My kids have never been on The Naughty List.
It’s not because they’re awesome. They’re kids: sometimes they’re great, often they…aren’t. It’s just that kids, in general, are never on The Naughty List. The Naughty List, for all of its supposed deterrent glory, has no bite to it.
How did this happen?
So a Christmas-celebrating family basically starts with an adorable little munchkin. When they’re like two years old they barely understand why there’s a lit tree in the house, forget a number of magical presents beneath it. It’s just this ethereal canvas of light and color.
As they turn three, they start to get it more. Christmas is a thing that happens. Our part is we do the tree. Then somehow, on Christmas, I get lots of cool stuff.
As a child’s awareness of Christmas grows, through their fourth and fifth birthdays, they are schooled in the well-documented rules of the occasion. Songs and books and shows and movies and poems all contribute to the tapestry of Christmas. And kids pick it up easily, because they’re bombarded from every angle.
But here’s the gist:
There’s a bearded, jolly dude named Santa Claus, who wears a kick-ass, fur-lined, red and white ensemble and his whole raison d’être is to hook kids up with awesome stuff that their dick parents won’t buy them.Santa Claus lives in the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, who is a matronly, bespeckled woman with white/grey hair. She’s basically Hoggett’s wife in Babe. And there’s elves. An ocean of elves everywhere. Making toys. Helping Santa with the basic maintenance of the sleigh and the reindeer and assisting him in the revered categories of both making a list and checking it twice.
That’s right. THE LIST. Dun duh duh. The proverbial list. Where, specifically:
— Good kids get presents.
— Bad kids don’t.
It seems simple enough: Santa sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake. Jolly Old Saint Nick is an absolute Orwellian precog about the behavior of children, and even though modern society has now shopped many of his surveillance responsibilities out to various elves on shelves, the message is clear: there are repercussions for fucking up.
Specifically: The Naughty List.
A fact I reminded my seven-year-old of yesterday.
“You don’t want to pick those socks up off the floor? Fine by me. I hope Santa doesn’t see.”
And he’s smart, so he just gives me a wry smile and curbs his behavior in the tiiiiiiiiniest way. He’ll casually toss the socks on the ottoman, but he won’t walk them to a hamper. Why? Because he’s learned that Santa grades on a curve. My son has been an absolute mad hatter before, even days before Christmas, and he never so much got even a slap on the wrist from Kris Kringle.
When my son came trepidatiously down those stairs on Christmas morning, worried that the broccoli he didn’t finish or socks he left on the floor might fuck up his score, he was relieved to find that Santa had forgiven all. Presents everywhere. Presents as far as the eye can see. Maybe Santa didn’t see everything.
Maybe Santa didn’t see that much at all.
So he goes to school and checks with his friends, and all of them had similar experiences. The ‘bad’ kid in his class, Lucas, got even more presents than he did. How? How is Lucas not on the Naughty List? Lucas is naughty — independently, verifiably naughty — every day. My son sees it with his own eyes. It’s not fake news. He’s a witness. And yet, Santa still shows up at Lucas’ house?
Something’s rotten in Denmark.
But hey, he’s not one to rock the boat! If there’s no tether between behavior and hitting the lotto on Christmas, then more’s the better! If Lucas is the bar? Ha! Then no matter what, he’s always going to clear it. Now the drill changes from appeasing an unseen, heretofore all-knowing holiday deity, to pretending like you are for your parents’s benefit. The drill becomes fooling your mom and dad, who clearly haven’t figured out this loophole. Idiot Dad still tries to hold that raggedy-ass old chestnut over your head.
You better watch out!
You better not cry!
You better not pout!
What the hell is a pout anyway? (We barely use that word) Oh Dad, you silly, misinformed old fool. Howsabout I’m gonna NOT finish my broccoli and I’m still coming out of Christmas with the full-head Star-Lord mask with Bluetooth and red eyes and you can take the rest of this broccoli and shove it.
I don’t need you, dude.
I have Santa.
And this is my kryptonite. Because, no matter what, I LOVE giving gifts.
I love seeing my kids happy, even if it’s the kind of nauseating, commerce-based happiness that has limited value in the long run. I love the spirit of giving, even if the little bastards don’t always deserve it, and I love the years before they realize that the whole thing is just a scam. That our entire western civilization has mastered the art of institutional lying. A lie that is so universal and effortless that almost everyone buys in. Parents, teachers, school administrators. Cops! Everyone is dirty. Everyone sullies their honor to prop up a fictitious entity who supposedly cares for all.
But enough about the Catholic church! Hi-yo! ::Rimshot::
My seven-year-old still believes in Santa. Maybe for another year or two if we’re lucky and can synchronize our lies effectively. It’s ample time, in the eyes of my teenage son, to scare the little punk straight.
“I volunteer.” Says my fourteen-year-old.
“For the Naughty List.”
There is a moment that passes between us. A silent, powerful thing that only Spartans and dead vikings in Valhalla understand. He is choosing the ultimate sacrifice.
“But-” I say.
“I don’t need anything for Christmas.” He points out. We spoiled the shit out of him in October for his birthday, buying him a bunch of things so he could make a stop-motion video. He has a great phone and a fast laptop. He’s past playing with actual toys. There is, in short, nothing else he needs.
“I can’t do you like that, hoss.” I say. Stammering a little. “I like buying you stuff.” I clutch a pillow to my chest.
“I know you do.” He says soberly. “I know you do.”
“I was thinking about getting you one of those-“
He holds up a hand to stop me.
“It doesn’t matter. You want to slip me something on the DL? If it can’t be Christmas for you without that, then fine. No one has to know. But this year it has to be nothing under the tree for me and coal in my stocking.”
“Coal. In my stocking.”
This is outrageous, I think. This is too much!
“What if it’s like some coal and then maybe a candy bar and, like, some Stranger Things action figures?”
“What would I do with those?”
“I don’t know, you could be, like, aahhhh the demogorgon! And then, like, Eleven could come in and be like…”
My son studies me. A look of pity on his face as I pantomime the fake interaction where Eleven saves the day. I am old and tired and I don’t have the strength to do what needs to be done.
“Stop.” He commands. “Just stop.”
I fold my hands back around the pillow.
“This is bigger than you or me and you know it. It’s nothing under the tree and ONLY coal in my stocking. And then I’ll pretend to have hurt feelings and I’ll go upstairs for a while.”
“What will you do upstairs?”
“I’ll watch The Orville on Hulu. I’m up to the Darulio episode and I’m laughing my ass off.”
“Don’t say ass.” I say.
He stares me down. There’s a power struggle. I know he can say ass. I know he and his friends say ass. But don’t say ass to me. Not until you’re older. He knows I love all words, especially the bad ones, but there’s a time and a place. He needs me for his plan, so he sighs.
“I’m laughing my butt-“
“Thank you.” I smile.
I regard him with a quiet disgust. He looks at me with derision and contempt. Slowly he extends his hand for me to shake.
I look at it for a moment.
And then I shake it.
“Naughty List.” He says.
“Naughty List.” I agree.
And in a blink, he’s gone, off to google words like sixty-nine and blumpkin while I prepare to purchase coal on Amazon Prime Smile, where a percentage of my purchases go back to his school, where he learns words like sixty-nine and blumpkin.
Come the 25th, there’s going to be a wrinkle in the fabric of Christmas, and a certain cocksure seven-year-old is going to have his assumptions pushed in. He’s going to see, first hand, the dark side of the jolly old elf.
And by god, next year he’s going to straighten up and fly right! He’s going to finish his broccoli and pick up his goddamn socks. Lest he suffer the same ignoble, bituminous fate.
And the practical deterrent that is The Naughty List will be saved, because Santa may indeed be a simple old fool, but lucky for him, he has one jaded, teenage elf who isn’t.
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