The First Man To Make Me Cry


Fear of Santa: embarrassing for children, hilarious for onlookers. Both of these feelings are intensified if the child is you and the onlookers are your family, and Santa is your grandpa.

I was born in a town of 1,200 people in rural northwestern Wisconsin, as was my father and his mother and her parents and many of the offspring of his relatives. We’re a big, loud, joke cracking, baseball debating, wild game eating, left-leaning conglomerate of small town smartasses, and even though many of us have scattered far and wide since my childhood, Christmas has always been our biggest family celebration. While I have many fond memories of spending time around my extended family, I found Santa’s frequent appearances traumatizing.

My family has a kind of twisted tradition of reimagining Santa as a cranky jerk who hates his job that started with my Great Grandpa Ryan wearing a terrifying rubber Santa mask and yelling at my dad and his dozens of cousins. For my generation, the role was softened a bit, and Santa was always played by my grandpa (who was usually a jovial guy). Santa would show up after Grandpa went outside to “feed the cows,” and he’d stay until just before Grandpa came back from “feeding the cows,” and somehow this wasn’t suspect to me when I was a child, so strong was my belief that what my parents told me was the truth, that Santa must be real because otherwise who eats the cookies, huh? Who drinks the milk?

So Grandpa would leave and minutes later, Santa would arrive, harumphing and complaining about the weather and the lack of hospitality from my uncles, and he’d grumble into a chair and flop a bag full of boxes down next to him. “COME ON!” he’d say, “WHO’S FIRST?! SANTA DOESN’T HAVE ALL NIGHT!”

The grandchildren would sit on Santa’s lap from youngest to oldest, and Santa would goad them to varying degrees. He was usually pretty sensitive to how much grief from Santa the grandkids could stand, adjusting his gruffness to suit each of them. Unbeknownst to us, though, Santagrandpa had done some preliminary reconnaissance with our parents, gathering anecdotes of our misbehavior or insubordination before his visit and using them against us in an attempt to build a case that maybe we don’t deserve presents, after all. Once, he told me that he’d heard I hadn’t been doing well in spelling. Once he teased me about this poorly behaved boy from Sunday school, asking if he was my boyfriend.

My God, I thought, terrified, HOW DOES HE KNOW?!

As a result of Grandpa’s cranky Santa, I grew up convinced that Santa knew literally everything about me. His reach was more extensive, his knowledge more unending, than God himself. If I didn’t cry when Santa arrived, I’d cry while sitting on his lap, or I’d sit there, big-eyed and blinking, trying to fight off tears. Santa terrified me. He knew all and I was at his mercy.

Before he left (presumably to crab at the other children of the world), he’d force us to sing Christmas carols to him and then tell us that he’d heard better. Ho, ho, humbug.

One Christmas when I was probably 7 or 8, Santa invited two of my cousins (who are around my age) back to the utility room with him. When we got back there, he said, “You kids are old enough to see Santa’s trick!” and removed his beard, revealing his face. Normal children would have reasoned that Grandpa was dressed up as Santa and therefore Santa is an invention of adults to make Christmas more fun.

But no. Not me. Rather than concluding that Santa wasn’t real, I came to the understanding that my grandfather was literally Santa Claus. Oh my god I have been this close to someone famous for my entire life and I’d never known! What a fool I’d been! I continued living under that misapprehension that my grandfather was literally Santa Claus for about a year.

Grandpa Ryan passed away in August of 2009, and while we all miss him, his 5 surviving sons have proudly taken up the Crabby Santa mantle, taking turns donning Grandpa’s shabby Santa Suit and scaring the shit out of all of the children.

Image via Shutterstock

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