Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Santa Claus Show

By Rona Altrows

Dear Santa,

Although every child knows you are all-seeing and all-knowing, we who are approaching your age also understand that it is not always possible to remember every little incident from the past with complete clarity. I thought you might enjoy coming back with me to an earlier time to relive a family story in which you figure prominently.

It is December 1949 in Montreal and my mother still delights in being able to buy whatever she wants at the supermarket, in whatever quantities her family needs. At last, there’s no more rationing, which started during the war and ended only two years ago. My mother likes to know she can now buy sugar, butter, tea and coffee galore. Those products bring pleasure to people, which is what my mother likes above all to do. And she is so happy in her family life. After waiting a long time to get married because of her insistence on finding a man of great character, intelligence and kindness, she met and married my father, who had waited until middle age to even contemplate marriage because he had been taking care of his own sick mother for a long time. My parents now have two much-loved children, four-year-old Irwin and a one-year-old girl (me). Life is good. And because the war was so hard (overseas mostly, of course, but also, in different ways, on those who kept the home fires burning), my mother is particularly determined to bring as much joy and as little suffering as possible into the lives of her children.

That’s why, when Irwin was born, she consulted my father and they decided they would include a visit from Santa Claus as part of the winter festivities for their children every year. True, the family is Jewish, and there are already cultural and family celebrations for the children to enjoy—Chanukah, with its latkes and brightly coloured candles and dreidl games, and also a fancy family dinner on December 25th, to celebrate the anniversary of my parents, who had married on Christmas Day, 1943. But Santa Claus—well, what a delight the anticipation of his visit would be for their children.  And wouldn’t their children be happy to put out stockings on Christmas Eve, and have “Twas the Night Before Christmas” read aloud to them at bedtime, and find their stockings filled with treats and toys the next day? What lovely traditions! And so, all his young life, my brother Irwin has known about Santa Claus. He has spent most of each December waiting for the special secret visit from the jolly old soul. And Irwin has never been disappointed. His stocking has always been full on Christmas morning.

This year, like every year, the most cherished pre-Christmas activity for children will be attending The Santa Claus Parade. Sponsored by Eaton’s, the parade is always held at ten o’clock on the Saturday morning before Christmas. The beautifully decorated floats move slowly down Ste. Catherine Street until the climax of the parade, which is also the end—Santa Claus himself arrives, in his huge sleigh drawn by papier maché reindeer, and waves to the children of Montreal and their parents. Last year, when he was three, Irwin squealed himself hoarse, he was so happy and delighted to see Santa Claus in person.  And then the anticipation of Christmas morning, and that full stocking, got even greater for Irwin. My mother was delighted to see her little son so happy last year and looks forward to his being equally happy this year.

Now, in any year, the Santa Claus Parade does not just happen. There is a special buildup to it that plays out in kitchens, dining rooms and parlours all over Montreal, depending on what room a family keeps its radio in. And that buildup takes the form of the Santa Claus Show. Every weekday night for the two weeks before the parade, Santa Claus himself hosts a fifteen-minute show at 5:30 in the evening on CJAD radio. Like so many other children, Irwin feels he must listen to that show carefully. The format is always the same. First Santa Claus talks about how preparations are going for his Christmas Eve trip around the world. Then he tells a very short story. And finally he comes to the most important segment of the show: the lists.  For five minutes he reads from his list of Good Little Girls, and for five minutes, from his list of Good Little Boys. First names only. And then, Santa Claus says good night.

But Irwin is troubled. He knows something from his exposure to Christmas songs like “Santa Claus is coming to town.” He knows he has to be on that list of Good Little Boys, or else, on Christmas morning, he will be hooped, and will find nothing in the stocking except maybe a lump of coal. He tells his mother he is afraid.  What if Santa Claus thinks he is a bad boy? She tells him he is a good boy, no matter what Santa Claus or anyone else thinks. He does not believe her. Furthermore, he believes that over the next ten nights, Santa Claus will read the two lists in their entirety. So, there is pressure, even before the first Monday night broadcast. My mother worries that maybe she should not have bought into any part of the Christmas thing.

But it’s too late to turn back. Every night for the first week, Irwin listens for his name on the Good Little Boys list. Santa does not call it. Irwin is sad and anxious. He even has trouble sleeping at night. This is the opposite of what my mother wants. She explains that Santa Claus can’t possibly read out the names of all the good little children in the world in such a short time.  He is only listing some examples.  There is no convincing my brother. Every weekday night as my mother tends to her baby girl and prepares the family’s supper, Irwin occupies his favourite listening spot under the kitchen table, sits bolt upright and listens to Santa Claus call those names. Paul. Donald. Philip. Never Irwin.
Thursday night, my brother is in tears after the show. He has five more minutes of show time left. If his name is not called on the Friday show, it’s the end for him. He will officially not be a Good Little Boy. He will be shunned by Santa Claus. Or shamed. Probably both.  And he is inconsolable.

On Friday morning, my mother takes action. She asks her friend Madame Lebel next door if Irwin can stay and play at her place for a few minutes. B’en oui, no problem. With her little boy out of the house, she phones CJAD and asks to speak with the station manager. He listens to her story sympathetically and says the producer of the Santa Claus Show is in, and she needs to talk to him. So she talks to the producer, who says he is a parent himself, he understands, and he wants every child listening to the show to be happy. He is so sorry to hear Irwin has been upset. Without fail tonight, when Santa Claus reaches the list of Good Little Boys, the first name he calls will be “Irwin.”

As 5:30 approaches, Irwin takes up his usual listening post. Although my mother has been reassuring him all day, telling him she has a strong feeling his name will be called, he does not share her optimism. He sits upright in his spot under the table utterly without hope.  My mother races around the kitchen preparing supper. The show begins. Santa Claus reports that his sleigh is all packed. He tells a very short story about the spirit of Christmas. He reads from the list of Good Little Girls. Christine. Marie. Elizabeth. Finally, the moment arrives. Santa Claus announces he will read, for the last time this year, from the list of Good Little Boys. And the first name he calls, in a clear, deep voice, is “Irwin.”

“Did you hear that?” my mother exclaims.

She looks under the table. Irwin is lying on the floor, asleep.

Still your friend after all these years,
Rona Altrows

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