those who seek more openness and freedom of information, the name of this small town remains concealed, never to be revealed, as the recorded details of these events have long since met the guano of the Atlantic puffins.]

But can you imagine?! In 1963, in this small Santa fearing community there were no names on the nice side of the ledger – NONE! How could this happen? What did it mean? Would Santa and his team of reindeer simply fly past these houses – leaving all the cookies, sandwiches, sausages and other delectable foods to go uneaten and all the milk, beer and scotch to go sour, skunky and … well … aged!  Not bloody likely! Santa was furious! Something had to be done! And of course there was the small fact that the naughty Santa believers must be rescued from the most important consequence of their behaviour – they would receive no presents from Santa. Santa not only called immediately for an Inquiry, but he called for an immediate Inquiry.

President Claus

While you might think that Santa was the top dog in the administration of Santa’s North Pole (which may, or may not, be located at true magnetic North,) others are quick to point out that this queer, quirky and quixotic Elf is really an unelected, traditional, figurehead who often weighed in with views and opinions but whose vote did not count because … well … because he did not have a vote. The only thing worse than not voting is not having a vote. Still, Santa was not without a certain amount of influence and he took the matter to Mrs. Claus (sorry, still quite traditional on the Ms. vs Mrs. matter at the North Pole and it is likely to remain that way until Barbie is no longer in production as the most popular doll in requests to Santa.) Mrs. Claus did wield real power though as she was elected as President by the Elves to oversee all matters of “Santaness” and “Elfness” at the North Pole and on foreign territory when Santa traveled abroad. The Elves elected Mrs. Claus as President because they realized that Santa had a fatal flaw. He could be bribed easily with delicious and delectable deliciousnesses – and children learn about this flaw very early in life, hence their unfailing devotion to the rituals of Christmas Eve.

Santa IMG_2635

Santa reacts to “naughty news” from southern Manitoba

The ad hoc Santa Inquiry Into Naughty and Nice (SINN)

President (Mrs.) Claus received the petition for an Inquiry from Santa and appointed a select few of her trusty advisors to form an ad hoc Inquiry Into Naughty and Nice (SINN) with instructions to assemble at 3 a.m. on December 24. There is no better way to find out if your advisors are trusty or not than to call a meeting at 3 a.m. on December 24. But true to their loyalty and pledge the trusty advisors arrived at the appointed time and place – in the garden green house which Santa never visited because he was allergic to holly, ivy, mistletoe and other such greenery.

Christmas cactii Dec 15 IMG_5313

Santa is allergic to Christmas Cactus in his greenhouse.  Photo: Santa’s Horticultural Elves (SHE) 2015

Trusty Advisors Arrive

The first Advisor to arrive in the green house was Constitution Elf.  Con, as she was called, was the acknowledged expert on all matters related to the constitution and by-laws of the North Pole and territorial adjuncts. Con rarely stepped outside the strict boundaries of constitutional law and the word(s) “notwithstanding” were seldom far from her lips. Next to arrive was Litigation Elf (he was often called Lit, not as a short form, but because he had a fondness for scotch.) He preferred though to be addressed by his full name, Litigation.)  Litigation was frightfully concerned, voicing as he entered that the North Pole would be sued for ‘failure to deliver’ and he was already recommending a counter suit asking for costs as a result of the damage that Santa’s reputation would sustain, and for costs to recover expenditures on the over production of Christmas presents because the good citizens of Community A did not array themselves randomly around the mean of niceness on the Santa niceness scale.

Next to arrive was Goodwill Elf who only responds to the nickname “Goodie” which means she spends most of her time responding because “goodie” is a word you hear often around Santa.  Goodie, as you might guess, is an expert in building goodwill within organizations and she has many diplomas and advanced degrees in Human Resource Management with specialties in Elf Relations. Spinner, the Communications Elf, was right behind Goodie. Originally, her nickname was “Commie” but that was changed to “Spinster” in 1919 and later changed to “Spinner” in order to divert a backlash from older single women after a campaign and petition led by Helen Gurley Brown and backed by the ghost of Nellie McClung. In more recent years, after 1963 when this current incident happened, Spinner obtained her doctorate and became “Spin Doctor” although most Elves still call her Spinner.

There was a ten-minute lag before a Christmas bell choir dramatically announced the arrival of Archive Elf by pealing out a version of Good King Wenceslas, the popular carol written in 1853 about the Feast of Stephen held on the day following Christmas. [Perhaps my favourite carol of all time.] Archive Elf was affectionately known as “Dusty” but his full given name was Archival Recherche Classificus Heritage Elf or ARCH Elf.  ARCH Elf was also an acknowledged expert in quantitative and qualitative research with advanced degrees in statistics and research methodologies that made him a particularly valuable addition to the Inquiry.

So it was that President Claus (Mrs. Claus to most people and Elves) convened an emergency in-camera meeting of the ad hoc Santa Inquiry Into Naughty and Nice (SINN). With five voting member Elves in attendance, recommendations would carry the weight of a decree and be implemented immediately. Note: the President only votes in the case of a tie and abstentions are not permitted under Santal Law.

Inquiry Calls Evidence from Clerk (pronounced Clark) of Naughty and Nice List

The Elves settled into their chairs at a large round table decorated like a Christmas wreath with the words “Peace, Love, Joy, Happiness, Truth” emblazoned on a ribbon across the centre. Mugs of hot chocolate sat steaming at one end of the table and bars of chocolate were laid out in decorative style at the other end for those who wanted something a little stiffer. President Claus had her own mug of unidentifiable liquid, constantly refilled by an attentive attendant Elf. Idle chatter and the jingling of bells subsided as the President lowered the Candy Cane Sceptre to open the inquiry.

Only one witness was called and Ratfink Elf slinked obsequiously into the room trying to enter quietly but succeeding only in being an obtrusive, oleaginous, odious and subservient sycophant. Strong words but Ratfink was not well liked, a condition he inherited from his father, Snitch. Ratfink’s proper name was Squealor Contemptuous Scab Elf. Word has it that his mother left shortly after his birth to work for that Pagan variant of Christmas – All Hallows’ Eve or Hallowe’en – preferring to consort with that band of bad actors and clowns rather than to divulge that she was the birth mother of Ratfink.

Still, Ratfink played a huge role in sustaining Santa and all the good things for which Santa stands. The Naughty and Nice portfolio had only been entrusted to two individuals ever – Ratfink and his father, Snitch. The mandate of the Clerk (pronounced Clark) of the Naughty and Nice List was to ensure by whatever means necessary that all believers in Santa behaved properly such  that the word “nice” would be penciled in (and it was always in pencil so that it could be erased) beside their names on Christmas Eve, signalling to Santa to pilot the reindeer to their homes and to squiggle down their chimneys leaving not so much as an ash or a smudge of soot on the carpet while depositing toys, socks and pyjamas for happy girls and boys – although I have to say that if you didn’t get any toys and only got socks and pyjamas, you were not as happy as when you did get toys and candy. And after “Hoovering” in the thoughtful “snacks” left beside the tree, Santa would leave so quietly that even nosy old curmudgeons and hyped up hipsters did not notice the trace elements of cookie crumbs, scotch and garlic in the cold night air.

I am told that there was an air of anticipation as Ratfink took the stand. But however much as I would like to provide the transcripts of this meeting I am prevented from doing so, because it was, after all, an in camera meeting and there are no transcripts or minutes. And all personal notes and/or supporting documents (if any) were gathered at the meeting’s conclusion and have long since been shredded and are now covered with puffin guano in accordance with the dictates I discussed earlier. The only surviving document is one outlining the decision and the sole recommendation of the Inquiry, preserved for eternity as proof that justice was done. But I am getting ahead of myself.

This incident and Inquiry happened in1963 – 52 years ago. While some memories may have faded, some resolves have also been weakened as individuals approach the new realities of their mortality or immortality, as may be the case. The punishment of excommunication from benign servitude in Santa’s sweatshop and release from the cosy – covered hand of President (Mrs.) Claus, may no longer carry the same frightening consequences it once did. Still, it has taken 52 years to piece together a few telling details. Many of these pieces are inferences that are likely accurate but are not accompanied by concrete proof. They are gleaned from 52 years of my keeping eyes and ears open, along with diligent sleuthing including learning several dialects of reindeer and Elf.

The very fact that we know the Elf members of the Inquiry and their roles tells us a great deal. Not to mention the fact that we know the identity of the one and only Elf called to the stand to give evidence. Ratfink’s evidence was succinct. Naughtiness it seemed prevailed in Community A. Ratfink recited from memory a lengthy list of behaviours that were serious enough to keep the individual(s) off the “nice” side of the ledger. Ratfink took a full four hours without a break to present the evidence. The Elf members circulated freely to refill their hot chocolate and to avail themselves of the chocolate bars and double chocolate chip cookies that arrived just before the attendant Elves were banished from the greenhouse.   Despite the early hour not one chocolate-fuelled Elf dozed off during Ratfink’s uninterrupted soliloquy. To conclude his testimony, Ratfink tabled his conclusion: There was not one Santa believer in Community A who qualified to have the coveted Santa stamp of approval on the “nice” side of The List. What were the chances of that?

The Precedent and the Probabilities

Well, funny you should ask about the probabilities of this occurrence. In the subsequent discussion ARCH Elf reported that he had searched the archives at ELF warp speed (faster than current day Google searches and 100 times more accurate) and determined that this specific situation had been encountered only one other time in the recorded history of The List. The community in question was not named nor was the exact year divulged, but it is widely believed to be a small community with a population of four (two couples according to Russia’s long form census) in Siberia. It seems that a hunter trapped some weasels that had fleas and brought a couple of the pelts into his bedroom to provide warmth for him and his wife. The bedding became contaminated with fleas. When the neighboring hunter also became a host for fleas a short time later, an argument ensued as to how and when he was exposed to the fleas. Suffice to say that the outcome was nasty and the aforementioned community of four no longer exists (according to Russia’s long form census.) Police reports and criminal records were not introduced into evidence so it is not known if this argument escalated to the level of a “domestic” or whether it was simply a mutual agreement to disband the small community. It matters not. The end result was that Santa bypassed those two couples that Christmas as the charge of “naughty” as directed by Snitch Elf (Ratfink’s father) was applied. Neither couple sought to appeal.

In terms of probabilities, ARCH Elf worked out that a naughty – only list would occur once in every 200 billion times in a community of Santa believers. The larger the population the higher the odds (perhaps as high as 1 in a trillion) that not one individual would make the “nice” list on Christmas Eve. Such is the persuasive effect of Santa’s admonishment to be “good for goodness sake” and the lure of being on his “nice” list. And of course the odds against it happening twice in recorded history would be higher still.

But, what we do know is that this specific situation was not unprecedented and gave the Inquiry something of a benchmark for their deliberations. The transgressions, on the face of it, seemed serious enough to warrant the mandated penalty – no presents from Santa because they were naughty. The task then was to determine if the transgressions now in question were of the same ilk. [Apparently, when President Claus asked this question, a herd of 10,000 elk misunderstood and began to snort and move en masse across the tundra in the direction of Elk City, Oklahoma. Disaster was narrowly averted when President Claus was able to reach Wildlife Manager Elf to head the elk off at The Pas. That’s right, The Pas, Manitoba, not “the pass” as you might have guessed.]

Well, I am sure that you are dying to know whether the transgressions in this current case are comparable to the only previously known case. Again, we can make some educated guesses based on personal interviews and conversations with well-placed individuals and reputable sources, that the transgressions cited included some, or maybe all, or maybe none of the examples that follow here. No matter, at the very least the following serve as sample examples of behaviour that could condemn someone to the naughty list.

Sample Example 1 – Borgward GmbH Isabella Combi

A young lad and four of his buddies were out cruising early one Saturday summer evening. It was the kind of evening you don’t usually have in Manitoba – extremely hot but a dry heat, thankfully. Nevertheless, the sun hung on the western horizon refusing to set. The thermometer outside the local garage showed 99 degrees Fahrenheit and it was well past the dinner (or supper in those parts) hour. Adding to the kiln – like temperature was the fact that the car’s heating system was stuck in the “on” position and the fan was churning out a blast of air more suitable for roasting pigs than for cooling kids. The boys sat in extreme discomfort with wet armpits and T-shirt backs stuck to the ‘real vinyl’ seat covers. About an hour later the RCMP who patrolled the rural roads in those parts, pulled along side the car and signalled to the driver to pull over. The conversation apparently went something like this:

Teenage driver: Hello officer. Everything OK?

RCMP officer: May I see your driver’s license and vehicle registration?

Teenage driver: Of course. We weren’t really doing anything wrong, eh?

RCMP officer: And just what did you think you were doing?

Teenage driver: We were just trying to cool the car off.

RCMP officer: Oh. And how were you trying to do that?

Teenage driver: We decided to drive down the highway backward eh? With the doors open to catch some cooler air – to funnel it into the car, eh? You see, the heater is stuck on “on” and we are cooking in here.

RCMP officer: I see. And what isn’t wrong about that?

Teenage driver [with pretensions of being a lawyer or possibly just a smartass]: Well, we weren’t speeding, eh?

RCMP officer: That’s true, but you were driving down the wrong side of the road.

Teenage driver [perhaps not showing the best judgment possible for someone with pretensions to be a lawyer]: I am not sure about that as we had a big debate about which side of the road you should drive along if you are going backward, eh? We decided that the correct side is the side where the front of the vehicle is facing the same direction as the fronts of all the other automobiles in that lane,eh?  [Perhaps, the fundamentals of traffic flow evaded our young teenage driver.]

RCMP officer: I see. Interesting logic. I still haven’t seen your vehicle registration and what kind of car is this anyway?

Teenage driver: (proudly) It’s a 1955 Borgward GmbH Isabella Combi.

[Hoots of laughter from the other teenage passengers]

RCMP officer: I see. And who is the registered owner of this vehicle?

Teenage driver: My grandmother, eh?

[More hoots of laughter]

RCMP officer: And does she know you have the vehicle?

Teenage driver: Damn straight!  She asked us to see if we could find a way to cool the car off because the heater is stuck on “on,” eh?

Borgward

1955 Borgward GmbH Isabella Combi  Photo: http://www.HistoryofCars.com

 

RCMP officer: Have you boys been drinking? Do you have any alcohol in the car?

Teenage driver and passengers [in unison]: No way!

RCMP officer: Please get out of the vehicle so that I can have a look.

[Teenage driver and passengers fall out in two heaps – one on each side of the 2- door Borgward. There is much jostling and arm punching but nothing that is greater than what would occur if they were just standing in line at school. Teenage boy awkwardness and clumsiness is evident no matter what the social situation. It did not change here.]

There is really no need to go into much more detail. No alcohol was found. The teenage driver had not been drinking, nor had any of the passengers. No other illicit drugs were found. The RCMP officer gave the teenage driver a warning about driving more safely and carefully such that the lives of others are not endangered. No damage had been done as the highway was traveled infrequently – in fact, not one car passed in either direction during this entire spot check.

So, a verbal warning was given and no ticket was issued. Yet, Ratfink Elf found this sufficient to place the teenage driver in the naughty category on The List. But the most important aspect of this action is that the teenage driver must still have been a believer in Santa – at 16 years of age! As you recall you have to believe in Santa to even be eligible for inclusion on The List. Wow! If this information ever got out, his cool reputation would be shattered. Good thing these matters are always held in strictest confidence and destroyed in the interests of protecting privacy.

Sample Example 2: Sunflower Projectiles

Southern Manitoba is known to have prime agricultural land. Ever since the water began flowing north from the Mississippi watershed to Lake Winnipeg, the Red River has flooded regularly spilling water and depositing rich loam across the floor of the Red River valley. Apparently, it still does with some frightening regularity – but that is a story for another time. As is the creation of the Manitoba escarpment, two ridges of gravel, sand, and less desirable soil left in moraines as Glacial Lake Agassiz receded.

The rich agricultural land means that there are few sights as beautiful as the fields of sunflowers stretching across the Manitoba prairie, their heads following the great deity with undivided attention each moment of each day. Heads held high, they display their flower parts shamelessly and are rewarded when pollination begins a process to pack their heads full. Geez, this sounds like over the top horrible writing! And it is! What I really want to say is that when you grow sunflowers you get lots, and lots, and lots of sunflower seeds.

Sunflowers have many uses including as food, and oil used to cook food. It has medicinal and therapeutic properties used in aromatherapy treatments and beauty products. The hulls make great fire logs and other imitation wood products. Of course, the sunflower is also sought after for its inherent beauty as an ornamental flower. One of our daughters is particularly partial to sunflowers and I can’t blame her. I am certain there are many other uses that I have not mentioned.

But it is the recreational use of sunflower seeds that provided Ratfink Elf with another reason to tag many young boys as naughty. Seeds are roasted, bagged and sold as confection. Boys learn at a very early age to stuff a handful of sunflower seeds in their maw, cheeks puffing out like chipmunks, and using teeth, tongue, lips and cheeks they extract the seed from the hull, chew and swallow the tender part, and at the very same time transfer the remaining hull to a firing station on the tongue at the front of the mouth where air expelled from these youthful lungs propels the hull to great distances and with great force. Such talent! All boys and many girls become experts in the art of eating sunflower seeds.

Well, eating sunflower seeds is not a crime, is it? No, but spitting sunflower seeds on the floor, on the sidewalk or out the window of moving vehicles may be. Many communities have ordinances or by – laws against spitting in public. Some by-laws were enacted because spitting has a “negative impact on the enjoyment of public spaces” and some because spitting (now included with urination and defecation) constitutes a significant “health risk and a nuisance” whether on public or private property. Such local laws are not uncommon. But, is discarding the hulls of the sunflower really spitting? Maybe it is akin to throwing away the wrapper from a candy bar? It is easy to see the flaw in this argument as the emission of sunflower seed hulls from the mouths of its aficionados now becomes littering which is also not permitted and subject to attendant fines. Still, my experience is that spitting sunflower hulls is more likely to be tolerated than discarding candy bar wrappers is.

My father, who was a store owner in a small town in southern Manitoba, despised the practice of spitting sunflower hulls. All manner of the citizenry spat hulls on the floor of his store and on the sidewalk in front where older retired farmers and other gents often sat on a bench and chairs he provided, to pass time and the gossip of the day. How the toothless ones managed to extract the seeds from the hulls still remains a mystery to me. Nevertheless, my father continued to sell sunflower seeds as a confection in his store. Perhaps he conducted a cost – benefit analysis?

Father's store Manitoba IMG_4393

Post Office, Bus Stop and Confectionery  Altamont, Manitoba  Photo: Unknown

Accommodations to the practice were sometimes made. For example, the “Visitor’s” benches in local hockey rinks were often covered in much the same manner as dugouts are covered in baseball stadiums. It was commonplace, at least in my day, for the hometown fans of the “Royals” or the “Maroons” to spit sunflower hulls at the visiting teams. Some hometown fanatics had remarkable accuracy combined with good velocity and their mouths were like the magazines of repeating rifles – you were usually ducking a constant barrage. The canopies over the visitors’ bench were invaluable protection.

To be fair, I myself have been guilty of, although not formally charged with, spitting sunflower hulls in various prohibited places. I have also witnessed some egregious cases where all available floor space in an automobile and a rented house was covered with sunflower hulls. I am certain that these were accompanied to the floor by a spray of spittle from the sunflower connoisseur.

Undoubtedly, there were many in the community who contravened the restrictions on spitting (or littering) and Ratfink Elf who adopted a very black and white approach to his job, did not hesitate to pencil “naughty” beside their names on The List.

Sample Example 3: Paint by Numbers

Most often we are born into a ready-made, can’t change it, family. [I recognize that this is not always the case, but I will not deal with those matters at this time.] Families have their upsides and their downsides. On the upside, you learn who you are dealing with after a very short period of time and you learn that, despite internal bickering, families usually stick together. In fact, I have witnessed two brothers (X and Y) turn on a well-meaning individual Z who sided with X in a fight against Y. Lesson: never assist either brother when they are fighting because they both are likely to turn their anger on you. The reason for the fight matters not. But for those who are curious, the fight in this instance was over a girl and took place outside a dance hall and involved the considerable consumption of alcohol. For the record, the girl did not go home with either brother and neither did she accompany the intervener Z. Lesson: generally speaking, stay out of fights if you wish to win the girl.

I recognize that the above situation is gender specific and I am sure there are situations that speak to women more effectively. I am not going to go there, as that would take me farther into a digression than I am prepared to go at the moment.

The relationship between brothers and sisters is an interesting one and it is usually qualitatively different depending on age order in the family. I cannot address every situation but for girls, older brothers are often the bane of their existence. Oh, brothers can be nice from time to time, usually when they are older and come to your assistance when you need some muscle. But older brothers often play a role that my father noted was akin to that of a “promoter” in boxing or wrestling. In fact, my father used to call me “the promoter.” I would create a situation, cause some conflict between my two younger sisters such that they would fight, and I would just stand back and watch the fireworks. And I guess I was forever teasing and tormenting them, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes I think, just by my very existence.

Sometimes though, a sister just has to extract revenge. This story actually happened to me. One Christmas, or maybe it was on my birthday, I received a “paint by numbers“ kit. You know the kind – a line drawing of a winter wonderland or mountains or a Kirk by a brook or some such idyllic scene along with numbered paint pots. You use the paint from the numbered pots to fill in the corresponding numbered area on the canvas. Every paint by numbers painting I have ever seen looked ghastly and mine were even ghastlier (look my dictionary says that there is such a word although I think there shouldn’t be.) The canvas I was working on was no exception. The paint was applied too thickly in most places, a little like mortar, and I re-drew the pre-drawn lines carelessly. I was going to say with careless abandon but that implies some creative artistry at work and there was none. I failed to follow the rules as to the order in which the paint should be applied, causing some smeary sections. The brush was often not cleaned or even wiped resulting in even more imperfections. Painting by the open window and electric fan caused a dusty quality that may have enhanced the prairie landscape but did nothing for the snowbound mountain pass. In short, if there were prizes awarded for paint by number paintings, my canvas was not going to receive one – ever, ever, ever.

View from Sleigh IMG_0929

Early morning view from Santa’s sleigh would make great painting or puzzle.  Photo courtesy of Santa’s personal collection

My wife, who is skilled and extremely talented at painting as both craft and creative art, will laugh at my mercifully brief foray into paint by numbers. It was mercifully short because my sister helped to kick it to the sidelines by coming brazenly into my room, while I was present if you can believe it, and swiping her hands across the still wet canvas. I was furious! My work of art was destroyed! I would need an art restorer to return it to pristine condition. In retrospect, I realize that I was furious because my sister, the second oldest child, displayed no fear of her big brother and willfully carried out this act of vandalism as a symbol of her freedom and a statement that I would do her no harm – of course, that might have been because she knew that dad would kill me if I did. No matter the reasoning, she was correct and she extracted a small amount of revenge for my brotherly teasing and torturing in that moment, which interestingly, we both recall vividly.

I guess in the eyes of Ratfink Elf we had each committed an act or acts that were “naughty” and should be codified as such. But were they enough to warrant no gifts from Santa?

Sample Example 4: You Don’t Grow Old, You Just Lose Your Audience

Ratfink Elf recounted the case of the elderly grandfather who liked to tell off colour jokes at family gatherings. He would rise ceremoniously during a lull in the conversation at the dinner table to take the stage as he had done so often at the Legion, leading his comrades in arms in ribald songs and questionable humour. His family respected his position as patriarch and as long as he could be interrupted in time to avoid the obvious racist jokes, the dinner was considered a success. Were a few jokes enough to deny admission to the Nice ledger of The List? Ratfink Elf thought so.

Sample Example 5: Dog Eats House

Ratfink stooped to a new low in his determination to ensure that absolutely no one from Community A would be visited by Santa and that the vapour trail of Santa’s sleigh would show no descent to earth at those coordinates. A furry dog, left alone one afternoon in the family home in early December, was tempted by the most delicious smell of gingerbread in the kitchen.  The dog knew from experience that certain delectable baked goods were sometimes available there, as the previous year the family pet lost a few points by scoffing down a dozen Chelsea buns. So it came to be that the structural components of an entire ginger bread house mysteriously disappeared that afternoon.   Fortunately however, the family made two houses and one house survived the catastrophe. The dog explained to those who understand dog that “a sinkhole opened up” in the table and swallowed “a bunch of stuff.” Gingerbread crumbs, sparkles and sprinkles clung to the dog’s muzzle amid protestations that “I don’t even know what a gingerbread house is anyway!”   I am fairly certain that if dogs have any memory longer than the last tree sniff, this dog had some bad dreams about this particularly spicy gingerbread given the unusual eagerness to go to outside to “do business” during the following week. Perhaps, the pet was saved from even greater discomfort and possibly a trip to the veterinarian because its paws just couldn’t reach that last house. Ratfink had no sympathy and gave the dog a “naughty” grade.

Ginger Bread dog IMG_3129

Could this dog have eaten a ginger bread house?

Sample Example 6: Sandy and the Burnt Toast

Sandy (short for Alexander I am told) lived alone after his wife Maggie (short for Margaret I am told) died. They had no children and Sandy’s inner contentment was diminished greatly upon her passing. He sought the comfort of other elderly gentlemen in the community, some were bachelors and others were married with wives still alive. He did not seek female companionship – maybe because he felt a loyalty and love for his dear departed Maggie, or maybe because it was just too painful to have to set aside his many happy memories in order to forge adventures and good times with someone new. Just as we have difficulty packing up and putting cherished memorabilia into storage, or selling it, or giving it to charitable re-use and recycle shops when we downsize, Sandy had great difficulty reorganizing his mind to free up additional space – some would say that he flat out refused to so.

The relationship between Sandy and Maggie had been a very traditional one with a very traditional, gendered division of labour. Maggie did all of the cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and anything else that could be categorized as a ‘household duty.’ She never worked outside of the home and was devoted and loyal to Sandy as her Prince. Each weekday afternoon she disappeared into the living room with a cup of tea sweetened with several spoonfuls of sugar and Carnation evaporated milk [where was there room for the tea?] to indulge in her favourite relaxations, watching the ABC soap opera General Hospital on KCND, a semi – independent station and forerunner of CKND, broadcasting into southern Manitoba from Pembina, North Dakota, and in the evening she never missed Front Page Challenge on CBC television. Sandy always teased her that she secretly had a crush on Fred Davis.

Gr Bill IMG_5346

“Sandy”               Photo: Unknown

Grandma H IMG_5355

“Maggie” with ever present cuppa tea              Photo: Unknown

Sandy in return brought home the bacon and always held steady full time employment – he had never been laid off or otherwise lost his job, even during the bleakest of times in the ‘dirty thirties.’ He did change places of employment several times over the years but always to better their situation. Maggie never questioned his judgement on these matters and he was always right. Sandy was meticulous in the way he maintained their home and other property. He applied fresh paint to the house and outbuildings on a regular pre-determined schedule. He washed and polished the car with turtle wax every Sunday in the driveway. He entrusted Otto, the mechanic down the street, with all oil changes, maintenance and repairs on their car to be completed on schedule. There was genuine love in the relationship between Sandy and Maggie and it didn’t take open displays of affection to know that they were both complicit in its forging.

It is hard to know if the dementia or the Parkinson’s appeared first. In the 1960’s not much attention was paid to the difference. “Shaking palsy” was fairly common among the elderly and general practitioners in rural communities seldom made the distinction between ‘essential tremour’ and Parkinson’s disease no matter how good their bedside manner. And, of course, some attributed any cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s. Today, the diagnosis undoubtedly would be Lewy body dementia if cognitive impairment was diagnosed within a year of a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Those nasty Lewy bodies are congregations of a misfolded protein, alpha-synuclein, in the substantia nigra region of the brain resulting in a depletion of dopamine causing Parkinson’s and dementia. You can have dementia without Parkinson’s, Parkinson’s without dementia, or both Parkinson’s and dementia.

Over fifty years of scientific research and debate on the existence and role of Prions in general and misfolded alpha – synuclein in particular has led us to our present day understanding of the characteristics of Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. But Sandy’s rural general practitioner had no way of knowing any of this. And quite frankly it didn’t much matter. He developed a tremour in one hand. He was forgetful and couldn’t remember names of even close friends at times. He dozed off one time while making his lunch, burning the water dry as he boiled eggs only to be awakened by a neighbour who was alerted by the burning rotten egg smell. After that, friends would often drop in on him at meal times. But new unanticipated concerns kept popping up.

Increasingly, Sandy had difficulty with executive functioning. Executive functioning does not necessarily mean making decisions on millions of dollars for a project in a high tech corporation. Rather, for most people it just means trying to make good decisions in the most routine matters of everyday life, being able to process information in order to solve problems. For Sandy this meant processing the information that the toast was burning and deciding to turn off the toaster. The trouble is that he decided to turn the toaster off by using the kitchen shears to cut the still plugged in electrical cord. The resultant release of electrical energy at the interface of wire and shears threw the lightweight Sandy clear across the room leaving him in a dazed heap with the shears scorched and in need of sharpening. A passer-by heard the loud ‘bang,” entered Sandy’s house, called the local police officer (there was only one,) and tended to Sandy’s mercifully few immediate medical needs.

The threshold had been crossed though and a small group consisting of a neighbour, a comrade from the Legion, and a member of Sandy’s church did what members of small communities have been doing forever. They took Sandy in and provided for his short-term needs until they could reach a member of his family to develop a long-term plan. For the purposes of this story the details of that plan matter not. Rest assured that Sandy lived the remainder of his life surrounded by loving family in a caring environment. He was fortunate.

What does matter though is that when that ratfink, Ratfink Elf, came to Sandy’s name on The List (Sandy had returned to the fold of Santa believers shortly after Maggie died) he wrote Sandy up for “careless endangerment – behaviour which placed both himself and his community at mortal risk.” It was a very serious charge and Ratfink felt it was his responsibility to interpret the letter of law.

Sample Example 7: “trompe l’oreille

Parents, ever wonder just when is the exact moment that a play date for your children went wrong – thankfully not horribly wrong, but wrong nonetheless? It may have been when the mother of a sweet and innocent five-year old girl decided to let her daughter play at the house of a neighbouring mommy and her two young daughters. Or it may have been when the hosting mommy decided that she could keep adequate tabs on the girls while she was busy with other chores elsewhere in the house. Or it may have been that moment when the host father arrived home and discovered that not all was what it seemed and the children fled for their lives, at least as they perceived it.

You see, it was a time before home computers and the Internet, cable TV, game boys and video games. Television reception was only as good as your antennae and even at that, there was precious little to watch as the three available channels carried few programs which would captivate the imaginations of five-year-old girls for long. Oh, colouring books and crayons were popular enough and many dwellings were decorated with early cave-girl and cave-boy pictographs drawn crudely on wallpapered and painted walls with crayons that defied the description “washable.” Most adults knew it best to keep pencils and pens out of the hands of these budding artists if you wanted to avoid them making an indelible impression.

Bear in mind it was also a time when there was no kindergarten in this small community and work for women consisted mostly of childrearing, and household chores of cooking and cleaning; providing emotional support for all family members no matter what the situation or crisis; being responsible for financial and administrative duties to keep the family in food and clothing even in times of weak revenue; being the glue that held the extended family together through thick and thin and across the miles of prairie separating its various members; being the family’s lifeline to the community and social coordinator as required; and, working at one of more paid employment opportunities to “augment” the family income. In short, women with families were extremely busy – doing every thing from childbearing to darning socks to working “on the line” at the “egg factory.”

It is not exactly clear what was happening on this particular day but the host mommy made a decision to trust her auditory capacities and instincts as she multi-tasked elsewhere in the house. What she heard were joyful and pleasant sounds. The children were having a great time amusing themselves with boxes, bottles, jars and pots and pans from the cupboards and utensils from the drawers. It was not uncommon for children to play in this manner. It seems the host mommy became quite absorbed in whatever she was doing and the time slipped away with her ears still satisfied that everything was OK in the kitchen.

But sometimes not all is what it seems. What seemed to be innocent play with household pantry items and pots and pans turned out to be the auditory equivalent of a trompe l’oeil – a trompe l’oreille? The children were engaged in advanced culinary activities that they had not yet witnessed on cooking shows on television. But it was abundantly clear to them that in order for any goodness to happen in the kitchen some ingredients had to be emptied from their boxes and mixed with other ingredients. This is a variation of the old saw – you have to break an egg to make an omelette. I am not certain that these children actually broke any eggs but they did begin to experiment with a new recipe and culinary style by emptying several boxes of different cereals on the floor. Flour was next on the list and a white cloud swooshed across the room turning the faces of the would-be chefs a ghostly white. The resulting mixture still did not have that …. certain something, something, necessary to qualify as haute cuisine so home preserved garlic dill pickles, bread and butter pickles and gherkins landed on the floor with satisfying splats.   Peanut butter, chocolate syrup, corn syrup, orange juice and milk were added liberally to the dry ingredients. (Always add wet to dry ingredients my mother said.) Using the floor as a mixing bowl, the girls proceeded to stir vigorously with wooden spoons in a manner that they had seen their mothers do so often. What a pity that cell phone cameras were not yet invented, as the scene was priceless. Children covered head to toe in flour, baking powder, cereal and syrup; ponytails and pigtails sticky and askew but held somewhat in place with pretty ribbons and barrettes. It was a glorious sight – sweet smiles all around – until the reverie was burst by the entrance of … [drum roll] … the FATHER!

The host father it seems arrived home expecting his lunch of chicken noodle soup, egg salad sandwiches, tea and a lemon square only to find the kitchen concoction instead. As he came through the back porch, the screen door slammed behind him (in those days all screen doors slammed.) The children, possessing remarkable sixth sense, sensed that perhaps this scene was not one to which they wanted to be associated. Before the father even entered the kitchen, all sticky fingers and toes fled to the nearest bedroom, diving like ground squirrels under the bed. It took a few seconds for the father’s brain to process exactly what he was seeing in the kitchen, but when it registered a loud “WHAT THE ….!” thundered through the air.   He caught some movement out of the corner of his eye and following the trail of syrup and cereal, reached under the bed and grasped the ankle of the first culprit he could reach. It happened to be the sweet little girl from the family next door. She was the last under the bed and consequently was the first to be pulled out. She received a sharp smack across the backside, which sent both her and her two accomplices into screams and tears. The sound of three wailing children cut through the walls like an air raid siren causing the oblivious mother to jump up from her work and run to the kitchen arriving only a second or two ahead of the mother of the sweet little girl from next door. After the dust had settled so to speak, and the kitchen concoction was scrubbed off all surfaces, smiles returned to the adults’ faces as they began to realize that this was one for the books.

Ratfink Elf thought so too and booked the host mother for being inattentive, the host father for paddling the sweet little girl on her behind, and the children for wilful naughty behaviour. He reasoned that because they fled when they heard the father coming home, they clearly knew what they were doing was naughty at the very least and probably egregious. Of course, Ratfink did not stop to think about whether the children understood the meaning of ‘wilful’ or ‘egregious’, never mind ‘naughty.’ Oh well … ‘naughty’ was checked beside each of their names just the same.

Santa Inquiry Tables Findings and Recommendation

President Claus and the Elf members of the Inquiry sat patiently and respectfully through Ratfink’s long explanation. There was no bobbing and jerking of heads, both tell tale signs of someone desperately staving off boredom and sleep. None of the bells at the tips of the Elf hats was ever in danger of dipping into the eggnog. Most telling however was the fact that the eggnog was not spiked! Brains were clearly engaged and engaged clearly. The level of attentiveness over the four hours was unprecedented in the history of Santal Inquiries. Even so, the Inquiry Elves took no notes and asked no questions of clarification.

At this point I think we need to refresh our memories on the reason for this Inquiry.  Ratfink Elf, the Clerk (pronounced Clark) responsible for maintaining Santa’s Naughty and Nice List (The List,) reported to Santa that with only hours left before Christmas Eve, a small town in southern Manitoba (Community A) did not have one person on the nice list which meant that Santa would not make any visits to believers there. Santa called for the Inquiry to ensure that there was no mistake in this report from the Clerk (pronounced Clark).

I am certain you want to know what the Inquiry found and what recommendation it made. Remember, earlier I said there was only one recommendation.

Findings: The Inquiry found that Ratfink Elf had erred on several points of Santal Constitutional law re: jurisdiction to wit the criminal and civil codes of member nations of the Santa Convention Regulating Administrative Punishment (SCRAP,) rendering the prohibition of Santa’s Christmas Eve visit to Community A as null and void, notwithstanding that several individuals of Community A would remain on the naughty list as charged.

Recommendation: Santa should visit Community A in his usual fashion distributing presents to a list revised by Ratfink to meet reasonable definitions of ”naughty” and “nice,” and approved by President (Mrs.) Claus.

President (Mrs.) Claus IMG_0178

President (Mrs.) Claus on vacation in unidentified location after Inquiry Photo courtesy North Pole Archives

The recommendation was implemented with the force of a decree. Ratfink Elf was miffed that his assessments were not upheld in total but was satisfied that he was successful in having so many assessments upheld. It was a clear vindication of the necessary existence of his position as Clerk (pronounced Clark) of the Naughty and Nice List.

In layperson’s terms, the song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” has it right.  Santa is concerned with “naughty” and “nice” – that’s the list he checks twice. Oh, he knows if you have been “bad” or “good” but that is a matter for a different jurisdiction. The word “naughty” denotes mild disobedience while the word ”bad” denotes something that is unsatisfactory, unacceptable, negligent or unwelcome and is not the responsibility of Santal law but the responsibility of other jurisdictions with advanced civil and criminal codes. The capacity for the Clerk (pronounced Clark) to recommend and for Santa to take action is subject to these jurisdictional realities. Santal law is neither criminal nor civil, it turns out.

IMG_1269 - 2

Santa came! He came!

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town: “The Boss” Takes the Stage

This story should not end without a rendition of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie wrote this seasonal smash hit in 1934. It was first performed on the Eddie Cantor show and it shot to the top of the charts. It has been recorded innumerable times by artists such as Perry Como, The Four Seasons, Bing Crosby, The Beach Boys, Lou Rawls, The Carpenters, Neil Diamond, George Strait, The Supremes, and Andrea Bocelli, to name but a few.

But by far my personal favourite performances of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town are by Bruce Springsteen. His rock version has become a staple in his playlist for concerts all over the world. No matter the time of year, fans often come prepared with Santa hats and Christmas cards to throw on stage giving Springsteen (and sometimes the E Street Band) the whimsical boost necessary to live up to their trademark high-energy performance with Springsteen exhorting the crowd to sing along. The audience responds in kind in anticipation of Santa’s arrival – even if it may be months until Christmas Eve. There are two Springsteen versions that are particular favourites of mine, partly because both feature the big man Clarence Clemons on saxophone and bass vocals, and partly because 31 years separates the performances. Have a listen by clicking on the links below:

1. A young Bruce Springsteen performs Santa Claus is Coming to Town 1978.09.20, Capitol Theatre, Passaic, N.J. from “Live in Passaic – September 20th 1978” (JEMS Archive-Brucevideos).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsDieLwIaaw

 

  1. It’s 31 years later and a more mature, high energy (in my opinion) Springsteen performs Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town with the E Street Band – Live at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York 2009-11-22.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2NhmrootkY

There are many other Springsteen versions of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town out there and it fun to watch and listen to them all.

  1. Bonus: And, of course another Springsteen classic is Merry Christmas Baby, which always puts me into the rock and roll spirit of Christmas. The Buffalo 2009 version is here

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B803AXVYzeE

NOTE: Bruce Springsteen is a long time supporter of the Light of Day Foundation fighting Parkinson’s disease. Springsteen has appeared as a “surprise” guest 11 times over the 15 years of Benefit Concerts organized by Bob Benjamin, an artistic manager and music industry veteran who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1996.

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener) 2015, with the exception of Bruce Springsteen performances and photographs as noted.

Who’s in the Red Velvet Suit?

Who’s in the Red Velvet Suit?

Preface

I usually write about Parkinson’s and gardening in the context of my own life, past, present and what I think is the future. When you have Parkinson’s it is easy to forget that there was a time when your cares were, in most ways, less weighty.  We should not let those times disappear from our memory banks. What follows is a story that I have often thought about while I am in the garden, or when I wish to push Parkinson’s to the background.  While not obvious, it is a story that provides me with the mental nourishment I need to meet the challenges ahead. But mostly, it is a story about Christmas and a place I know. I hope you enjoy it.

Have a very Merry Christmas! Very Best Wishes to you, your loved ones and your community for safe and Happy Holidays!

The Red Velvet Suit

From the moment he burst through the doors into the steamy, smoke – filled hall, [hard to believe but they smoked everywhere in the 1950s] the game was on. Who was he? We had only about 12 minutes to make a positive identification before he disappeared out those same doors trailing his merriment into the frosty, snow-covered landscape of a typical Manitoba winter night. Crisp and clear – with a just hint of barley made into beer wafting from the local hotel two doors up the street.

The game was an informal one devised and perpetuated by children between the ages of 8 and 11; children who were pretty certain that Santa Claus was not real but who were nonetheless not quite ready to jettison a belief in Santa because their imaginations had not yet been sullied by adult thoughts and reasoning. These children still harbored private thoughts that there just might be a Santa and, if there was, they did not want to be caught amongst the disbelievers. Still, they played the game: who was behind the bushy white beard, the twinkling eyes, the big round voice matching the big round tummy, inside the red velvet suit with the white fur trim?   The goal was quite simple: expose Santa as a fraud by making a positive identification of the imposter.   In retrospect, I am not certain why the heck we would want to do that, but such is the way of the world. If it exists, we strive to expose its most fundamental elements for all to see, breaking down the mysteries.

The community hall was crammed to the rafters. Even the balcony (sometimes referred to as the “Choir Loft”) over the entrance was stuffed to overflowing. Most chairs had people’s bums in them already and those that didn’t had hats, scarves, or programs placed in such a manner as to reserve the seat for someone who was still making their way through the snow bank lined streets after finishing some urgent last minute task.  The time was circa 1955 – 1960. The immediate “town” was really a hamlet at best but no one ever referred to it as such. The town was Altamont and the population was 120 people and five dogs with an equal number of cats. I know the population figure because my dad and I sat one evening when I was quite young and counted each person who lived within the official confines of the town limits.

But, as we know, the definition of “community” does not necessarily correspond to geographical boundaries as determined by government officials and cartographers. Families who lived on farms and in areas that were more rural than Altamont (hard to imagine) also formed an integral part of an ever-shifting community. The political boundaries of the school district were important in this determination and changed with many amalgamations over the years. Each amalgamation marked a death knell for some communities and the birth of a few new ones. In any case, at this time, even a radius of seven miles (yes, this was before we went metric) would double the population at least – if one were estimating the number of people who might cram themselves into the community hall or if one were guessing who might be inside the red velvet suit with white fur trim.

[As a side note: this post is not the appropriate place to engage in a discussion or debate about rights for minority schools, whether based on religion or language. These matters really go back to the famous “Manitoba Schools Question” which dominated Manitoba politics from 1870 when the Manitoba Act created the Province and on into the early 1900’s. The importance of this debate continues to this very day and should be required reading and study if one is to understand the development of Manitoba community and culture. I will say no more about it here.]

Altamont MB Street Map

Altamont MB Street Map

You have my apologies for that short digression. Regular readers will be used to it and undoubtedly we will take a few other sidetracks as we proceed.

I played the “Guess who is Santa game” along with the rest when I turned of age – that age when children, especially boys, morph from cute inquisitiveness to obnoxious know-it-all, hiding behind a barrage of questions meant to reinforce already formed opinions, without a concern as to whether it was right or wrong. All games have rules, even if the only rule is that there are no rules. The one rule for this game was that you are not permitted to touch Santa in any way.

I suspect that Christmas concerts were integral to the fabric of Altamont as a community however it was defined.   As a child, I didn’t pay much attention to the fabric of anything – except if that fabric was part of a sport’s uniform. In particular, I was hockey crazy and was a fan of the Chicago Black Hawks back in the “Original Six” days of the NHL and I recall being greatly disappointed when Santa gave me a Toronto Maple Leaf sweater for Christmas one year. I am quite certain this actually happened to me – or maybe I have just internalized The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier as the quintessential trauma of many Canadian boys who grew up despising the Leafs – or maybe this is the reason I despise the Leafs.   Kids from the surrounding francophone communities were steadfast fans of the Montreal Canadien and sported the red of les habitants (The Habs.) There was a lot of support for the blue of the Toronto Maple Leafs (although not from me) and a smattering of support for the Detroit Red Wings with their stylized red wing of course.

I do recall that we were unable to afford coordinated team uniforms on the first teams for which I played. We were forced to take to the ice as a rag tag bunch with sweaters from various teams. The reds of the Habs, the Black Hawks and the Red Wings more or less defined what could be called a team. I stood out like a sore thumb with my blue Leafs sweater but thankfully a few of the other kids had hand-me-down sweaters of non-NHL teams from older brothers who played for teams in other communities.   In the end we were predominately red with a smattering of green and orange and, of course, I had the blue Leafs sweater. We identified our team as being anyone with a colour that wasn’t the colour of the opposing team whose sweaters were generally provided courtesy of a local community organization.

Of course, we had no idea that we were a rag tag bunch. In order to ice a team of nine players we recruited from farm families and communities such as St. Lupicin and Deerwood.  Not only were we small in numbers, we often were also small in size as some of our players were younger brothers or friends far below the age category we were playing in. We wouldn’t have been able to field a team otherwise.

Our coaches, (I’ll call them Winston and Leon because those are their real names,) were both farmers living outside the strict geographical boundaries of Altamont but who were nonetheless selfless in their long-standing commitment to coach us through the various age groupings. I still remember their calm demeanour and patience as we took every aspect of the game, and every development within the game, as being the most important thing that had ever happened to us. We hit the ice with the enthusiasm of an NHL team and we played every game as if it were the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. It was competitive. We played to win, as did every other team. This was not a league where they did not keep track of the score. Even in games of shinny each kid silently kept track of the score, until at last, with our mothers and fathers hollering at us to come off the ice for dinner, someone would shout, “Next goal wins” and the real battle was on.

I do know that the kids (and adults) from the other towns would laugh when our small contingent of seemingly unlikely hockey players would take to the ice wearing our collection of mismatched, mostly hand me down, hockey jerseys. But I also know that our uniforms were all that they could laugh at because we most often defeated them on the ice, sometimes handily, even though their communities were much larger than ours. Eventually, we did get uniforms but that is a story for another day when I address the good ol’days (and the not so good ol’days) of my hockey career in a future blog about hockey and small towns.

My apologies, but I always get carried away when I talk about hockey (and gardening), so I must return to the topic at hand – the annual Christmas Concert. The “Holiday Concert” had not yet arrived on the scene and, to my knowledge, there were no non-Christians living in my community. Christmas it was and the concert was the product of the collective effort of the teaching staff and the pupils of the Altamont School, grades 1 – 12.   Yes, a four room school. The first room held Grades 1 -3. The second room had grades 4 – 6. The third room grades 7-9, and the fourth room had grades 10 – 12.   The number of students per room was inversely proportional to grade level. Many years, there were no students in grade 12. The good ol’school days will also be a topic of a future blog so they are given short shrift here. I mention them now only as a reminder that the teachers hired were under considerable pressure to make their pupils, the children of the community, look good in whatever performance they appeared, no matter how difficult or inept these children were in real life – on any dimension you can imagine.

The teachers were generally not from the community i.e., they did not grow up there so they had no knowledge as to the particular weave of the community fabric. Inevitably, this led not to “great” performances, but “safe” performances. Best to stick to the tried and true, and not venture into the unknown. The obligatory “pageant” was performed primarily by the lower grades with a few upper students covering off the adult roles of Joseph and Mary (virginal or not), the Innkeeper, etc. There was the odd occasion where animals were introduced into the performance, usually someone’s dog and ended unsuccessfully with the owner scrambling to keep the dog from eating the gifts of the Magi. Who knew that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were so tasty? And it always looked a little weird when one of the Magi (or worse yet, Joseph) repeatedly had to swat the dog’s nose away from his crotch. Dogs are funny that way.

On one occasion, I recall Mr. T. being convinced that we would be able to pull the pageant off with some stellar narration from yours truly – what with my mellow 12-year-old tones and all. We rehearsed it a few times but there were concerns that I could not be heard from the back of the hall. Projection I have learned is key to a career in the theatre. One of my friends volunteered that they had a “sound system,” which would solve this problem. So, we tried it. Yes, that seemed to be just the ticket, as they say, and a speaker was placed in the balcony at the opposite end of the hall from the stage.  As a last minute instruction, Mr. T. directed me to hold the microphone close to my mouth so that those in the front seats do not hear my voice from the front, in addition to my slightly delayed voice from the rear of the hall. Who knew that our small community hall would have the same acoustic issues as Yankee Stadium when the national anthem is sung?

I was situated stage right in full view of the audience, and I began my narration, the microphone held as close to my mouth as possible without it sounding like Darth Vader (who wasn’t invented yet) or a creepy obscene telephone caller (who was invented then and flourished because it was before caller ID.) The pageant was a particularly long one by pageant standards and we were pushing the attention span tolerance limits even without any added complications. But complications there were. Someone (I swear it was not my responsibility) failed to switch on the toggle that activated the amplifier at the back of the hall. I wondered why the audience in the far reaches seemed restless and disengaged, not giving this serious subject matter the attention to which it surely was due. As well, the audience in the front rows seemed a little irritated and there was much talking and eye rolling. But like a trooper in the spirit of the theatre I soldiered on, finally reaching the end at which there was thunderous applause signaling a collective “Thank God, that’s over!”

It was only later, but before the end of the concert, that I learned that the amplifier had not worked. The audience at the back could not hear a word I was saying. Those at the front could only hear “mumble, mumble” as I spoke.  If you fast-forward some 55 years to the present day, I routinely hear the following words from my wife, Anne, “Good Lord man, stop mumbling through your beard. I can’t hear a word you are saying!” To which I, just as routinely, reply, “If you weren’t so deaf, you would hear me just fine!” But in my head I hear, “If you had a hearing aid, you would hear me just fine … but you probably wouldn’t turn the damn amplifier on!”

Choirs were always thought to be a safe bet for a concert so many grades sang a variety of Carols and Christmas songs ignoring the fact that choirs are generally a vehicle to blend many voices into one beautiful vocal instrument – and not a vehicle to highlight a beautiful voice at the expense of one voice, or several voices, whose efforts brought cringes before they were rewarded with polite applause from the ever understanding audience of parents and grandparents. Of course, classmates are rarely so polite and poor performances often form part of the schoolyard banter for years in the future. “He sounded like Stubby the cat when ol’ Wacker backed over his tail.” Or worse yet, and this was well before the Vanilla Ice scandal, “do you know that Ms. B. told him to lip sync the words?” If this applied to you, you undoubtedly are carrying the scars to this very day. I know I am. Such singing misadventures were brought into even sharper relief when the very fine Altamont Choir conducted by the talented Ms. Belva (not the Ms. B. above) would favour concert goers with a few old standards like “Little Drummer Boy” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” performed just before a blast of frigid air announced Santa’s presence in the hall.  Needless to say, I was not in that choir, lip syncing or not.

Comedy was another option but there were so many things to avoid. Drunken Santas are never a good idea – likely to invoke a few images of the town drunk or perhaps drunks (c’mon, every town had at least one,) who sometimes adopted the persona of Santa (irrespective of the time of year) in their more lugubrious moments. I personally have seen what I believe to be the tracks of Santa’s sleigh in the fresh snow on Christmas morning leading directly from the local watering hole and ending abruptly at the first telephone pole, located ironically in front of the community hall where just hours earlier Santa had thrilled everyone in the village with his appearance. It is not widely known but Santa’s sleigh can magically transform itself into many things (Santa was on top of transformer technology) and one local village vehicle sported a rather nasty dent in the front fender and hood for years. It was never repaired to my knowledge. But I have no firm proof that said vehicle was once Santa’s sleigh.

A scene from a lighthearted play was sometimes tolerated even though it inevitably led to cases of overacting – [loudly: “who is that knocking at the door?” Followed by a loud “Knock Knock”.] Or underacting when the darling little six year old would look out into the audience like a deer caught in the headlights and realizing she couldn’t find her mother, would start crying. This would in turn generate some over-reacting by the mother in an attempt to salvage the moment. If this were a boy, he would make up for his momentary acting faux pas not by crying but by throwing around a few items from the set before exiting stage gauche, so to speak. And finally, words to live by, never rely on a dog not to pee.

But back to the case at hand. Who was that in the red velvet suit? From the moment Santa burst through those doors, he was under scrutiny. Did he have glasses? Of course he did. Everyone knows Santa has glasses – those little round kind or maybe the little square kind. Did Santa have boots? Of course, he did, he’s Santa. But wait. Those boots were often not the typical big black Santa boots. Sometimes they were black but they were those four-buckle kind, overshoes, the ones you coveted as a kid because you could leave the four buckles undone and walk around with the buckles flopping, making a buckley-metallic kind of noise until they wore out and the buckles fell off, always leaving each boot with a different number of buckles, but never just one. It was acknowledged that Santa just might wear such boots in our community. But could we determine who was in the suit from this footwear? There were many men in the immediate environs who had never grown up to the point of properly buckling their boots before they ventured outside. If they were only half – grown up, they buckled only the bottom two buckles and not the top two. But it proves nothing about who was in the red velvet suit unless you can make a positive identification. It would not be possible from this evidence.

Sometimes the boots were brown with a single strap – much like a watchstrap – to fasten at the top. This narrowed the possibilities considerably as fewer men wore that style. These men tended to be more practical, or cheap as these boots cost less – well maybe practical and cheap are the same thing in this case. Much to my chagrin this was the style of boot that I was forced to wear all of my youth, until I could afford to buy my own four buckle boots – so that I could jangle around losing my buckles – for about a year when they too went out of style.

Of course, there were toe rubbers. Wait! I apologize. I am just joshing you. Santa would never wear toe rubbers! Not then! Not now! No more shall be said about this digression.

What if the person in the red suit was … gasp … a woman? What if she is really Saint Nicola, Kristen Kringle, Mère Noelle, Old Woman Christmas, Grandmother Frost, or Mother Christmas? Well, you get the idea. There were a few occasions when the names of some ladies in town were mentioned as being a possibility to be the one who “manned” the red suit. Some had the little round glasses. For some their voices had that husky and jolly quality, either from being at the North Pole a lot or from hanging around in smoky bars.  To say that there were several women in the broader reaches of the Greater Altamont Area (the GAA) who might carry themselves with the same stature and comportment as Santa would be uncharitable, so I will only say that many women were more matronly, or more muscular and big boned. Still, in those days, I could not imagine any woman in the GAA who could do justice to the high black boots with the white fur trim around the top in the same way that the real Santa does.  If Santa was really a “she,” it should make our task much easier as it increased the probability that we could make a positive identification in spite of the fact that it increased the population of the pool from which we had to choose. Surely we would be able to spot a woman in the red velvet suit, wouldn’t we?  The very thought that Santa could be a woman was, I think, just too radical for our young minds in the late 1950s. We could never envisage Mrs. Cleaver as Santa in the Leave it to Beaver culture we lived in. There was no strong female role model in My Three Sons, while Lassie and My Friend Flicka did not inspire our hopes for the ascendance of any humans, male or female, to the exalted position of Santa. And, just when Donna Reed and Shelley Fabares were sexing up the TV listings, surely I would have noticed if the boots became a bit more feminine and were … say … no longer black? If queried on this opinion today, I may feel differently. But it is not today with which we are concerned. Who was in the red velvet suit in those formative years of my life?

Surely Santa's boots were never like this!!!

Surely Santa’s boots were never like this!!!

To recap, we unconsciously, if not consciously, relegated the idea that Santa was a woman to the scrap heap of impossible ideas. Hey look, I am just sayin’ that the 1950s were that way.

There was always such a mad crush around Santa when he arrived, and his movements were unpredictable. Many times he entered through the main doors but sometimes he entered through the kitchen behind the stage where, it was understandable, he was provided refreshment after his long trip from the North Pole. Other times, he sneaked in the opposite side of the hall behind the giant Christmas tree. It is widely thought that he lingered behind that tree observing all the children (and some particular adults) in his final determination as to whether they had been naughty or nice. In the case of the adults, naughty and nice sometimes overlapped and the judgment scale could tip either way.

There were always a few helpers (not Elves …. we didn’t really believe in Elves) who handed out little brown paper bags tied with red or green ribbon containing Christmas goodies such as gum drops, licorice all-sorts, humbugs, jaw breakers, life savers, candy canes and butterscotch. Oh there were always a few peanuts, as a kind of filler, but no one counted those as candy and indeed discounted them as being leftovers from Halloween. Invariably a bag would break and the scramble would be on as little ones flung themselves under foot to grab an extra lemon drop.

A path through the crowd magically opened as Santa rolled in on his hearty “Ho Ho Ho” and he stopped only briefly to pat a few of us on our wide-eyed heads, and to look a few of my compatriot non-believers directly in the eye, as a kind of cheerful challenge for them to identify him as being someone other that the real deal, the genuine Santa. Even though we planned to observe everything we possibly could in an attempt to expose this fraudster, the madness of the moment, the craziness of Christmas let loose a wave of pent up thoughts and emotions: Christmas really is almost here. The Concert was Santa’s dress rehearsal for his solo performance on Christmas Eve.

Even when some of the older children (boys in particular) were able to report in after Saint Nick’s departure with some “hard facts” that they had gleaned from those few frenzied flashes of his face as he passed, or the observance of articles of clothing that are perhaps not regulation Santa issue vestments, the cracks began to appear in the case. Those brown boots are just like Georges’ boots,” one boy said. Another said, “yeah, but they didn’t really fit very well so I think they switched boots. Besides he didn’t have an accent.” Another offered that he thought Gordon was in the red velvet suit. This was quickly countered with the fact that Gordon was too short and this Santa had no evidence of an arthritic hip. “Maybe it was the other Gordon,” said the first boy. “No, I saw him going into the hotel only moments before Santa’s arrival in the hall,” called a voice from the back. Frantic now, other suggestions were shouted out. It was Frank. It was Lorne. It was the other Lorne. It was Bert. It was Charlie. It was the other Charlie. No, it was the other, other Charlie. “Well, it was Flo,” one timid younger girl piped up. All eyes turned to her and then rolled in unison as they explained that Santa could not be a woman. Enough said. Each possibility was thrown equally into doubt by contradicting evidence – some from eyewitnesses, some factual differences in appearance or other distinguishing features, some circumstantial.

There is much debate in philosophy about the scientific method and whether we can ever prove anything to be true. It does make for interesting and stimulating reading but it is hardly Christmas story material so I will not engage in a lengthy discourse about it here. Suffice to say that one approach, proposed by philosopher Karl Popper, is that we can only prove something to not be true. For example, even if we have only ever seen white swans, it does not mean that all swans are white. However, if we ever see just one swan that is black, an initial hypothesis that all swans are white is not valid. Similarly, if we say that all Santas are real, we need to find only one Santa that is a fake in order for the first statement to be disproved. Seems easy enough, right?   All we had to do was unmask our Santa to disprove the assertion that all Santas are real. Sure, but the catch is that finding one fake Santa does not prove that there is no real Santa. It just means that all Santa’s are not real.

But what was the case with our Santa? Would we ever know if it was the real Santa Claus in the red velvet suit or if it was an imposter? If he (or she) was not the real Santa, we needed a positive identification as to who in our community was masquerading as Old Saint Nick. Now, I doubt that we ever thought of our game in terms of the scientific method, and I am certain that our methodology was greatly flawed, but we were determined, at the very least, to prove that our Santa was not real. That was what the game was all about.   But, as Robbie Burns wrote in his poem To a Mouse, in 1786 “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]”

And the awry part started with a fact that distracted us greatly. Santa always left a gift for each of us under the tree –perhaps hidden amongst the branches or deftly tucked around the back barely visible from any angle. The presents were not there before Santa arrived, but were there after Santa left. Clearly, Santa had worked his magic in the few short minutes of confusion and excitement when he was in the hall. Or perhaps, time was momentarily suspended keeping us spellbound as he emptied his great sack of presents.

IMG_1269 - 2As I indicated earlier, I was a hockey crazy kid and the only thing I really wanted was a hockey stick. Oh, how I hoped that there would be a stick just like the sticks I fondled and coveted in Herbie’s hardware store. I know that I checked the tree when we first arrived in the hall and there was no evidence of a stick, or anything else for me. I was a bit concerned. It is not that easy to hide a hockey stick and I didn’t think I had been bad. Well, there was that garden incident that I wrote about in a previous post, but surely Santa had gotten past that?

When Santa rushed out of the hall with a great swoosh and disappeared into the crisp dark night, the game of trying to determine who was in the red velvet suit disappeared with him. Everyone’s attentions were now firmly fixed on the tree and the many presents glittering under the Christmas lights. I remember the smell of the branches and my fingers being sticky from pinesap as I searched for my gift. [Not the only time my fingers were sticky I’ll wager.] And there it was, leaning up against the back wall, barely visible through the branches – a Sherwood hockey stick, just like the ones in Herbie’s store, with my name on it. The “L” on the shaft meant that it was a stick for a left-handed shooter, like me, so there was a small curvature of the blade to the right in order to better cradle and control the puck.  This was in the days before Bobby Hull and others introduced and perfected the giant curved blades that drastically changed the game, so much so that rules and regulations were introduced to restrict the degree of curvature and allow goaltenders to breath a collective sigh of relief.

But there it was, my stick. I grabbed it without thinking and turned to show my father and mother. The stick had not yet been shortened to its proper length and the butt end was sticking out a long way above the point where I grasped it. In turning, I accidently hit Herbie, the hardware store owner, smack in the face and knocked his little square lens glasses clean off. [Hmm … little square lens glasses? Could it be?] In any case, I think that was my first high sticking penalty. Maybe it serves Herbie right for selling such lethal weapons in his hardware store.

To my knowledge no one was able to identify Santa as anyone other than the jolly old Elf he claimed to be even if we didn’t really believe in Elves. It is a fact of human nature that as we grow older nostalgia grows incrementally stronger, and with nostalgia comes a desire not to break the bonds, the glue, that holds happy memories together. A little known fact is that nostalgia for matters of Christmas begins about age 12, the same age that children begin to profess that they are no longer children. The first great test for those who wish to leave childhood behind is that they must not engage in any activity that would cast any doubt upon Santa’s existence. Whether Santa is real or myth or mirage is no longer of any consequence. The solidification of childhood memories as nostalgia obviates the need for further empirical investigation. Put more bluntly, they don’t care anymore – leaving the game to those who enjoy pursuing the unattainable – preferring instead to revel in memories of Christmas past; the enjoyment of Christmas present; and the anticipation of Christmas future.

The Real Santa and me circa 1955   Photo: unknown

The Real Santa and me circa 1955 Photo: unknown

As I stick handled my way home that night, my father and mother maintained a respectful distance with my sister Geraldine safely tucked into the sleigh under a tonne of blankets. My youngest sister Colleen existed only as a distant star adding sparkle to the snow and our night. I had nothing on my mind but hockey, and Santa, and the snowflakes glinting under the streetlights, and hockey, and the frost on the snow, and how I wished I had a puck, and Santa, and hockey…. Secure in my world where only Santa would wear the red velvet suit with the white fur trim and black boots.  And because he had a funny, one of a kind, uniform, he had to be on my team!

Copyright The PD Gardener (Stan Marshall) 2014