In the United States it is commonplace for parents to tell their children that every Christmas a complete stranger with magical powers flies from the North Pole to deliver gifts made by elves. In order to perpetuate this belief in their young and trusting offspring they will spend large sums of money on gifts that they will pretend were placed under the Christmas tree while they slept. Often they will embellish this fairy tale by leaving out mugs of cocoa, plates full of cookies and even little bowls of carrots to feed this mythical man’s flying reindeer or use an old pair of boots to leave prints in the snow. They repeat this fictional play-act year after year until their children either deduce the truth on their own, or worse, are informed by some snot-nosed classmate a day or two before Christmas vacation kicks in. When confronted the parents will rarely cop to it preferring rather to come up with sad attempts to rationalize the deception or to equivocate, turning a formerly real character into some kind of nebulous ‘spirit of giving’ alter-ego that is neither here nor there. I’m almost sixty and I can still remember how much it stung to discover the truth, caring far less about the loss of Santa than the egregious breach of trust I felt had occurred between myself and the two people I trusted most. Over time I softened, of course. They were my parents and they weren’t doing it for malicious reasons and even after I found out the truth they continued to put presents under the tree, occasionally marking the tag with a melancholy “From Santa” well into my teens. They meant well and they’d just gone along with a tradition that they’d been raised with for reasons they probably never really thought out and I know that what they gave to me was based on their love. When my wife and I had our first child I remember wrapping the gifts in a different kind of wrapping paper than the kind we’d used for the gifts we gave one another to help maintain the subterfuge, managing to scrawl in large cursive letters, “From Santa”. I didn’t know why I felt bad when I did it, leaving out the cookies and milk and and watching him write his sweet little thank-you in pre-school scrawl for an imaginary fat man in a red suit, but I did. I was at that time very conscious about telling the truth to my son, about making sure that no matter how young he was that there was a firm code of how to behave, and a value to be placed on being honest. I vaguely recall having a conversation with my wife about it and she was inclined to just go with the flow since he would only be a little boy for just so long and so we kept up with it even though it gnawed at me. I understood that it was what most people would deem a ‘white lie’ as if that made it better, but what bothered me was what I knew lay beyond the horizon of the next five or six years when my son would run into the genetic offspring of the snot nosed kid who tipped me off, or knowing my son, when he was able to notice our handwriting on the gift tags. I knew with absolute certainty that at some point when he was not yet grown up, he would have to look at me as someone who had not only failed to tell him the truth, but had kept up a years long elaborate charade to deliberately mislead him. I felt that was much worse than catching me telling someone on the phone that I was busy when I was in actuality reading a book or looking at arrowheads. Those are fibs or semi-disclosures and even though I find that kind of waffling improper, it’s not the same thing as a coordinated conspiracy spanning and entire lifetime.
Most people have only a vague and hazy understanding of how this figure managed to worm his way into our collective consciousness and if you read something like wikipedia they’ll give you an even hazier adjunct version that makes it seem like people have been in on the deception in order to give kids gifts since Arminius defeated the legions at Tetoburg Forest. There’s tiny bits and pieces that have been stripped from the heritage of a half a dozen European cultures and then sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster. The origins can be found in the hazy past of early Greek Christianity in the form of Saint Nicholas who, if memory serves, pulled the severed limbs of children from a vat of brine where they’d been pickled by fourth century cannibals and then rejoined them in one of his three required miracles, reassembled them and brought them back to life. That’s the kind of detail most folks leave out when they tuck the kids in on Christmas Eve if they even know it at all. Then they added in a Viking era chimney sweep named Sinter Klaas, named curiously enough for his ‘cindered clothes’ who climbs down into the fireplace where he spends an inordinate amount of time fussing with children’s shoes. Nothing creepy about that. The rest of the accoutrements from the ermine trimmed red robes to the flying reindeer were added piecemeal over the years, merging in with a fictional English Father Christmas around the end of the 19th century until an advertising genius by the name of Thomas Nast (of the Conde/Nast Fake News Cartel) came up with a brilliant idea to stimulate seasonally slow consumer spending and introduced, Santa Claus.
Years ago when I was in Hollywood staying with another comic somewhere off the Sunset Strip, I went out walking at night. If you’re not from Los Angeles it’s hard to understand just how odd it is to see anyone who isn’t homeless walking. It’s an easy way to identify an out-of-towner or someone fleeing the scene of a crime, but if you happen to be either one of those, and for the purposes of full disclosure I was the former, it’s also a great way to spend some quality alone time. One night after we’d taped a TV show I just wanted to wander the streets beneath the Hollywood sign. It was warm enough to walk around in shirt sleeves and for most of the stroll I enjoyed myself, looking up at the towering palm trees that lined the boulevards of a city that seemed almost mythic to me. I was surprised by a few things that I saw along the way, the absence of other people on such a beautiful evening, the cracks in virtually every concrete block wall I passed, maybe half of them patched a reminder of the last earthquake and the ceaseless sound of sirens. It was as if there had been some great disaster and I was one of the few survivors. The houses, most of them either hacienda style bungalows with terra cotta roofs or sixties era apartment blocks surrounded by wrought iron fences and gates lined every street. As I walked I began to notice something that struck me first as odd and then as a monumental discovery that had escaped everyone else but me. While I made my way from one block to the next, I could see the lights in each domicile, in every bachelor pad and squat, the subtle but ubiquitous blue glow of television sets. That’s what we called them back then, before flat screens came to market with their high definition, Blu-ray improvements. Television sets. And in every single home I passed once I’d noted this, I could see it; the soft luminescent flickering of movement, like candlelight, but colder. I remember picking up my pace because there was no way that the next house would have their television on as well, and yet there it was, one dwelling after another with its residents tucked in for the evening, eyes fixed on the movement and sounds that came from their screens. Each one in his or her own isolation, yet sharing the exact same view. I remember how it came to me like a lightening bolt, a sudden falling of all the pieces into perfect alignment. Like I said at that time I had only just finished taping an episode of a program I hoped that people would watch, in fact counted on to help promote my own career. I certainly wasn’t thinking about the things I do today, and I definitely wasn’t able to make the connections I can now, but I knew what I saw. If you think of us, our species, we are constantly modifying our behaviors and our beliefs, we’re faddish and easily influenced by crowds or authority figures, but we are also creatures of habit. The longer we behave in certain ways the more firmly these habits become our destiny. As I stood out there in the darkness of Tinsel Town pondering what had been revealed to me I looked for a way to turn it into a joke. That was my routine with any observation I made that caught my attention, but this seemed profound somehow, an epiphany and I tried to edit the thought into as few words as possible so I wouldn’t lose it before I got back to the apartment. For tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years human beings would withdraw in the darkness of their shelters at the end of the day, like the populations of our cities do today, and to feel some sense of security, to protect themselves from whatever was out there, they would build their fires. And they would huddle around them, at ease now and stare into the flickering glow. And in those flashes of burning wood stories would be told, and the two sensations, the ever moving light of the fire and susurrus of a voice recounting some event or giving instruction would blend together, catalyzing, leading to a near somnolence in those who sat in that cave or hut. And in those hours before the soft shimmering phosphoresce we learned, we absorbed, we assimilated whatever we heard, mesmerized, entranced. As little as one hundred years ago, a blip in the human experience if you think about it, we dampened our hearths and turned away from the fire, stopped telling each other our deepest secrets and sharing the enduring wisdom of the ages and we turned our faces to the cold stare of the screen. And those habits formed over epochs remained. We still stare transfixed by the motion of the ever moving lights, still long for and hear the stories and let them seep into our consciousness, though they are not ours. The trick remains, the way the deepest part of our mind opens up and allows it all to fill in the gaps and spaces between what we could have been and what they want us to be. And in the end the thousands upon thousands of little fibs accrete inside, and construct for us an empire of lies.
I think a great deal about the truth these days and perhaps it is a symptom of my age. In my early years I did not give it the kind of consideration I should have, and perhaps that failure led to where I am today. I know that like most Americans the bulk of everything that I was ever taught was, in some part, a shabby Frankenstein of half-truths, like Santa, assembled from the bits and pieces of histories taught around the fading embers of a long extinguished fire. Some parts ring true because they are, but the rest of it, the prompts of the consumer culture, and the demands of the conquering classes are simply falsehoods meant to separate us further; from our money, from our past and from each other. It has always been our responsibility to be straightforward and frank, but we have ceded that obligation in exchange for acceptance of a culture bereft of value. We wear what we wear, and shop where we shop, and vote how we vote based on the subtle influences of the men who tell us the stories we want to hear, but which do not satisfy, in front of lights that do not warm us. I erred, I think now, when I lied to my children to promote a myth written by an ad man a century ago, but I have tried to atone for leading them astray. It isn’t popular to speak truthfully in a world that worships fantastic lies, but if we are aware of it, we are obligated to do what we can. It’s important still, even if almost no one agrees, to thine ownself, be true.
Come join us for an evening of truth and firelight. Tickets still available.