Dog and Butterfly – A Tribute to Santa Claus
This was one of my favorite songs as a child. I somehow still felt its melancholy, realizing it spoke to giving up dreams.
On a June day as far from Christmas as you can get, I watched them bury Santa.
The portrait at the Mass showed a man in suit and tie, but my gaze rested upon the twinkling eyes that once assured a four-year-old happiness could be found in a little magic and large black bag.
I almost entered middle school professing unwavering belief in Santa Claus. For me, he was hard to deny. The man who lived next door miraculously transformed each year from a Korean War veteran/Dad/banker sitting on his patio with a Budweiser into the jolliest elf.
Christmas Eve, our front door stood open — leaving only a wire screen between us and the stomping theatrics of a man who had just hopped from the roof. Santa laughed from the belly, just like the poem said. He greeted me by name, as well as my older sisters and extended family. He knew how much I read, that I dressed as Raggedy Ann for Halloween and how I preferred playing freeze tag to games of horse under my friend (and his son) Brian’s driveway basketball goal. It was hard to argue with such proof, so I willingly accepted the smell of Salems as the product of a corn-cob pipe. Santa was real, and I was simply one of the lucky children on his early schedule who had the opportunity to chat on Christmas Eve.
This continued for years, not just for me and his own son, but for other children and visiting grandchildren on the block. (It was explained when questioned that he simply parked on one roof and walked to the next house to save the reindeers’ energy.)
The summer before third grade, Santa’s son and I held an extensive inquisition into Santa’s authenticity through the chain-link fence. We wondered why even though it was quite balmy during a Central Texas Christmas, we were always held captive inside prior to the big moment. The landing and reindeer always escaped us. I hesitantly asked if Brian’s father was home all night on Christmas Eve. His eyes grew wide and then squinted.
“No,” he said. “You know something else? I once saw a jacket in his closet that looked just like Santa’s … and then it disappeared.”
We didn’t dare press any further. Instead, we retreated in contemplative silence to our houses as we decided what to do with the situation.
I think Santa lost a believer that day, but it wasn’t me. I struggled —eyes wide open upon my favorite Peter Pan pillowcase — wondering whether to accept the dull knot in my throat or stay comfortably trusting my faith. I stared at my fictional namesake’s knowing smile, tightly sashed dress and neat hair, feeling her rejection of Peter and the lost boys was suddenly very personal.
For the next few years, I stayed firmly planted in Neverland and Santa came. As best I recall my older sister finally pulled me aside, saving me middle school humiliation. The next Christmas, consumed by a new radio Walkman and Rick Springfield cassette, I knew the stomping would not come. The front door was promptly closed after each family member’s arrival. No one, especially me, spoke of it.
Santa would return for a niece and nephews, but I suddenly saw St. Nick as a neighbor in an aging red jacket. Eventually, Christmases once again matured from toys to gift cards. Santa became a memory, and the neighbor became real.
As I rode with my father to the funeral this summer, I prepared to comfort my childhood best friend who lost his father. Then, sweating in the cemetery surrounded by faces from my childhood, stories emerged. We talked of the booming, hoarse laughter, a rousing little-league coach, the love and pride a man took in everyone’s success — and yes, the fact that no one could recall his eyes without that twinkle. A group of adult strangers freed memories, teased each other about teenage pranks and hugged across the decades of distance.
And there, as a man was lowered into the ground, the spirit of Father Christmas rose once again. I realized anyone who could return us all to such innocence, jolliness and love — why, that could only be Santa Claus.
Thank you, Santa. This time, I promise to believe forever.