Santa’s List: A Story of Naughty and Nice
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 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;
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;]
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
“Sandy” Photo: Unknown
“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 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.
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).
- 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.
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.
- 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
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.