The alarm goes off and I slap it silent and swing my legs off the bed and sit up and sigh. Simon rubs my back and asks me what’s wrong and I say
“Nothing, just tired.” The excuse of being tired deflects all kinds of emotionally inquisitive questions.
It’s Sinterklaas, the 6th of December and the beginning of the religious month of Yule. I set my alarm for 6am as I need an hour to get the outfit on. I’ve been overeating for two months to get that extra rotundness to my frame, and my hair and beard have been trimmed and whitened for the part; the most important part of the year.
I walk to the bathroom and put on the red suit with it’s real rabbit fur collar and cuffs and it’s too thick belt and gold buckle. I squint into the mirror and see our Lord and Saviour, Santa Claus, looking back at me with eyes the same bloodshot red as my outfit. The beautician did a good job of removing the nicotine stains from my facial hair but the yellow brown stains remain on my fingers; the marks of my sin.
Ten tears ago the Yule Council decreed Santa Priests were the embodiment of Santa on earth and as such introduced a set of rules I must follow. Most were about how I had to look and act in public, which was nothing new, but they introduced an additional rule for authenticity. I could no longer drive a car. Santa got around on a sleigh so I should too. A difficult concept to put into action considering it hasn’t snowed since I was nine but there are practical ways around it.
I stand by my front gate waiting for my lift to church. I hear it before I see it, the jingle of the bells. It turns into my road and lights up the dark morning. It fails to lighten my mood. The Sleigh that pulled up is something out of a children’s story. Hidden wheels, with a red and gold body covered in hundreds of tiny bells and lights and mirrors and at the front, and pulling this ridiculous cake decoration are the eight regulation reindeer. There was a time I would have been joyous at the sight of it, full of the spirit of Santa. More recently all I see is missing bulbs and a bad paint job creating a cheap mask of festivity, like this constant rictus smile on my face.
“Merry Christmas Jeff!” said Donald, the elf driving the sleigh.
“Is it?” I flop down in the back of the sleigh, sweating from my forced gluttony and my fur lined disguise. I put up my hood and cover my face with a cloth to keep out the worst of the cinnamon stink coming from the festive scent sprayers. We make our way to the church, apparently ‘lighting up the dark and driving away evil with the joyous jingle of our bells!’ so the marketing goes. I suddenly feel like a fish out of water in my outfit, in this sleigh.
“The Christians are out.” Said Donald as we arrive at the church.
“Like clockwork.” The group of twenty Christians across the road from the church are holding up the usual banners, ‘Christmas is for Christ’ and ‘Santa doesn’t exist’. The group gets smaller every year as the Christian church dwindles into insignificance and Jesus becomes a bit player in the Church of Santa. I stand up with my fixed smile and wave like the pictures of the Pope I saw when I was a kid. One thing you have to give to these Christians, although their god was dying, they always stay pleasant and they couldn’t help themselves from waving back. Everyone loves Santa.
The first day of Yule is always the busiest. The extremists and the born again always want to be first to see Santa to get my blessing and prove their piety. They wait quietly outside the church as I walk in through the side entrance to get set up in the grotto. My church was refurbished two years ago for this one-month binge of religion, and it is magnificent. The entire structure is refrigerated to transform the front of the building into a vast ice cavern where people wait to enter the holy sanctum of the grotto.
The Elves are scurrying about the place getting everything ready while Donald fits my catheter; once I sit on the throne I’m there for the duration. I look at the ceiling covered in crystal stalactites and the snow falling through the grotto entrance and feel the weight of it all on my shoulders. I ask,
“What am I doing here?”
“What do you mean? You’re Santa Claus.” Said Donald. “Come on now, you do this every year, ‘I’m old, I don’t believe in this shit’ but you know what? In the end you snap out of it.”
“I mean it this time Donald, it’s getting more intense every year, can’t you see it? It’s a fake morality play with real consequences for any perceived transgressions. The only people who believe are outside now, begging to get in first. For the rest of the month it’s people bringing their kids for fun or doing it for appearances. The whole hypocrisy of the thing drives me insane, I wish someone would put me out of my misery.”
“It was like that before too, you know that, you’re old enough to remember. Only now it’s one month of piety in exchange for a year of doing what the fuck we want, the ultimate permissive society, what’s not to like?”
“You know I’d happily punch you in the throat for a cigarette don’t you.”
“Sit down, they’ll be starting in five.” He passes me a tablet with the first confessor’s details on it, transmitted from the ice cavern by an elf.
His name is Pete and he says he’s left the family at home and will bring them later. While he confesses I check the naughty/nice list for criminal activity and registered good deeds for the past year and compare them against his confession. Pete has been a good boy and I use the tablet to release his tax rebate to help him pay for the orgy of food and shopping to come. I give him a small silver lapel pin he can wear to prove his goodness and I send him away with the usual blessing, ‘in the name of the Father, the Santa and the Christmas Spirit, Amen’. I sit here for the next twelve hours in a trance, fulfilling my role as Santa priest, the vessel of sin being filled by believers in the cathartic act of confession.
The last one for the day is sent though and sits down next to me. He’s sitting on his hands in silence with eyes staring at the floor. I access his record and both naughty and nice are blank, no trouble and no registered good deeds. No good deeds mean no tax refund so confession was pointless. I look at him and realise he has been talking for a while.
“Sorry could you speak up a little I can’t hear you.”
“I said I don’t know why I’m here, this is a first for me. I don’t think my deeds are very good, not by your standards anyway.” He looks up at the jagged swords of crystal hanging over his head.
“This is kind of a confession isn’t it?”
“It is, yes. Do you want to confess?”
“I suppose. I’ve never confessed before. Where do I start?”
“The beginning is always a good place.” He is silent for a few minutes. I can hear the muffled whisper of the elves in the lobby as they prepare for the end of the day.
“I remember when I was nine I used to play in the brook at the local park catching fish and finding birds nests in the bank. I used to kill the fish. Stamp on them, use a magnifying glass on them, throw them onto the footpath and watch them gasp for air. Typical 9 year old thing to do I guess. I remember one afternoon during a boiling hot summer, I was fishing and I grabbed a stickleback too hard and its barbs pricked me and made me bleed. I threw the fish on the floor and ran home crying. I expected my Nan to be there to give me a hug, but my auntie was waiting for me.” He frowns in concentration. “She’d come to collect me because my granddad was rushed to hospital and I had to stay with her for a few days to give my Nan a rest from me. I lived with my grandparents you see, parents divorced. The usual story.” He goes silent again and looks at the floor.
“Anyway my granddad comes back from the hospital. Terminal cancer. He’s now in a bed in the front room, shitting in a pan, hallucinating from the pain. My Nan is the usual stand up woman; brave face, taking it in her stride but you can see it’s killing her, having to wipe his arse and mop up his sick and watch him waste away to nothing.
“I didn’t like visiting him. He scared me; looked like a living skeleton from a horror film, but my Nan forced me to visit and we sat together in silence, he was on too much medication to hold a train of thought together. Then something happens and he seems to come round for a few seconds. He looked right at me and says, “If I was a dog, they’d put me out of my misery.” Then he faded out again.” He shuffles in his chair and moves closer, lowering his voice.
“My Nan had gone to Irene’s next door for a cup of tea. I was alone in the house with him. He lay in front of me sleeping with a hollow rattle to his breathing. I picked up a cushion and put it over his face and leaned forward and put my full weight on it. I didn’t weigh much. When I was younger he used to throw me in the air, now he could barely lift his own arms. A few seconds of thrashing and it was all over. It was too easy. I cried, not because of what I’d done, but because I was happy he wasn’t in any more pain. Do you understand?” he looked at me, his eyes are moist but his face and voice are free from emotion.
“You did what you thought was right.” I say. Non-judgemental.
“I often think of that day I ran home crying, torturing those fish. I never tortured anything after that day. Strange isn’t it, how things change you.” He stares at his laced fingers as he contemplates his words.
“What made you come here today?” I ask.
“Oh, the old dears at the home I work at are all believers, your picture is plastered all over the bloody place. They said I should come, said it would be good for me. They were right, I enjoyed that, very cathartic.” He slaps his thighs and stands up, “Anyway, I’d best get back to work.”
“Yes, someone’s got to cook dinner. Anyway, you won’t mind, you don’t really exist.” He looks me in the eye. “Do you.”
I watch him as he waddles out of the grotto, oblivious to the effect he’s had on me. I don’t know what to think. I can’t condemn him, I can’t punish him, he isn’t a believer so I have nothing to withhold.
The day ends and I need help standing because my arse has gone to sleep and as usual Donald helps me up and removes my full bag of piss without complaint.
“I need to leave now Donald.”
“If you’re sure you don’t want a lift? See you tomorrow.” I don’t correct his assumption as I walk out of the church and go across the road to the group of shivering Christians. They look at me expectantly, without malice. I take off my hat and cape and throw them on the floor and ask if I can join them. I’m given a hot tea and a blanket and a cigarette and I stand there with them, holding a banner, protesting against myself.