Dear Santa, I want…
There were a few old standard Christmas songs when I was a little girl, long before such ditties as “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” or “Frosty the Snowman” came along. We were stuck in a Clement Moore vision of Santa, where Mama wore a kerchief on her head at night and Dad wore a nightcap. I refer to these as Christmas songs rather than Christmas carols (those more directly depicting the joy and wonder of the birth of Jesus) that we learned and sang in church and Sunday school.
We sang these Christmas songs mainly at school during the week or two before our Christmas break each year, mixed with “Jingle Bells” and a few winter songs such as “Over the River and Through the Woods” or whatever its actual title is. One went like this; Up on the housetop reindeer pause/ out jumps dear old Santa Claus/ Down through the chimney with lots of toys/ all for the good little girls and boys./ Ho-ho-ho, who wouldn’t go/ Ho-ho-ho, who wouldn’t go/ Up on the housetop, click, click, click/ Down through the chimney with old Saint Nick.
First comes the stocking of little Nell/ Oh, dear Santa, fill it well./ Give her a dolly that laughs and cries,/ one that will open and shut her eyes./ Ho-ho-ho, etc. Another verse or two continues the theme of gimme-gimme-gimme, listing specifically what presents each child wants.
The lyrics were rather silly, but we sang them with dramatic gestures and were encouraged to give out our heartiest “Ho-ho-hos” when the time came. Because of that first line, I had, for several years, an image of reindeer having paws rather than hooves, but that’s a child’s imagination for you. Nobody ever used the word “pause” in my world, they said “stop” or “wait,” so I didn’t get it.
Another song I still remember was also based on the usual notion that Christmas was all about getting presents from Santa, with just a hint that one ought to strive to be good for at least a few weeks before Christmas in order to guarantee the bounty. It went more or less like this; Jolly old Saint Nicholas, lean your ear this way/ Don’t you tell a single soul what I’m going to say./ Christmas Eve is coming soon, now you dear old man/ Whisper what you’ll bring to me, tell me if you can.
Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a dolly,/ Mary wants a story book, she thinks dolls are folly./As for me, my little brain isn’t very bright,/ so bring for me, dear Santa Claus, what you think is right.
That last line has just a hint that Santa might have the option of deciding what is an appropriate gift– a deserved gift, let’s hope. Today’s children are taught to begin their requests in a less demanding format, to preface their wish list with a polite inquiry about Santa’s state of health or that of Mrs. Claus. They usually remember to thank the old guy for whatever he brought last year (even though that acknowledgment is several months overdue). They have been instructed, no doubt, to be fairly modest about their claims to goodness without actually confessing any measure of wickedness or thoughtlessness– at least nothing too serious that might jeopardize their case. Quite often this is followed by a promise to try to do better in the future. A sort of hint that improved behavior is contingent on how much of the requested loot Santa comes up with this year– in other words– an attempt at blackmail.
My sisters and I were never encouraged to write letters to Santa requesting those things our hearts desired at the moment. Mother and Dad knew what we wanted, what we deserved, what the budget permitted, what we were going to get. A wish list would have resulted in our disappointment over those items that were not delivered. Since we hadn’t told Santa what we wanted, we could hardly blame him for not bringing it to us. Mother and Dad never asked us what we wanted, never speculated about what we might find in our stockings or any of the mysterious packages, never hinted about something we’d never expected or even dreamed about.
As a result, we got lots of presents we’d never even thought about wanting. Very few turned out to be duds. Several turned into interesting hobbies or worthwhile projects that helped shape our lives. The dollhouse my dad built for me one Christmas, and the tiny sofa and arm-chair Mother made from a cheese box and upholstered with scraps of dark blue wool showed me that things didn’t have to be factory-made to be perfect. They fostered a life-long belief that handmade things could be not only unique, but superior. What better gift for a girl who would become an artist?