Christmas Eve 2012.
I’m standing in a field next to a marsh pond somewhere in Lower Alabama. A dog is barking off in the distance. Wood smoke rides the breeze. Lights twinkle at a house behind the tree-line to the west where the sun has dipped toward Christmas Day. I’ve been invited to a friend’s house for dinner. But there’s a catch. I have to play Santa.
If you’re a Southern boy, the whole idea of Santa is a little different than in a lot of other places. In the South, Santa may come packin’ heat. He might fall off the roof and get in a fight with your brother-in-law over a card game. Santa may not come down the chimney at all, but stumble in through the back door, drop off some firecrackers and cuss at your dog. He might even rip out a window screen, trash your tree and guzzle your grandma’s special cough medicine from Lynchburg, TN. Southern Santa is a whole lot more interesting than the ones you see in the movies, well, except for that one played by Billy Bob Thornton.
Let me be clear, I’m not talking about a mean Santa. I’m talking about a Santa with a quirky personality. The Santa I grew up with could look a little like my Uncle Larry who once played guard for the Bulldogs and stole a red suit from the Chamber of Commerce and had a little too much eggnog and got crossways with some furniture on his way to falling into the tree and almost setting the house on fire as can happen when pine sap meets space heater.
So it is into this tradition that I face the red suit in the cab of my truck, little kids waiting up the road with shaking hands and giggly hearts for the big guy to bring a stack of iTunes gift cards and MoonPies stuffed into recycled Piggly Wiggly bags. Then it hits me. I don’t have the fake beard.
The only place that’s open is Walmart. So I run over and look around. No fake beards left at this time of night. But there’s a big table stacked with bags of marshmallows. I grab two bags and go find a hair net. Sitting in my truck I McGuyver up a beard-like contraption that is more scary than festive. Looking in the rearview mirror I’m reminded of that angry old cafeteria worker from high school, except upside down. The marshmallows sort of look like a beard, but the hairnet is downright disturbing. No choice. I have to go with it. And so I ho ho ho my way into the house.
Christmas Morning 2012.
I am sitting at a truck stop on I-65 north of Birmingham, my face smelling like marshmallows, the Santa suit balled into a wad in the back of my truck cab, a couple hours sleep under my eyelids. This is how far I’ve gotten since I left the screaming house full of children last night. They’re no doubt traumatized for life by marshmallow/hairnet-faced Santa and probably more afraid of him than a creepy clown at a parking lot carnival.
So here’s my gift to you this fine Christmas morning: a little advice. If anybody ever asks you to play Santa, don’t do it. Trust me, it will only lead to heartache for everyone involved, including you. Especially you. And if you ever find yourself in need of a fake beard for any reason whatsoever, use cotton balls. Glue them to your face with Elmer’s if you have to. Just know that marshmallows and hairnets don’t work. As Forrest Gump said, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Oh, and Mama, if you’re reading this, tell Uncle Larry that I now understand why he got drunk before he pretended to be Santa for us kids. And I forgive him for cussing at my dog too.