(An oldie, but goodie. This story appeared in Idunna in 2003 or 2004, and in HEX in 2009 under the name I Don’t Call Him Santa Anymore. Upon reflection, I prefer its original title, which I am using here.)
Some children are afraid of ghosts or witches, goblins or the bogeyman. Some fear the dark, or strangers, or the thing that hides in the closet or under the bed. I was a strange child; I was afraid of Santa Claus.
It started when I was little. My parents, entering into the secular spirit of the holiday shopping season, would bundle me up and whisk me off to the nearest department store to stand in line with other bedraggled holiday shoppers and their over-bundled, sweaty, snotty, whining children. There we would wait patiently while listening to canned Christmas music until at last it was my turn to make my way up the red carpet to sit on the lap of the white-bearded Old Man. And although every year I desperately hoped things would be different, my reaction was always the same. When the man himself extended his arms to me and with a hearty, deep belly-laugh said, “Well, then, little girl, come tell Santa what you want for Christmas this year,” without fail I panicked and would not, could not, approach Santa’s throne. If my parents (who had, after all, just waited an hour or more for the privilege) tried to urge me forwards, I fought as if my life depended on it. I kicked, I clawed, I screamed.
Widespread embarrassment ensued—especially from Old Saint Nick himself. Embarrassment, and, once or twice, something else, something deeper. Anguish? Wistfulness? But those times were the worst of all, because those were the times when I suddenly became aware that the man sitting before me had changed, becoming something more, something bigger, than he was supposed to be. In response, I would feel even smaller than I already was, my terror would give way to a searing sense of loss, and my screams would fall silent. On these rare occasions, my parents would mistake my silence for assent and would lead me forward, pale and trembling, to take the extended hand, be hoisted up onto the artificially padded lap, and meet that woeful, wise and wounded gaze close-up with a mixture of longing and dread. That gaze that, it seemed to me, could see right into me and through me, peeling back the layers of illusion and delusion that made up who I thought I was (because even at an early age, I was already forming such notions) to expose the real me, the me I thought was safely hidden away from everyone else, the me even my parents didn’t know, the me I hardly knew.
This went on for years, until I eventually came to dread the entire holiday season. There were presents, true—loads of them; my parents were neither rich nor religious, but I was an only child, and they didn’t stint on Christmas gifts. But the brightly bedecked tree with its gleaming red ornaments seemed to remind me of something vaguely sinister. And the other holiday customs—the caroling, the mistletoe, the elaborate feasts—were both strangely alluring and slightly ominous. It seemed to me that there was something different about the air itself at that time of year, from the arrival of the first serious frost in mid-November until about a week after New Year’s Day. Things felt different—wilder, more dangerous. Somehow there was a dire threat hidden away beneath the bright lights, gaudy colors and raucous sounds of the season. The air was sharper and stiller, the icy crispness of it was like a shrill warning, and the barrier between me and something I wanted with all my heart and at the same time desperately feared felt fragile, stretched perilously thin.
On stormy nights during Yuletide I would lie awake in bed, the covers pulled tightly over my head as I listened to the howling, shrieking winds. There were voices in those winds, it seemed to me—sometimes many voices hollering, singing, and whooping loudly all at once. It sounded like the clamor of a great company of warriors passing through the sky, complete with the howling of dogs, the clang of weapons, and the snorting and neighing of horses. And sometimes when this immense noise had passed, a single voice lingered, calling—calling me, calling my name—and this calling, though softer, was somehow also louder and infinitely more terrible. Something in me yearned to answer it, to go to him, to ride with them on shadowy steeds that soared through the stormy night skies–and when I felt that yearning threaten to overwhelm me I would clutch the covers even more tightly and squeeze my eyes shut, shaking with the terror and longing that warred within me, and sometimes weeping from it. Then behind my closed eyelids, I would see whiteness surrounding and encompassing me and lulling me to sleep—a soft, blurred, fuzzy whiteness like that of freshly fallen snow or white fur seen through unfocused eyes, and I sank into that whiteness until at last either the calling ceased or, exhausted, I fell asleep. But even once I slept, I was not free of him, for I dreamed disturbing dreams of places both familiar and strange, of horses and hounds and their ghostly riders, and of the ominous figure of a silver-bearded man—although, when I glimpsed him in my dreams he was taller and leaner than Santa Claus, and one side of his face seemed shadowy, and instead of cherry red he was cloaked in midnight blue.
They had the Christmas stories all wrong, I knew. Santa Claus didn’t wait for Christmas Eve to embark on his terrible journey into the night. No, he rode on many of the nights during the entire dreadful holiday season. And he did not ride alone. (Read more…)