Afterword: Making Light of Santa Claus
Montaigne once said, “There is no man so good, who, were he to submit all his thoughts and actions to the laws, would not deserve hanging ten times in his life.” Saint Jerome warned, “A fat paunch never breeds fine thoughts.” More to the point, Goethe had this to say: “The ideal goat is one that eats hay and shits diamonds.”
Born in 1947, I was brought up in a modest three-bedroom home on Long Island. Here’s what I remember about Santa Claus. I remember being too excited to fall asleep right away on Christmas Eve. More than likely, I keened my ears into the stillness, knowing it was too early for Santa’s visit but caring not in the least. In the crisp morning, I woke to the astounding realization that Santa Claus had been by. My three-years-younger sister Margie and I raced down the hall, skidding on our pajama’d knees before a rain-festooned tree topped by a lighted star and anchored with a green striated bulb we called the Toilet Plunger for its resemblance to a float ball. “Presents!” we exclaimed, re-racing and re-exclaiming until we tired of the game. No gifts were ever unwrapped in our house before breakfast, and our parents were unbearably slow in waking on Christmas morning. Still, the bracing aroma of pine needles pervaded the air amid the certainty that we had indeed been visited by the jolly old elf.
I wasn’t much of a visual child. Not even before my mind’s eye did I spin notions about where Santa stood and what he looked like as he bent to our tree. Neither did I much wonder how he gained access to our chimneyless house. My images of him were culled from magazine ads, black and white TV, Christmas songs, and a ViewMaster disc that told Rudolph’s story in dioramas I can summon forty years later with near-total recall.
As for the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, I had no images of them at all. Yet their unquestioned visits made our house feel and smell special indeed.
I wrote the initial version of Santa Steps Out in 1988 and 1989. Why did I do that?
First, I had after long gestation brought to light my initial attempt at a novel, Oedipus Aroused (a clever botch never published, though it landed me a mediocre New York agent). That book had taken two years of research into 13th century b.c. Delphi, Corinth, and Thebes, into Minoan and Mycenaean quirks, customs, clothing, weaponry, roadwork, abortifacients, bull-leaping, the vast network of oracles of which Delphi was only the most famous, and so forth, and nearly another two years to weave all of it into a novel. I promised myself that my next effort would require as close to zero research as possible (true except for bunny behaviors, which are drawn from Marshal Merton’s A Complete Introduction to Rabbits and especially from R. M. Lockley’s delightful The Private Life of the Rabbit).
Second was the emergence of the basic imaginative material. Precisely how that happened is lost to memory, but here’s the gist: Suppose the all-giving Santa Claus had once been the all-grasping Pan? Suppose further that the creatures of our common childhood fancy—that magical triumvirate we accepted without question, who slipped into our homes to leave us money and candy and gifts—shared a forgotten, forbidden, pagan past? And that a crossing of paths which never ought to have happened did, by dint of heavenly bumble, happen?
Greek mythology had been an enduring love of mine since, at age nine, I played Zeus in a dramatization of The Iliad, twice performed in the school auditorium at Newbridge Road School—with a different Hera each time, I note with delight and curiosity. Here was a way to bring into renewed existence the chaos, the daring, the sheer exuberance of that treasure trove of myth, to celebrate the vastness and majesty of our Dionysian impulses while having great heaps of fun.
We never really lose our younger selves. Rather, we accrete new selves about them. The spellbound child at our core remains, I believe, as emotionally attached to these three beloved nocturnal visitors as it always was. (For a study of precisely this topic from the perspective of a child psychologist, see Cindy Dell Clark’s Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith, University of Chicago Press, 1995.)
Moreover, all three, unlike say Batman or Superman, are in the public domain. This, I’m sorry to say, is not true of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, nor was I able to persuade the holders of Rudolph’s copyright to license him to my use, which is why Santa Claus has a different lead reindeer in this novel.
What cinched it for me, though, was realizing where the Tooth Fairy’s coins came from. Goethe’s goat.
Santa Steps Out has had a tangled time finding its way into print.
In 1989, David Hartwell at William Morrow & Company held the manuscript for many months, eventually sending me a brief rejection. Meanwhile, I had squeaked my way into the Clarion West Writers Workshop for 1990. My primary reason for wanting to attend was David’s presence on the roster of instructors. When upon his arrival one Sunday in July I introduced myself, he carried on about Santa in a way that astonished and delighted me, going so far as to buy me dinner at a Mongolian restaurant a short walk from our dorm and generally acting as if the work of a pretty-much-unpublished writer mattered.
At the end of that week, during which David had given me, in private conference, a detailed criticism of Santa Steps Out (six months after his last glimpse of it, the man a natural-born editor), he took me aside. “Now that I’ve seen the range of your short fiction,” he said, “I want you to revise Santa along the lines we talked about and submit it again.”
I did so. After another period of deliberation, yet another rejection came in. David, it seems, was ready to buy the book this time, but no one at Morrow would support him.
I had since signed with a second agent on the basis of her love for Santa. Alas, that love could not be translated into a sale. She did however sell Deadweight, my first published novel, to Jeanne Cavelos for the Dell Abyss line of horror novels. Jeanne had seen and rejected Santa a year earlier. She too wanted eventually to publish it, “after your readership has grown,” she said. Jeanne, bless her twisted little heart, left publishing to pursue teaching and her own writing career. In any case, it’s unlikely that Dell would have gone along with her, any more than Morrow had with David Hartwell, unless my career had skyrocketed into the realms of bestsellerdom.
For years, my favorite brainchild lay dormant. Then at the 1996 Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I had the good fortune to meet Pat LoBrutto. Years before, when I had been sending my Santa synopsis to agents and editors, Pat had been working for Meredith Bernstein. He urged her, in vain, to request the manuscript. Said Pat at Pikes Peak over a microbrew: “You mean nobody’s bought it yet? Send me a copy!”
I did. Pat loved it, vowing to do what he could to usher it into print, saying indeed that he wanted to be able to tell his grandchildren that he was the one who had edited my odd little Santa novel.
Pat brought it to TOR Books, where, as it happened (did I think the gods were smiling on me, you bet I did), David Hartwell was senior editor. For the longest time, it seemed as if a TOR Santa would fly. The manuscript had the advantage of Pat LoBrutto’s editing expertise, David stood foursquare behind the purchase, and the head of the company had bought in as well. Santa Steps Out came as close as a book can come to a yes without quite getting there. Then the marketing weenies, from what I gather, killed it. In his rejection letter, David assured my agent that if he ever returned to small press publishing, he would publish the book himself.
There’s a bit more, and in all fairness writers are rarely privy to what really goes on inside a publishing house, but that will suffice.
So what’s the problem here? Why do so many benighted souls run screaming from Santa Steps Out? And why is it that others, saints and angels every one of them, embrace my jolly old elf with such enthusiasm?
Turning down my request for a blurb, Peter Straub, in all good humor and based solely on the synopsis, wrote me as follows:
My work load is so impossible at the moment that I have to pass on reading the extraordinary tale outlined in the pages you sent me. If good old Dark Highway is looking for the hideous, the blasphemous, and the prurient, Jason Bovberg ought to show up at your house every day to shine your shoes, make breakfast, and wash your dishes. Clearly, we all missed a great many educational experiences by sleeping through the Tooth Fairy’s visits to our bedrooms, and we underestimated Santa tremendously. Me, I always had my doubts about the Easter Bunny, and it’s nice to see them confirmed.
Well—wow! Of course, anything so deliberately provocative depends completely on the writing—on the second-by-second delivery of its effects. That you came so close to getting what would be ordinarily unpublishable accepted by trade houses in New York must mean that you have found a way to give weight to your transgressions.
Even though I have no time to provide a blurb, I do want to see the finished book—and I’m not begging for a free copy here, I mean only that I’ll look for a way to order the book—but even more, I want to see the reviews. After all, you’re not just throwing down the gauntlet, you’re using it to slap them in the face.
I quote Peter at length because (1) I like him, (2) it’s prose from a master’s pen after all, (3) I promised him an inscribed copy in exchange for permission to quote him and I like to get value for money, and (4) his words hint, tongue in cheek to be sure, at outrage and offense, at transgression and blasphemy.
But again I ask, where is the outrage in this novel? My three protagonists aren’t, after all, religious icons. One might, to stretch a point, claim that status for Saint Nicholas, but surely not since the transformations wrought upon him by Thomas Nast, Clement Moore, and the ad men at The Coca-Cola Company.
God? He’s treated with the utmost respect, he swears only in incomprehensible foreign tongues, he plays a cameo role (Marlon Brando, if you please, to Jack Nicholson’s Santa Claus). In any event, he turns out to be Zeus, so his appearance should hardly count as a slap in the face of true believers.
In fact, the most twisted offshoots of Christianity would, I believe, be thoroughly in my camp. Just as some fundie lunatics want to ban Halloween, others lobby to be rid of Santa Claus. During my near-zero research, I came across a pamphlet by Sheldon Emry entitled “Is Christmas Christian?” (Lord’s Covenant Church, 1976).
Here are three brief passages:
[S]ecret Baal worshipers have foisted upon us their “Santa,” their counterfeit “God,” who appears to do “good,” even as God, and they have presented him to us with white hair and beard, sparkling eyes, and a deep, low laugh. . . . Do you need still more proof that “Christmas” has its origins in Baal worship? Read on. We will “take apart” more of this strange “festival.”
[M]ost of Christendom, even professing Christians, have been deceived by the forces of darkness into acting out the rituals of Baal worship which are an abomination to our God.
[Most men in Church pulpits] ignore or ridicule such information as you have read in these last pages. Could the reason be that many are not followers of Jesus Christ, but instead are secret priests of the false messiah of Babylon and they only profess to be Christians so they can get in Church pulpits and lead God’s sheep into the “ways of Baal worship?”
As a longstanding Baal worshiper, I am astounded at how uncannily, though his head be full of muddle, Pastor Emry has set his wagging finger so squarely on the truth. Brothers and sisters, we must complexify our efforts at obfuscation. The Freemasons, the Illuminati, and those sly purveyors of the lone-gunman theory must surely heap scorn upon us for our ineptitude.
But I digress. . . .
In pondering the question of Santa’s reception by the affronted, I have come to the tentative conclusion that it won’t be the loonies who regard Santa Steps Out as blasphemous (body-haters that they are, they’ll slam as usual my explicit sexual descriptions, but the religious content shouldn’t faze them)—no, it will outrage, if it outrages anyone at all, the mainstream Christian with an imperfect understanding of storytelling.
How dare I cast dirt upon the image of their beloved Santa Claus, the gentle Tooth Fairy, the generous Easter Bunny? That’s what I hear them asking. For in many ways, these three secular creatures touch the hearts of children far earlier, far deeper, and far more effectively than God or Jesus or Mary ever could. It is they who carry the weight that more traditional religious icons may once have carried for the average American youngster.
A dear friend of mine, a psychotherapist who has not yet read the book, suggests another reason. Santa Claus, she notes, is a grandfather figure, a friend to children. Eroticize him and he becomes at once disquieting, a figure of potential incest and child abuse. I think at once of Jean Hersholt from the Shirley Temple Heidi film, no more perfect a grandfather than he. Were he to be sexualized, would he appear as a threat to Heidi? I don’t think so, as long as he manifests no sexual interest in children (which is decidedly the case with my characters). Yet I find this theory intriguing and I’ll be curious to see if it figures at all in reader response to the book.
Why then do I judge this work to be not offensive in the least?
Because it’s a vivid and heartfelt dream. Only nuts of the medievally monkish sort whip, hairshirt, castrate, or otherwise do injury to themselves over the contents of a dream. In dreams, anything goes; they follow their own logic, wending where Psyche’s whim takes them.
Because it tells the truth, it does so joyously, and it is no more outrageous in its way than Salome or Titus Andronicus or The Bacchae, three classic literary works which dabble expertly in excess.
Because the multiform emotion known as passion is a godsend. By no means are all of its forms pretty. Some have the capacity to kill or cripple relationships. But the erotic form of passion is as divine as all the rest, the stuff souls are made of.
Because sacred cows often deserve a vigorous milking, a swift kick to their fly-encircled rumps, a one-way trip down the chutes of the slaughterhouse, a fall beneath the butcher’s knife. Besides, it’s always useful to discover that gods and goddesses have feet of clay, that they too suffer temptation and a measure of imperfection; it eases the burden of being human.
Offense, I have found, is far more often taken than given in this world. Each venture into a new narrative opens up new avenues into yourself. If you are reading these words after having taken your way through Santa Steps Out, I trust that the journey both enriched and entertained you. If beforehand (one of my vices, I must confess), may your upcoming trip be a safe and pleasant one, a turn-on and a treat.
And if my good-hearted reader finds aught in these pages tart to the taste, or bitter:
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
—Fort Collins, October 1997
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