Every family has their unique holiday traditions. Mine featured a grandfather who annually attempted to murder Santa Claus.
Of course, he never actually succeeded. And though my toddler intellect was undoubtedly a touch confused by the yearly drama, it nonetheless knew that grandpa didn’t actually want Santa dead.
I mean, grandpa could hold his own with a gun. So I always reassured myself he missed the shot on purpose — like, maybe he’d let it graze Santa’s ear a little, and that’d be the worst that would ever happen. He only wanted to give Santa a good scare.
My memories of grandpa’s never-ending vendetta against Santa Claus are among my earliest available for retrieval. See, my grandpa Reagan died when I was three. These memories are more than 40 years old.
Fortunately, I’ve found that memories in this uniquely memorable genre don’t fade with age. Instead, their mythic/heroic proportions only magnify with the passage of time.
Grandpa looked a little like John Wayne. He was handsome. He had swagger. He was tough. You could easily picture him squinting his eyes at some far-off horizon. (In fact he did squint at horizons a LOT — looking across the fields he plowed and tended. He was a farmer.) He might’ve made a good actor, like his more famous distant cousin Ronald. But he was a farmer.
Farmer or not, grandpa’s imagination had always stretched at the boundaries of his brain more than most. He wrote and illustrated stories in which his grandkids played the roles of the winsome heroes. My brother still has a tattered booklet that reminds him he was once “Cowboy Sean at the Double R Ranch.”
Grandpa’s bedtime stories in particular were pretty ingenious. For example, I clearly remember one he often told, custom-designed to put children to sleep as efficiently as possible. It had as its central character a leaky barn faucet that endlessly echoed drip — drip — drip — drip — how much dripping? Until we were asleep.
In some ways, the Santa fixation was another story grandpa invented for our pleasure. But it wasn’t totally fiction and it wasn’t totally fact. Back then, I didn’t know what it was. I only knew it thrilled me.
I’ll explain how it worked. Every Christmas morning, grandpa, briefly feigning optimism, would approach his stocking, smiling as he uttered the inciting question: “Well, I wonder what I got in my stocking this year?” Then, when he checked his stocking, he invariably produced a rotten, stinking, rather vile potato.
O the fury. He’d yell and he’d fume. That rosy-ass bastard had done it again! He’d hold the potato aloft, its eyelets crawling with white tentacles, and squeeze his eyes into a menacing squint. Then, he’d announce, the determination plain at the corners of his voice, “I’ll get him next year!”
And when next year rolled around, the stage had long been set. In accordance with another long-held family tradition, we’d stay up late on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa’s arrival. Eventually, we’d hear the bells. Real reindeer bells! He was here!
Of course, grandpa would always manage to hear the bells first. He’d run to the rifle rack, vociferating his undiminished intent to MAKE SANTA PAY, and then run out the door. Seconds later, we’d hear the gun go off. There’d be a violent clamor of bells, an indistinct commotion of yelling and movement, and finally — through all the insane din of it — a low (and possibly mocking?) HO HO HO. Mr. Claus hisself, reassuring us all that he’d again foiled grandpa’s attempts to enact justice.
By the time our short, toddler-fat legs had carried us from the family room to the front window and up onto the back cushions of the couch, the whole drama had been played out. Santa was already a far-off speck in the sky that my dad would helpfully point out to us. Right away, grandpa would come pounding back into the house, the still-smoking rifle clenched in one hand — and in the other, a generous handful of pristine white beard.
“Well,” he’d mutter, shaking his head, “he got away this time. But I did get a handful of his beard, and that’ll teach him.” Then, shaking the white mass of fuzz at the heavens, he’d add, “We’ll just see, when he comes back to fill the stockings, if he’s learned his lesson. Maybe this year, I finally won’t get that rotten potato.”
But you knew he’d still get the rotten, rancid potato. Santa was always fearless enough to come back to complete his deliveries, proving he would never, ever “learn his lesson.”
Anyway, despite our obvious familial ties to Santa’s would-be murderer, my brother and I still made out okay in our respective Santa hauls. What did we care if grandpa had a score to settle? Kids who get presents have a heightened capacity to be practical about such things.
That next year, grandpa died. Aside from the drip-drip-drip bedtime stories as I sat on his lap, a time he yelled at someone for saying “hell” in front of the kids (“It’s H-E-double-toothpicks,” he corrected), and a hazy memory of an RV trip to Wonderland of Rocks and Cochise’s Stronghold, the annual attempts on Santa’s life are the biggest, most vivid, most telling thing I remember about my grandpa Reagan. I think I spent exactly two Christmases with him, but somehow I remember them both. I didn’t get to know him as much as I should’ve. But at least I get to remember him, period.
When I was in my mid-20s, my dad peeled another layer off the myth. He told me that grandpa had started trying to shoot Santa the year following a particularly bad harvest on the farm. They didn’t have much money that year, which meant that Santa wasn’t going to be able to provide for his four kids with the bounty of previous years. So grandpa decided a pissed-off Santa was the easiest and best explanation.
Anyway, that’s how it began. Once times were better, he kept it up for the fun and theatrics of it.
Like I said, he would’ve made a great actor.
It’s a little hard to explain to people why it’s magical to me that my grandpa used to try to kill Santa on an annual basis. People are often a little horrified. But I think there’s a lesson intact inside all of it — a lesson worth retaining and repeating.
The thing is, you can’t kill Santa. No matter how many times you try, you’ll never succeed. My grandpa knew it; his rifle was simply the tool he used to prove it, year after year. For grandpa, shooting at the sky, ringing some bells, and producing that handful of “beard”/cotton was a way he could show his kids — and later his grandkids — that Santa would live on no matter what. Even if you stop believing. Even if you’re too poor to afford presents. Even if you’re an asshole.
Of course, if you are an asshole, you will indeed get that rotten potato in your stocking. But Santa lives on for all of us, including the assholes.