December 25 1983
“Meg, that one goes to my brother.” I was in Urbana at my friend Beth’s house, wearing a red and white Santa hat, handing out gifts to each member of her family. I had once again been invited to spend Christmas Day with Beth and her family to share their holiday meal and also hand out gifts. I had always looked forward to playing their “Jewish Santa,” as we all referred to me. Although I didn’t celebrate it, I was very familiar with the holiday and yet still a bit naïve. “Beth?” I whispered to my friend before doling out another gift, this time to her mother. “How do I know who shouldn’t receive their gifts this year? How do I know who has been naughty or nice?” “Oh, Meg! You crack me up!” Little did she realize I had actually been somewhat serious, having taken that element of the Christmas legend literally. I recovered, quickly moved on, and called out her sister’s name. “Sarah! This one is for you!” When all presents had been passed out, there was always a last special one waiting for me.
“I triple dog dare ya!” I was sitting with my two brothers, Peter and Ted, watching the movie, “A Christmas Story,” starring Peter Billingsley as nine-year-old, Ralphie. Although we were three Jewish teens, we loved the holiday movies as much as everyone else. Ralphie’s friend Flick had just been dared to lick a frozen flagpole in the middle of a cold Indiana winter. Determined to prove himself, Flick placed his tongue on the freezing flagpole. And then, we watched in horror as the tongue became stuck frozen to the cold metal bar. The main plot of this memoir-ish story centered around Ralphie’s overwhelming desire to get a ‘Red Ryder’ B.B. gun for Christmas. Yet, at every turn, he faced the same response from the adult characters: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Already my family and I had known the danger of B.B. guns. Earlier that Fall while at my parents’ friends’ home, their son took out his B.B. gun and pretended to shoot at Peter. “Don’t worry, it isn’t loaded,” he told us. Only there was one B.B. left and, had Peter not put his hand up in front of his face (feigning a dramatic reaction from the attack), he would have lost an eye. Instead, my older brother by fifteen months was rushed to the emergency room at Carle hospital in Urbana to get the B.B. removed from the palm of his hand. It did not escape me that had the gun been pointed in my direction, my small, one-fingered hand would have never protected my eye from injury.
And so, given our own personal B.B. gun experience, we were glued to the film. But the flagpole scene bothered me personally beyond the obvious. When the bell rang, all the kids – knowing they could never satisfactorily explain how they pressured Flick into this terrible situation – abandoned him and ran back to their classrooms. Although Ralphie lingered for a bit, he too caved to the group decision and left his friend stuck to the pole, crying out for help. . Once back in his seat, Ralphie’s teacher asked him whether he had seen Flick. Once again, Ralphie felt the pressure to conform, and shook his head in the negative.
Earlier this year we went to a student play that left me simultaneously overwhelmed with happiness, and also filled with disgust. Among the performers was a young teen that I knew happened to have autism. She had been thrilled to earn a lead role. Although perhaps some of her gestures on stage were slightly awkward and sometimes exaggerated, she played her role brilliantly with conviction and passion. For a moment, I glanced over to see how my own kids, Ethan, Charlie and Savanna were enjoying the show. To my delight, the three of them were sitting nicely in the audience, appreciating every moment. However, what happened next infuriated me to the point where I could barely restrain myself. There were two groups of tweens, around 7th or 8th grade, in front of and behind us. The group in front were all girls and I watched in revulsion as they all deliberately mocked the girl on stage. As the actor used her finger to point this way or that for emphasis, the girls in the audience would imitate her gesture and laugh all together. I noted only one that seemed to hesitate, at least initially. However, her friend seated next to her right egged her on. “C’mon, look at her! What a loser!” The hesitant girl finally joined in on the mockery. I was then distracted by the other group of teens behind us. Where before I thought their laughter meant they were enjoying the show, I realized I was mistaken. They too were mocking the girl on stage, snickering, pointing and whispering. Although some of them noticed my agitation, it was clear that I was simply someone’s mom they didn’t know, so they made no effort to amend their behavior.
As we left the play, I kept my thoughts to myself, but shared them with John before bed. Eventually, I forgot the incident…..until I was reminded of it this past weekend. It snowed a lot and so John and I canceled our dinner plans and stayed home with the kids. At my suggestion, we all watched, “A Christmas Story.” We watched the “triple-dog-dare” scene together and I enjoyed it as much as if it had been my first viewing. But then came the Christmas morning scene where Ralphie and his younger brother Randy woke up to a mountain of presents. In the end, Ralphie got the B.B. gun he had hoped for all along. The blissfully satisfied children got me thinking about this season.
For us, Chanukah had come early this year, overlapping with Thanksgiving and producing many jokes of “Menurkey’s” and the combined “Thanksgivingkah”. Perhaps it was because the holiday crept up too quickly, but this year John and I had decided to not necessarily give our kids a gift on all eight nights of the holiday. We chose instead make the first and last night special. However, when we advised the kids of this change, I noted a clear expectation and sense of entitlement that they were deserving of presents, regardless of their behavior during the year. On the one hand, I was certain they were no different than most kids celebrating any of the gift-giving holidays. The holiday was upon us so bring on the presents! However, in that moment, I couldn’t help but to think back to the naughty or nice list that supposedly hung over our heads and which has always stuck in my mind. That tradition dates from Nordic folk tales of a magician who rewarded good children with presents and punished naughty children with coal. Perhaps it corresponds for me with the Jewish reading from our High Holy Days about the Book of Life that records our deeds and from which we will be judged. Santa’s list is perhaps a gentler, G-rated version of the Book, but it serves a similar purpose. That night, after the first candle on our Menorah had long since melted, I wondered whether parents ever held back based on a child’s behavior throughout the year. So, I did what every other person might do, I ran to my laptop and looked it up in Wikipedia. Here is what it said in Wiki:
Question: [When] Are you on Santa’s naughty or nice list?
Answer: Everyone is always on Santa’s nice list because no one on Earth has ever gotten coal.
I think in reality most of us (including myself) believe our children to be absolute angels, at least most of the time. Yet, is that realistic? Earlier this year, when I read the book Wonder, by RJ Palacio, the character Julian was visibly and outwardly cruel to Auggie, the boy with the facial deformity. However, when Julian was around adults he was incredibly courteous, making certain to conceal his brutal actions to when only the other kids were present. If we had a kid like Julian, how would we even know it?
If I had one wish during this holiday season, it would be that a ‘naughty and nice’ list becomes something real, rather than lore. What if, instead of doling out tons of presents to our children regardless of behavior each year, we could have an honest conversation (perhaps at the end of each month) with our kids about their treatment of others. We could look at where and when they were kind to others, and also where and when they might have faltered. The naughty and nice list would not only allow for communication among our families, but become a standard for growth and progress. By the time the holidays roll around again, the gifting could truly correspond to the year that passed. I wouldn’t suggest totally refraining from the gift tradition, but would it be so wrong to think twice about whether their most desired gift, their version of Ralphie’s Red Ryder B.B. gun, was really deserved?
Hopefully, among the usual faults and failures of life, we’ll find those examples where they refused to go along with the cruel crowd and stood up for an underdog.
Hopefully, (as I also understand from Wiki), Santa will check his list twice…..just in case there was a mistake.