Thursday, December 06, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: Truth, Lies and Saturnalia.

ON THE AVENUES: Truth, Lies and Saturnalia.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

It happens each holiday season. During an otherwise random conversation about New Urbanism, the superiority of professional basketball or the many edifying reasons why the Confederacy got whipped in the Civil War in spite of the typical present-day Republican’s pipe dreams to the contrary, eventually someone looks at me with dismay and says:

“Roger, you’re such a Grinch.”

Been there, done that. My response never varies:

“Thank you very much.”

The roots of my longstanding Yuletide antipathy might be traced to any number of Freudian conceits, Jungian counter-thrusts, references to childhood toilet training habits or the sheer pervasiveness of psychological repression stemming from residency in a fascist state, but in truth, it’s far simpler than all that.

It goes all the way back to that original, defining moment in every person’s life – not when it becomes clear that we’ll die some day without so much as the saving grace of being able to hit a curveball, but the sudden, gut-wrenching discovery that in spite of the shameless propaganda constantly fed to us by adults, who’d been assuring us that a year of excruciating behavioral self-regulation would be rewarded by a gaudily costumed fat man parking his tricked-out sleigh on the roof and descending the chimney, that nope, in the end it was nothing more than a transparent ruse.

Or, the stunning moment when it hit you: Santa Claus doesn’t really exist at all.

Where I grew up, our house didn’t even have a chimney, and this fact alone reveals far too much about my naïveté as a child, not to mention an over-riding eagerness to believe the palpably untrue out of no better motivation than sheer greed, for I no longer can deny in good conscience that from the very start, I was in it for the loot.

Then came the shameful day of embarrassment and infamy, in the garage, when one of my best friends obliterated with his remorseless machete of pure elementary school rationality my comfy bubble of faith in Santa: “C’mon, don’t tell me you still believe in Santa?”

Suffering silently as the other children howled at me for being a mental pygmy, I did much more than merely shake Santa’s grip, cold turkey, right there on the spot. I irrevocably disavowed the whole garish Christmas spectacle, because even at such a tender age, I could see the dominoes falling as the previously sacrosanct myth of Santa Claus vaporized in plain sight.

The message was unmistakably clear. If the adult authority figures could so painlessly mislead us about Santa, where would it end? They might also be fibbing  about the many other edicts demanding compliance and conformity, especially the presumed civic foundational edifices of religion, patriotism and obedience to the logic of the crosswalk.

In short order, I became an atheist, a multi-nationalist and a serial jaywalker, but the worst part of it at the time was sitting there in my room, alone and cross-legged on the cold tile floor, experiencing the devastating frustration of knowing that I was far too young to properly drink my way through the rampant disappointment.

Santa’s unused cookies and milk were the best I could do, and then, as now, I detest milk.


A few years back, Santa Claus unexpectedly came back into my life when various kill-joys in my immediate vicinity began insisting that they were the true guardians of his legacy.

NABC produces a seasonal ale called Naughty Claus, and long ago, our house graphics wizard Tony Beard playfully illustrated it with a drawing of Santa, affably leering in the direction of a Marilyn Monroe lookalike in the process of suffering through a wardrobe malfunction astride a subway grate.

Tony updated the image for our bottle release in 2012. Then as now, there were no complaints about this allusion, presumably in acceptance of Santa’s roving eye.

When another of our artistic helper elves designed a promotional poster depicting Santa Claus smoking a cigarette – in fact, the illustration was borrowed verbatim from this 1950s-era advertising copy – fingers wasted no time in wagging: 

“But … but … you can’t show Santa Claus smoking!”

Why not? It’s FICTION, people.

Then, predictably: “What if children see it?”

Children? Which ones? The ones who aren’t legally permitted to enter barrooms in the first place? The ones who can’t legally drink beer, anyway? The same children whose parents knowingly perpetuate Santa worship in the first place?

It could have been worse for the kiddies. We might have chosen this one:

Incredulous, but not wanting to risk the wrath of militant health fascism, we shrugged and retired Santa’s nicotine-infected mug shot to the archives. Tony’s graphic from scratch was better, anyway. 

I concluded that there is much irony in beer advertising’s long history of using scantily clad women to sell swill, in spite of larger issues of female self-image pertaining to very real women, and yet we must protect the reputation of a completely imaginary male character from being tainted by tobacco.

What's more, sleighs don't embargo. I have it on good authority that Santa smokes Cuban cigars, so there.


Through it all, music soothes the heretical breast, and each year I make a special effort to listen to a recording of "Ring Christmas Bells." As always, it reminds me of our high school choral director, Michael Neely, who warned us that later in our lives, we'd come to regret taking our singing voices for granted. We scoffed. Of course, he was absolutely right.

Three decades of beer and tobacco have rendered my singing voice moot, and now I’m little more than an interpreter of songs, with the atonal wailings occurring well out of human earshot. Our three cats suffer the most.

Imperfect pitch aside, the only Christmas songs I can tolerate are the ones we sang in choir, and the only one I really enjoy is "Fairytale Of New York" by The Pogues  with the late, lovely Kirsty McColl.

Here’s to music by Mick. It provides a few pleasant memories even if, quoting Chico Marx, some things never change, and “There ain’t no sanity claus.”

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