Sister Santa

The giant box arrived yesterday with the return label of Johns Island, SC. I don’t have x-ray vision, but I know without opening it exactly what I’ll find inside: Christmas presents—probably twenty or twenty-five of them, mostly small packages wrapped in wrinkly holiday paper and too much Scotch tape. Each will have the name of a family member scrawled in messy Sharpie somewhere on the front. I will marvel, as I do every year, at the sheer volume of items, how every spare inch of the box has been stuffed, taken up by gifts. A vague cloud of cigarette smoke and the perfume Santa wears—Estée Lauder’s Pleasures—will waft from the box, a smell as much tied to Christmas for me as pine needles or oranges and cinnamon sticks simmering on the stove.

My sister, Catherine, has always been Santa. She’s the kind of Santa who shops deals all year and stashes baubles away in the linen closet until it’s time to wrap them. She is a loyal adherent to the philosophy of more is more when it comes to gifting—she sent me a similar box that contained fifty presents for my fiftieth birthday–which is why I know there will be at least five presents for each of us, plus the dogs, inside that box. We can all reliably predict the contents. Among other, more unexpected things, there will be fleece pajama pants for each of us, chocolate bars for each of the kids. Chew toys for the dogs. For me, Walkers Shortbread cookies, the kind in the red and black plaid box, and for my husband, hot sauce. Always and forever, hot sauce.

For most of our family life, we’ve lived far away from loved ones, so holiday gatherings have usually meant just the four of us. We don’t like the traditional Christmas meals of ham or turkey. We don’t go to church. So, there is great comfort in the anticipation and surety that surrounds the Santa box. It signals, not unlike my mother-in-law’s (excellent, really!) fruitcake, the arrival of Christmas, connects us with family and continues one of the only real holiday traditions we have.

It started when the kids were little. My husband was still a graduate student working toward his PhD in Philosophy, and I was an adjunct teaching Creative Writing at the Big State University where we met. We lived in a nice enough duplex awkwardly situated inside the fancy neighborhood where all the full-time faculty member owned fancy homes with beautiful facades of brick or stone, mature perennial gardens, and loads of curb appeal. We had a water meter I hid with pampas grass, an ornamental pear tree that split in an early snowstorm, and grad student neighbors who once launched blow darts at squirrels in our shared backyard and then lost them in the grass.

Don’t misunderstand: we were not poor. We had mostly what we needed, but not a whole lot extra. Though we lived paycheck to paycheck, we had enough to buy the kids a few nice presents for Christmas—a tea set, a telescope, an orange plastic disc sled to take down the hill in the backyard. My husband and I saved our own gift-giving for New Year’s and the next pay cycle so we could focus spending on the kids. Gifts sent from other family members would create a gorgeous gift landscape beneath the tree in the days leading up to Christmas.

Then, when the kids were asleep on Christmas Eve, we’d open my sister’s box and stuff those small packages (socks, crayons, sidewalk chalk) into the gaps and cracks between the other shiny boxes. The effect was that, on Christmas morning, it looked like the pile had grown to twice its size. Santa Sister Magic!

Honestly, Santa is a little bit of a sore point in our house. My husband didn’t grow up with this tradition at all and has always felt uneasy perpetrating it on our kids. Weren’t we essentially lying to them? I insisted it wasn’t really lying, and he relented. But I have come to feel my own kind of troubled about our cultural devotion to a character who delivers iPads and bicycles to some lucky children with financially solvent parents, and second-hand books or toothbrushes or nothing to others whose parents have little, if anything, to spend.  

Our kids crossed the Santa-Belief Rubicon a few years ago now and it’s a relief to be able to talk openly about such privileges, to critique our own consumerism a little, and to focus more on the family-togetherness part. Now we can thank Aunt Catherine personally for her investment in their holiday joy instead of giving credit to a mythical man with a red suit and a flying sleigh.

As usual, I did not start Christmas shopping until a week ago, after my classes were over and faculty meetings complete and I could give it any slim measure of attention. Even if I wanted to fill a huge box with lovingly wrapped presents for my sister and her wife and dogs, it would probably not get there in time because I am allergic to going to the post office. Instead, I’ll do what I always do and send them each one gift chosen carefully and with love, which, for all I know, might be the holiday tradition she looks forward to each year from her own Sister Santa. I hope so.

Thanks, Cath. Merry Christmas!