Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Secret Santa.

On my father's side I am the second oldest of something like 25 grandchildren. I've lost count, actually, and the number is still occasionally growing. I have one cousin who is older than me, but she lives in Washington state, so when I was young she was rarely around to challenge me as leader of the pack. Not that I ever wanted to be leader of the pack, but there were some benefits to being oldest.

Also, no part of my father's family is Latino. The significance of this will become clear later. Members of my father's family are mutts; they're mostly German, I think, and probably some Dutch, but no one has ever really been clear about the matter. They have been in Kansas for many generations, and only with my grandparents' generation did they become city dwellers.

When I was growing up we always drove to Topeka on Christmas Eve, where my paternal grandparents lived, to celebrate. It was a special trip, because while Kansas City is only an hour from Topeka, my parents were busy with school and work and rarely had the time or resources to make the drive. My Grandma was pretty darn cool and I like hanging out with her.

And, more importantly, Santa came to deliver my Christmas gifts.

Anticipation began to build on the highway, when we'd hear reports on the radio of Santa's sleigh being spotted on the weather radars. By dinnertime I was nearly too excited to eat and both my brother and I were on full hyperactive burn. After eating a little we were all shooed downstairs to the basement family room, where a piñata was hanging from the ceiling.

Yes, a piñata. My aunt made one every year by hand and filled it with money and candy. By the time I was old enough to remember my first piñata I suppose I must have been four or five years old and I had...oh, I'd guess six or seven cousins. Actually, I don't really remember the first one, I just remember that Christmas had always been this way. It seemed to me that this was what one did for the holidays. Starting with the youngest grandchild, we all took turns swinging a plastic bat at the dangling piece of paper maîche, until finally one of the older grandchildren burst it open at the seams. My aunt was a very thorough piñata builder, so this could take quite some time. I remember the mad rush to grab candy as a vicious, every-kid-for-himself sort of dash.

Of course, this was all a diversion.

Some time after we'd gorged ourselves on chocolates, someone upstairs would yell, "I think I hear Santa!" We'd stampede up the stairs and sure enough, he'd be at the door, laughing merrily.

Santa was real. Santa called out my name and handed me my gifts. Santa had something for everyone. I believed. I never bothered to question why. Who would, regardless of age?

The first Christmas I experienced this routine after being told the truth about Santa, everything was so obvious. Where was Uncle Steve? He'd been there at dinner. I watched the spectacle from the back of the tiny living room, near the hallway where there was more room to move around. Rather than being disappointed that Santa was far less than I had believed, I was filled with a wonderful feeling of knowing something that every other kid there didn't know. I had a secret. It was precious. There would be consequences should I pass it on. I felt important and trusted and I really, really liked it.

My father's family still practices this Christmas ritual. Over the years the duty of being Santa has been passed down through my cousins. I even have a photo of my brother being made up with the Santa suit on and a beer in his hand. Somehow I managed to dodge the draft...I suppose I'm too scrawny to pull off jolly, which is fine by me. As long as there are young ones in my family, and given the apparently fertility of the ladies that looks to be forever, we'll enjoy perpetuating the secret.

My friends confide in me often. I love it, because it gives me a little bit more of that special feeling. My own secrets are not really much fun. I have relatively few, I think. The times when I slip and inadvertently let out something which has been confided in me are some of my biggest failures in life.

As an adult living in Topeka, my holiday celebrations were much less exciting, even when I was with my family. I suppose we all mellow with age and beer. My favorite thing about Chrismas Eve in Topeka during my 20s was Collins Park, a neighborhood which lined every street with brown paper bags every few feet along the curbs, each filled with sand and a candle. They lit all the candles after dark and the simple lanterns suddenly were an impressive sight. For a few hours that night the neighborhood seemed even darker for all its undulating snakes of lights. It was a quiet celebration, without red or green or glitter or snowmen or many-colored trees. The streets had a secret.

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