He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

(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.

But there was one thing the stories had gotten right: somehow, he knew me.  He knew my name.  As that horrible song promised, he saw me when I was sleeping and knew when I was awake.  That was what frightened me most of all, because if he knew all that, what else did he know? What did he know about me that I didn’t even know about myself?  Part of the problem, I realize as I write this now, years later, was that I didn’t believe in God, not really, and I don’t think my parents did, either.  I mean, they weren’t out-and-out atheists; my father called himself agnostic (he was a lapsed Catholic), and my mother compromised with Christianity and flirted with Judaism.  But when you get right down to it, they didn’t believe, so how could they raise a child with any conception of the nature of deity?   Over the years, they made a few half-hearted attempts to expose me to things like Christian Sunday school and Jewish summer camp, but I wasn’t interested, and they gave up readily enough.  Because of all of this, throughout my early childhood Santa Claus was the closest thing to God I could imagine.  It was implied—in songs, in stories, and even in the sappy Christmas specials on TV—that he had the power to look into your soul and judge your worth.  And that terrified me.

Yet despite the lack of religious meaning Christmas held for either of them, my parents, completely oblivious to my terror, continued to make a big production about the holidays.  (Years later, I understand that it was because they were struggling to hold their marriage together, and clinging to traditions helped them do that, at least temporarily.)  Greeting cards received from friends and family had to be carefully taped up around the living room archway.  (Santa’s face beamed at me from many of them, rosy-cheeked and jolly—although even from a very young age that image had begun to strike me as wrong somehow, a parody of the real Old Man.)  The tree had to be a live one (and the one thing I did love was the smell of fresh fir needles that filled the house when my father hauled it inside), and every year the boxes of traditional decorations had to be exhumed and pawed through by my mother as she searched for just the right adornments for its branches.  Tinsel had to be treated as carefully as if it were strands of real silver, and safeguarded from the cat.  We had no fireplace, but nevertheless our store-bought Christmas stockings—Santa-red velvet trimmed in white fake fur—had to be hung somewhere in the vicinity of the tree, so Santa could fill them with his gifts.  And finally, on Christmas Eve my mother would bake a batch of cookies, and that night at bedtime, she would set out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk on an end table near the tree as a sacrifice to the Old Man.

When I was old enough to grasp what this little custom meant, it opened up whole new vistas of terror in my heart.  The fact that they habitually left this offering meant that they were inviting him to come inside the house.   Whether or not they actually believed in Santa Claus themselves didn’t matter; I knew he was real enough, and I trusted that he would accept their invitation in the spirit in which it was offered.  Which meant that after I fell asleep in frightened exhaustion from having lain awake struggling to resist his calls, if it was Christmas Eve the Old Man didn’t have to content himself with simply giving up and flying off with the rest of his company.  No, on Christmas Eve all the normal rules were suspended, and he was allowed to let himself silently into the house (we had no fireplace, but I was quite sure he didn’t need one), eat the little feast they had prepared for him, leave whatever gifts he might (although I knew—or convinced myself—that the packages marked “from Santa” were always things my mother had bought me instead, even though they were always exactly what I wanted, and I wasn’t sure I had always told her what to get), and then continue to my room, stealing in softly to literally see me as I lay sleeping.

This went on for years, as I said.  Other things in my life changed, but my strange and overwhelming dread of Santa Claus remained.  My dog got run over by a car; my grandmother moved to California; the dry cleaning business my parents owned was foreclosed—largely, I suspect, due to my father’s drinking.  Finally, the drinking got so bad that my mother left him, packing up as much of our stuff as she could and moving us out to California to join my grandmother and aunt.  Sunny Southern California.  There were no winter storms there, and in fact barely any winter at all to speak of.  At last, I thought, I was safe.

I was both right and wrong.  True, there were no shrieking windstorms to keep me awake at night, shivering in anticipation of his call.  And no more trips to see Santa, either; my aunt’s family was Jewish, and since my mother had moved us out there with virtually nothing and had to depend on her sister’s largesse, she went along with her seasonal holiday of choice that year and we celebrated Hannukah.  So although Christmas trappings still abounded all around us, in our little apartment there was no tree, no red balls and silver tinsel, and most importantly no Santa.  Oddly enough, there were no extraordinary just-what-I-wanted presents, either, although I put that down to the fact that my mother was poor and could barely afford the few things she did manage to buy me.  Yet although tangible evidence of his presence was lacking, I knew he was not gone.  I could still sense him there, at the threshold of my consciousness, biding his time, waiting.  Not patiently, exactly, for I sensed that there wasn’t much true patience in his nature at the best of times, and at that time of year especially he was all frenzy, and fury, and wildness.  But he was clever, and calculating, and infinitely pragmatic.  So he settled back to wait for the time when he could safely make inroads into my consciousness again.  And in a way, I missed him.

He didn’t have to wait long, though.  Less than a year later, when I was almost eight, my father had stopped drinking and my parents reconciled.  That summer my mother uprooted us yet again and packed up our still-meager belongings, this time to haul us back to the east coast.  We made the trip by bus, stopping off at key points of interest to spend a day sightseeing here, a night in a hotel there.  Finally we reached our destination—Philadelphia.  We rented out the top of a duplex of which my godmother had the bottom half, my father joined us there, and gradually life returned to normal.  We got another dog, I enrolled in a new school, and both of my parents found new jobs.  The summer ended and school started, third grade.  My birthday came and went, and then after it Halloween.  But this year, I was almost too busy with new friends and my new school to notice that the time of year I had dreaded all my life was fast approaching.

Then came one day late in November.  I was in the school library doing research for a project on trees, and while leafing through a book I came across a photograph of a tall conifer with spiky needles and little red berries.  I stared, astonished, and a chill crept into my heart—and along with it, a strangely powerful longing, not unlike the conflicting feelings I had about Santa himself.  Because this, I suddenly realized—this evergreen tree with red berries—was what my Christmas tree with its red glass ornaments had always, ominously, reminded me of.  The accompanying text informed me that this was a yew tree, and after all the details about its usual height, range, and appearance, went on to note that the seeds, wood, and needles were all poisonous and hallucinogenic, and that for this reason the tree was associated in many European cultures with death, at the same time as it was also linked with rebirth by virtue of being an evergreen.  However, the text added, in Scandinavian myth it was also sometimes identified with Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and with the shamanic ability to travel between the worlds.

I read that brief description several times, and each time the chill I had begun to feel deepened.  This, I suddenly knew, this World Tree, was what the seemingly innocent Christmas tree was supposed to represent.  I wondered how many people knew that?  I also realized that this had something—maybe everything—to do with who the Old Man himself really was, and why the supposedly merry trappings of the holiday season filled me with such dread.  But I could not penetrate the mystery, and I didn’t have time to look for more information.  I had to finish my tree project and hand it in—and yews were not among the trees we had been studying, in any case.  With a mixture of reluctance and relief, I went back to reading about the red maple.

But only a week later, the tree reports were finished and it was time to launch a new project—and with the holidays only a few weeks away, our teachers selected a theme of Christmas around the world, which fit in perfectly with the related goal of preparing for our holiday assembly.  All my friends thought this sounded like great fun, and threw themselves into it eagerly.  I alone harbored a dark, cold dread, which of course I had to hide as best I could from my teachers and from the other students.  I pretended to devote myself to the new study project with enthusiasm, ignoring the terror that threatened to choke me at the mention of Christmas trees and mistletoe, of wassailing and mummery.  I was assigned to the unit studying English, German, and Scandinavian traditions, and our plans were ambitious.  We learned medieval Christmas carols and made non-alcoholic wassail.  (Again the yew tree threatened to creep back into my consciousness when I read that the wassail was often poured out at the roots of a tree as an offering to the spirits of the forest, but I promptly shoved that tidbit back down into the dark recesses of my mind.)  For the holiday assembly, we planned to re-enact the Swedish tradition involving St. Lucy, in which the household’s youngest daughter, wearing a white dress and a crown of lit candles, would distribute morning cakes and ale to the rest of the family.  (This set off all kinds of alarm bells in my mind, but I silenced them, even after I was selected for the honor.  No, I wasn’t going to have to actually wear lit candles on my head, but somehow the image of myself in a long white dress with my strawberry blonde hair unbound and gleaming, bearing drinks around to my classmates, suggested uncomfortable things to my mind.)  Our French teacher helped us make a Yule log—which in our case was chocolate cake, and quite delicious.

Things went along like this for a while, with me always struggling to quell my panic and mostly succeeding.  And then, on the day before Christmas Eve (when the assembly was going to be held) the inevitable happened.  One of my teachers turned to me and said, “You know what we haven’t looked into yet? The origins of Santa Claus!  We don’t you research that for us?  A few tidbits on how Santa evolved through the centuries would be nice, and we can work it into tonight’s dress rehearsal.”

What could I say?  Sheer horror kept me from protesting.  Any mention of Santa Claus generally had that effect on me; I was like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, hypnotized and unable to move out of the way.  Besides, as I had gotten older, the strange longing that was twin to the terror had begun to grow, and now almost equaled it.  Santa Claus, like the Christmas tree, was a mystery to be solved.  And if the Christmas tree was really the World Tree, who or what was Santa?  I had to know, no matter how dangerous that knowledge might be.   Even though I knew that whatever I learned would be like those optical illusion drawings in which the young lady sitting at her dressing table is suddenly revealed to really be a skull, and that once the illusion has been stripped away, the hidden meaning can never again be unseen or unlearned.

I went to the library, found a book, (“The Real Santa Claus,” I think it was called) and started to read.  The book revealed that Santa as he was so widely known today—the Santa of greeting cards and shopping malls, the jolly old fat elf in his red suit trimmed in white fur—was a recent invention, only going back to the late 1800’s, when a Harper’s Weekly cover and a Coca Cola ad had popularized his current disguise.  Before that, when his lore was first brought to this country by Dutch immigrants, he had been depicted as an old, bearded Dutch sailor with a pipe, a green winter coat, and a wide-brimmed hat.  The mention of the hat struck a chord of recognition in me, and I kept reading, barely able to breathe.  This Dutch version of Santa had been known as Sinterklaas, had made his worldwide journey on a white horse instead of a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, and had been attended by a servant known as Black Peter or Zwart Piet, who scouted out the area and prepared the way for his arrival, and also did the dirty work of delivering the presents and punishing any naughty children.

A white horse…A pale horse…Fighting down the panic that threatened to overwhelm me at the memories of a clamor of horsemen galloping through the sky outside my window, I kept reading.  Sinterklaas was, according to the book, actually based on Saint Nicholas, a 3rd century saint with a penchant for miracle-working and secret gift-giving.  On Christmas Eve, Dutch children left carrots and oats in their shoes (not their stockings!) by the fireplace as an offering to Saint Nicholas’ horse (that horse again!), and in the morning they would find the carrots and oats replaced by candy and presents.  On the opposite page facing these details was a drawing of Saint Nicholas sitting on his white horse in his red bishop’s robes and miter, brandishing his ecclesiastical staff.

However, the text continued, even Saint Nicholas was not the first incarnation of Santa Claus.  No, the roots of the legend could be traced back to the Norse God Odin, God of poetry, magic, and death, whose restless search for wisdom had led Him to sacrifice an eye to the Well of Memory, as well as to hang Himself on the World Tree, Yggdrasil, for nine long nights in order to win the runes.  (I could barely breathe by this point; all the pieces of the puzzle were suddenly, dizzyingly, coming together—along with new pieces I hadn’t even anticipated–and I could not even begin to grasp or comprehend the warring, overwhelming emotions that swept through me.  But with an effort, I kept reading.) Accompanied by His two wolves, Geri and Freki (whose names meant Greedy and Ravening), and His two ravens, Huginn and Munnin (Thought and Memory), Odin was fond of wandering throughout the world of men in an endless quest for knowledge and experience.

But during Yuletide He took on another special role.  Throughout the long northern winters, but especially during the twelve nights of Yule, Odin led His company of slain warriors, the Einherjar, on a frenzied ride through the night sky.  Attended by a pack of ghostly hounds, as well as by Odin’s fearsome handmaidens, the Valkyries (warrior women all in white), the Wild Hunt sought out and punished wrongdoers, as well as lavishing gifts on more deserving folk and ensuring the fertility of the land itself for the coming year.

Slowly, I shifted my gaze to the drawing opposite the text.

And there, in full color, was the figure from my dreams: a tall and lean but robust man with long silver hair and a beard, cloaked in blue-black, sitting astride a pale grey eight-legged horse in full gallop.  Instead of eight reindeer, an eight-legged horse….My mind threatened to buckle and break at that, but I kept staring at the picture.  Like Sinterklaas, this mysterious figure wore a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, which was pulled down to hide one eye (the shadowy side of his face that I had seen in my dreams).  He wielded a spear, and was flanked by the pair of ravens that sat on His shoulders (two black birds instead of one Black Peter?) and the two great wolves that ran at His side.  And behind Him rode a host of ghostly men on ghostly mounts, along with a bevy of ghostly women clad in white, their long hair streaming in the wind as they rode either horses or wolves.  Completing this company was a pack of red-eyed black hounds, yipping and baying as they raced along after the wolves.
I stared at the silver-bearded man for a long time, barely able to breathe, my heart hammering away inside my chest.  I stared into the face beneath the wide-brimmed hat, stared into that single blue eye….

And suddenly it seemed to focus and stare back at me, except that I realized I wasn’t looking at the drawing anymore, but at a living image of it that was more than an image, at the being who represented so much more than the sum total of all my fears and longings connected with Santa Claus, at the real Old Man.  Somehow, I was looking at Odin Himself, staring into His one eye that was bluer than all the blues in the world, meeting that singular gaze that was as bright and sharp as the edge of a sword.  And He was staring back at Me, the guarded recognition in that fierce eye just beginning to melt into a hope that was far, far worse, a hope that, if I allowed it to grow, would threaten to devour me….

Blinding fear seized me and I broke contact, ripping my consciousness away with an effort that actually hurt, like when you force yourself awake from a dream.  And found myself, to my amazement, lying on my back on the floor of the school library, disoriented and breathing hard.  The school called my parents and I was rushed off to the doctor–to make sure there was nothing wrong with me such as epilepsy or some other disorder that might have caused me to pass out like that—and then sent home for the rest of the day.  I missed that night’s dress rehearsal for the holiday assembly, and was just as glad for it.  I think I spent the evening reading a novel about ancient Egypt—a topic as far removed from Christmas, Santa, and Odin as I could imagine.  Exhausted, I went to bed early and slept soundly.

But on Christmas Eve morning, I woke to the wind whistling and howling outside my window, and heard in it the far-off howling of wolves and the beating of ravens’ wings.  And in the rattling of my window panes and the swoosh of tree branches whipped about by the wind, I heard the clattering of horses, the clamor as they rushed through the sky.  And then my mother poked her head into my room and told me to dress warmly because there was going to be a snowstorm sometime that afternoon that was supposed to last straight through until Christmas morning.  I was in trouble, and I knew it.

That whole day passed in a blur.  I went to school, donned my white dress and fake crown of candles, and passed out cookies and juice to my classmates as the book had said Odin’s Valkyries bore drinks to His slain warriors in Valhalla.  But I was only going through the motions, and barely responding to my surroundings, my schoolmates, my teachers, or anything else going on around me.  I was literally numbed by fear.

That evening, after dinner, I made a nest for myself on the couch and spent the evening curled up there, watching anything non-holiday-related I could find on TV while drinking hot cocoa and eating Christmas cookies nonstop (my secret ambition being to eat so many of them that there would be none left to offer “Santa,” though that strategy had never worked; my mother always managed to produce more).  As threatened, the snowstorm had started that afternoon; by the time we left the holiday assembly the ground was already blanketed in snow, and by ten o’clock that night the storm was a driving blizzard, with high winds whirling the heavy snow around so that when I looked out the windows all I saw, in any direction, was solid white.  I huddled under my blanket, listening to the winds howl and shriek, trying not to give in to the terror that once again—and tonight worse than ever before—threatened to swallow me up.  In a corner of the room, the lit Christmas tree blinked red and blue and yellow, and I allowed myself to be lulled by the repetitive pattern of lights.  Sometime around midnight, my mother asked jokingly if I was going to bed, or if I was trying to wait up for Santa.  That question should have alarmed me, but by then I wasn’t really hearing her; I was too caught up in a maelstrom of my own dazed thoughts.  In a storm such as this, I knew, He would ride past my bedroom window and call to me, as He always had.  And tonight, I might not be able to resist His call; tonight, I might go to Him; tonight, I might fly out into the night, into the storm, at last.  The thought terrified and lured me in almost equal measure.  My groggy reasoning was that if I stayed here, on the couch, in front of the television, I wouldn’t hear His calls and couldn’t answer them, and would thus be safe.  Finally, stuffed and exhausted, with the television still on, I drifted off to sleep….

And awakened suddenly, knowing—a sudden, icicle-sharp, clear knowing—that I was not alone in the room.  The television has been turned off, and the room was dark except for the blinking lights from the tree, but outside the wind was howling more fiercely than ever.  My eyes, wide open, went immediately to the little side table where my mother always left her offering of cookies and milk.  The plate was empty except for a few crumbs, and the glass had been drained.  Fear clamped coldly around my heart, and my mind, clear and sober now, began to scream at me.  How could I have been such an idiot?  On Christmas Eve, He was allowed inside the house, and the first thing He did—always—was eat the cookies, and leave the presents (or so I had been told).  Only afterwards did He steal upstairs for a peek at me.  By sleeping down here—the first place in the house He would be—I had left myself with no hope of warning, no chance of escape.

A soft sound nearby, from the vicinity of the tree, answered my suspicions.  Slowly, slowly, I turned my head—and almost gasped out loud.  Against the mantel of our non-functional fireplace leaned a massive spear—straight and tall, the length of its proud wooden shaft carved with intricate, angular markings stained the brown of dried blood.  Its metal point gleamed cruelly.  My breath caught in my throat.  I turned my head further, towards the tree….

And saw Him there, bent over, in the act of placing a large box, wrapped in blue and silver foil, on the floor beneath the tree’s lowest-hanging boughs.  The folds of His cloak were the darkest blue, a blue so deep it was nearly black.  His hood was thrown back, His famous wide-brimmed hat was missing, and the flashes of red, blue and yellow light from the tree reflected dazzlingly on the gleaming silver-white waves of His long hair.  Thick, beautiful hair.  Suddenly I felt dizziness rise to overwhelm me as it had in the library; I was on the verge of passing out, I knew.  Hoarsely, questioningly, I heard myself whisper His name.  “Odin?”

And then I watched, paralyzed and spellbound, as He straightened slowly and turned towards me, the repetitive blinking of the tree casting colored lights and shadows on the severe, eagle-sharp planes of His face, on the silver of His moustache and short, neatly trimmed beard.  As He came closer—moving cautiously, with the prowling grace of a wolf—He began to seem less old to me.  There were strands of  blonde and red intermingled with the silver of His hair and beard.  And although I sensed that He was ancient beyond reckoning, His face was not truly that of an old man; it was mostly the lines of pain in His forehead and in the creases that ran from the corners of His grim mouth into His beard that lent the impression of great age.  For when I looked into His face, I knew He had suffered things, learned things, and triumphed over things that would have broken any other spirit, mortal or immortal—and those things had left their mark on Him, just as millennia of rainfall will erode mountains.

He came another step closer, and I saw that one eye was covered with a black patch; the other, with its unbearable depths of blue, was fixed on me with such heartbreaking longing and despair that I wondered my bones did not melt away at the sight of all that tenderness, all that loss and grief.  Instead, I started to cry.  Great, wracking sobs tore themselves from my throat, shaking me, and suddenly He was there, holding me, and I was enveloped by the scent of wolves’ fur and horseflesh, of snow and evergreen, as He held me tightly against Him, and felt the faint scratchiness of His moustache and beard on my cheeks as His lips kissed away my tears.  That, of course, made me cry even harder, and He held me tighter still, and we stayed like that for a very long time, with the wind shrieking outside.  An unspoken question and answer passed between us, and in that moment I knew that this was where I belonged, that this was who I was, that this was the answer to the longing and the dread alike, the secret He had always known about me that I had not known and that I had always feared to learn.  I was His.

Then suddenly, without warning, in one swift flash of movement—swift as the flashing of the Christmas lights—He moved to the fireplace, and then was beside me again.  But now there was something in His hands, something long, with a hard, sharp metallic glimmer at the end of it.   The spear.  Before I knew what was happening, He was holding it poised to strike at me, the wicked-looking point aimed at my heart.  He moved it slowly, slowly closer, until the icy cold metal touched my flesh.  My heart pounded so furiously that it felt like it wanted to burst through the barrier of my ribcage to impale itself on the tip of the spear.  My breath stopped.  My gaze met His, wildly, and for just a moment there was no terror, no worry, no regret, only the purest longing and acceptance and awe and love—the most complete and overwhelming love I had ever felt.  He saw that look in my eyes, and accepted it, and returned it, only magnified at least a hundredfold—along with immense relief and gratitude—and the severity of His mouth softened into a smile that transformed His entire face.   His arms tensed as He drew back the spear, preparing to thrust it into my heart, claiming me for His own….

And then in a sudden avalanche, my fear returned, and with it panic, and without meaning to I was blindly fighting and squirming to get away, just as I had in those long-ago days when my parents had dragged me off to see Santa. All at once, all the old terror came rushing back to overwhelm me again—and beneath it, new terrors beckoned which I had barely even glimpsed before.  “No,” I managed to sob, “Please, no…please, don’t.” And He stopped.  And suddenly the spear was gone, and He moved to hold me and soothe me again—but this time I shrank away.

At that, the infinite sorrow returned to His face, and I was flooded with a remorse and guilt even stronger than the fear, and a frustrated longing that overwhelmed them all.  I wanted to beg Him not to go, but my mouth wouldn’t form the words.  I wanted to move from where I lay and go to Him, but I couldn’t make my muscles obey.  His blue eye fixed me in its terrible, sorrowful, yearning gaze, and I saw a brightness gleaming there, and with a shock realized that it was tears.  “I will return, Beloved.” His voice was deep and precise, richer than eggnog yet with a ragged edge of hoarseness, complex in ways I could not grasp.  He spoke gently, softly—so softly that the wind nearly swallowed up His words.  “Be easy, and forget for now, and let go of this fear.  I promise you, I will return.  I swear it, by My own Spear.  You are Mine, and I will not leave you.”  Then He sighed heavily, with resignation.  “Do not be sad, and do not feel ashamed, that you cannot come to Me now.  To accept Me is to accept the truth about yourself and about the world—all of it, without excuses or embellishment—and that is not an easy thing, especially for one so young.  To accept Me is to hang upon the Tree, to sacrifice all that you have been for all that you may become by walking with Me.  To accept Me is to have your soul laid out bare and bleeding.”  He smiled again, briefly, a twinge of amused self-deprecation that twisted the corners of His mouth. “It is one of life’s little ironies that in order to follow a masked God, a God of many faces and many names, you must first surrender all of your own masks.  Every.  Last.  One.  For I have many guises, and I walk many paths.  But from this moment on, every path you walk will lead to Me.”  And with that, either He was gone or I sank back into the enveloping whiteness of sleep.

When I awakened the next morning, my lifelong fears of Christmas and Santa were gone—simply vanished, as if they had never existed.  But so was all memory of what had happened the night before, and even all recollection of what I had discovered in the preceding days about the connections between Santa Claus and Odin.  It was all wiped clean, as if obscured by a thick coat of freshly fallen snow.

And that Christmas morning, when I opened the biggest present under the tree—a box wrapped in blue and silver foil—it was, for the first time, without horror that I saw the gift tag saying “from Santa.”  I laughed as I tore off the tag, in fact, because I was too old to believe in Santa Claus, after all.  I was too grown-up.  That was for little kids, not for me.  When I saw what was inside the box—my very first electronic typewriter, exactly the kind I had wanted, exactly what I needed for writing my stories and poems—I ignored the expressions of surprise on my parent’s faces, because surely that was just an act.  Surely (although I suddenly couldn’t remember having done so) I must have told my mother that this was what I wanted for Christmas, and she must have bought it for me, despite its having cost much more than she had ever been able to spend on a single gift.  Surely, it was from them.  Surely…

As for the Old Man, He kept His promise to me; He did return—or more precisely, He never actually left me, although years passed before I was ready to become aware of Him again.  And as for me, I did come back to Him, although it was a long and winding road back.  But it was also inevitable; as He had promised, every path I walked from that day forward led to Him.  But those are different stories, for a different day.

These days, I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore.  I celebrate Yule.  And this year, I hope to get a live tree, and decorate it with red berries and ornaments marked with runes to represent the World Tree.  I plan to make up a batch of homemade wassail, toast the Gods with it, and pour some of it out at the roots of an outdoor tree.  I’m hoping to have a Yule log—although, since I still have no fireplace, it will probably be a chocolate one again.  I’m going to be staying up late all twelve days of Yule listening for the Wild Hunt, and I may even join them once or twice.  And I plan to leave an offering of carrots and oats for Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, and see if Julfather  leaves me anything in return.

On my downstairs altar, for the holiday season, stands a statue, over a foot high, of a white-bearded man cloaked in dark blue, an evergreen tree with red berries clutched in one arm and a sack full of gifts slung over the other shoulder.  A corner of his fur-trimmed hood dips down as if trying to cover one of his twinkling blue eyes.  I think the poor, confused people who made him intended him to be Santa.  But I know better now.  I don’t call Him Santa anymore.

Copyright © 2003 by Laure Lynch


For more stories like this one, check out Odhroerir: Nine Devotional Tales of Odin’s Journeys

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