When I saw a trailer for the film Bad Santa, in which a department-store Santa Claus screeches at a child and his elf sexually demeans the store's head of security, I thought, someone finally got it right.
I'm clearly in the minority. The movie has sparked criticism and protests from Los Angeles to London. Parents are angry that their children are being exposed to R-rated advertising profaning the beloved Christmas hero. Conservative groups and the religious right are accusing Disney of indecency and hypocrisy for backing a movie with a philandering, dishonest, and immoral Saint Nick.
But when my five brothers, two sisters, five cousins, and I were growing up in the late 50s and early 60s on Chicago's south side we knew Santa Claus as a lean, ugly, stern, hard-drinking taskmaster who demanded deference and obedience in exchange for toys. For us, the jolly, rotund Santas on the Andy Williams TV Christmas special or in the State Street parade were little more than cartoonish frauds--fine for storybooks and Salvation Army bell ringers.
Our Santa showed up around 9 PM on Christmas Eve. For two hours we kids had sat waiting--uncharacteristically still, our hands folded, the candy dish on the table untouched, our eyes bulging whenever Uncle Don strode to the window and parted the curtains for a peek outside. When the doorbell rang a staccato six or seven times we felt both relief and terror.
Home movies from the time show the fear and determination in our faces as we watched Santa enter--a thin man with an ugly, stained blue-and-pink burlap Santa mask to which was pinned a flattened cotton beard. Mostly we kept our eyes glued to the thick black leather belt doubled up in his hand, which he raised above his head in a threatening gesture and not infrequently used to whip the backsides of the older boys if they faltered under interrogation.
"Have you been good?" I remember him asking me when I was six.
Whack! "Don't lie. You fight with your brothers." Whack!
"I'll be good, Santa."
Then Santa would shove into my chest a still-cold but festively wrapped box. I'd return to my spot across the room and triumphantly start opening my gift, ready when he called me up for a second gift to kneel, pray the Hail Mary out loud, sing a carol, or take however many more whacks on the backside were required to collect a Tonka truck, a Fort Apache construction kit, or a Fanner 50 cap gun.
We kids all thought it was a more than fair exchange. We also thought it was normal. We knew department-store Santas always asked if kids had been good, and we'd heard the song that went "You better watch out, you better not cry." How were we to know we were the only household on the block where the children actually suffered the consequences of not heeding the warning?
The adults also participated. Uncle Eddie would usually have drunk a good portion of his Christmas bonus at Marie Shaw's tavern that afternoon, and he'd egg Santa on. "Oh, Santa, Jimmy smokes cigarettes behind the bank," he'd shout, referring to my older brother.
"Patrick says naughty words, Santa."
Santa wasn't above giving a few belts to the adults. Uncle Eddie would go up for a gift and kneel penitently in front of the seated Santa.
"Eddie was at a saloon for three hours today, Santa," his brother, Uncle Don, would say.
Before Santa could administer any lashes Uncle Eddie would whimper and plead, "I'm a good boy, Santa." Then he'd fold his hands in prayer and sing a verse from "Silent Night."
The other grown-ups would laugh, shaking their heads and roaring out other misdeeds. We kids stared, mesmerized by this surreal humiliation of our elders.
One bitterly cold and snowy Christmas Eve when I was around ten Santa showed up without his belt, gripping a half-full fifth of Wild Turkey. Uncle Eddie quickly relieved him of the bottle and gave him his own brown leather belt. By this time some of us were getting skeptical of the Santa Claus business, but we were fearfully respectful when we later asked our parents about the Wild Turkey. My father said it had been a gift for Uncle Eddie that had somehow been spilled during the sleigh ride.
Santa didn't beat the young children or the babies or my sisters, though they had to watch us getting whipped. The little kids took turns sitting on his lap and listening to his whiskey-drenched cooing, but they seldom complied when their mothers, wielding cameras, urged them to kiss Santa's cheek.
The visits lasted little more than half an hour. Uncle Don or my father would suddenly command us to sing "Jingle Bells," and Santa would wave and leave the house. Then the grown-ups would pass out the rest of the presents, and we would open them, exulting that we wouldn't have to face Santa again until the next Christmas Eve.
But sometimes in the middle of summer, when a rainy day had confined all of us indoors and we were cranky and fighting, there'd be a sudden pounding on the basement door. One of us would open the door to reveal Santa--shorter, the height of my mother, and much angrier. He'd step into the room, flailing the leather strap, inflicting several lashes on whoever'd been making the most trouble.
Even after I was past the age of believing, things didn't change much at Christmastime. My brothers and I simply switched from frightened victims to coconspirators. As noisy, gawky teenagers we joined the adults in inciting Santa or hamming it up as the remorseful accused at Santa's feet.
When I turned 18 and was six feet tall I became Santa. At 8:45 PM on Christmas Eve my sisters helped me put on the Santa suit in my parents' bedroom. They stuffed a pillow under my shirt and made sure my neck and ears were hidden beneath the burlap mask. They pulled on the red hat, nearly covering my eyes, and then Jimmy led me outside, through the gangway, and up to the front door. As I leaned on the doorbell to announce my arrival he handed me the leather belt.
And I took it. I brandished it. Once inside, I even used it several times, though mostly for show.
The following year the next younger brother in line played Santa Claus, the year after that the next brother. Uncle Don died. Uncle Eddie had to stop drinking. He got quieter but could still be counted on to say something needling when Jimmy's or Pat's name was called. My brothers and cousins made a racket as they exhorted Santa Claus to use his strap and indicted each other for new forms of bad behavior. "Jimmy hunts women on Rush Street, Santa!"
The ritual didn't end until my older two brothers got married and had their own children. Their wives were aghast when they heard we wanted to carry on the tradition. We assured them that Santa's lashes were in good fun and didn't do real physical harm. They said that if we showed up with a belt we'd never see the children on Christmas Eve again.
How could we argue? The leather belt was retired, and a new, handsome Santa costume was bought. A jolly Santa began handing out presents. The scary Christmas Eve was obsolete, relegated to family legend.