Barbarella
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There are three stages of man: he believes in Santa Claus; he does not believe in Santa Claus; he is Santa Claus.

-- Bob Phillips

I heard the faint tinkling of bells and urged my sisters to be silent. I scanned the over-crowded Brooklyn apartment for my mother. When my eyes finally settled upon her face and registered her omniscient gaze, I knew my ears hadn't failed me: Santa's sleigh had just landed on the roof of our building! A series of steps that could only be reindeers' hooves thudded on the ceiling and then the bells jingled louder and louder until the front door to the apartment flew open and the jolly man in red tumbled inside, bringing with him a huge red velvet sack and a gust of frosty air. I stood before him, seven years old and starstruck, until he handed me a present from his sack while chanting his famous trio of "ho"s. I stepped aside to allow my cousins access to the big guy and his bag of gifts wrapped in red and green paper; I was too distracted by my joy to note the peculiar absence of my uncle. Of all the holidays, Christmas boasts the most mascots -- Rudolph, elves, Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, Baby Jesus, and His mom. But of all the mascots associated with this most celebrated and renowned holiday (second only to Super Bowl Sunday), Santa Claus is the undisputed HMIC (head mascot in charge).

For children, Santa is magic. The fact that he could squeeze his giant body down the narrow shaft of a chimney, or outwit the locks and alarm system when we lived in a house without a chimney, was impressive enough. But his real enchantment stemmed from his power to grant wishes. I prayed to Jesus and nothing happened. But when I asked Santa to give me something, there it was. No matter how late I stayed up, my adrenaline pumping with anticipation, on Christmas morning my stocking was always full, and I could barely see the tree for all the presents stacked around it.

I can't remember exactly when I realized Mom was the real Santa. I resisted this knowledge because the magic of the lie was much more appealing than the truth -- a reality that forced me to consider how hard Mom worked to pull off the grand illusion. With Dad's help, cookies were eaten, dollhouses, desks, and bicycles were assembled, and stockings were stuffed. Even after it was obvious we were starting to catch on, Mom continued to insist on Santa's existence; when we were in high school, she'd still wait until after we'd fallen asleep to pepper the base of the tree with additional gifts attributed to the mythical man.

Now two of my sisters have children of their own, for whom Santa dutifully delivers the goods. As I've watched my sisters cultivate the mythos of Santa in their children's fertile minds, I have learned to enjoy this holiday on another level. Santa is magic for adults, too. The little ones' unfaltering belief in the veracity of whatever their parents tell them infuses the magic with real world power -- power that can be used for both good and evil.

For my sister Jane, the idea of Santa has become both a way to amuse herself and her husband, Simon, and a tool to discipline her daughter, Bella. When told of Santa's impending visit to Bella's preschool, Jane and Simon thought "it would be fun" to train their daughter to say something clever. In the days leading up to Bella's one-on-one, Jane and Simon repeated the command, "When Santa asks you what you want, Bella Boo, you say, 'world peace.' Okay? What do you say?" "World peace." The agreeable three-year-old nodded and repeated the phrase to her pleased and smiling parents.

On the big day, Bella's preschool teacher stood by with a note pad, ready to record the secret desires of her students for their curious parents. Once Bella was seated on the big man's lap, she stared up into his white beard and confided, "I don't want world peace, Santa Claus. I want a Chia Pet." When Bella's teacher relayed the news, it was the first Jane had heard of her daughter's desire for the little clay weed-maker. She had already acquired the pink bicycle she thought was at the top of Bella's wish-list and now found herself rushing from Wal-Mart to Target to Kmart, until she "finally found the freakin' thing at Rite-Aid."

As a child, I never doubted my mother's claim to have a hotline to the North Pole. Still, no matter how naughty I was, Santa never withheld the goods. It takes kids a while to catch on to Santa's kryptonite -- his desire to dazzle and delight "his" children, no matter how bratty they behave. Until then, however, the threat of coal can be an effective tool for manipulation, one that parents wield like world leaders browbeating smaller nations into submission with the threat of a big bomb. Now that I am grown, I have the pleasure of watching my sisters wield the same wand to keep their kids in line.

On Christmas day, as is our tradition, we all gathered around the decked-out conifer in Mom's living room. This year's tree was barely 8 feet tall (it has been shrinking steadily from its record height of 13 feet), but no one seemed to mind, and gifts were joyfully exchanged.

Bella, who received the gift she'd requested from Santa earlier that morning at her own house, sang, "Cha-cha-cha chia " over and over. When she began taunting her cousins -- my nephews Liam and Brian -- by singing loudly in their faces, Simon invoked the wrath of Santa. But Bella, who had already received everything she wanted this year, was not fazed. Because next Christmas is now an eternity away (in kid years), the threat of coal has lost its punch.

"Every time Bella's been acting up, I'd pick up the phone and say, 'Get me Santa!' and she would stop misbehaving and beg me to hang up," said Jane. "We've been calling Santa all damn week." Jane realized things had gone from ridiculous to absurd when, two days before Christmas, she happened upon Simon, who was standing over a guilty-looking Bella and holding up his right hand with the first two fingers intertwined, declaring through clenched teeth, "Me and Santa are like THIS! "

Now, surrounded by presents, Bella reluctantly obeyed, finally bringing her taunting to an end when a time-out was called. The magic of the morning -- of seeing the glass of milk empty and cookies with bites taken out of them, of waking up to find her Chia Pet beside a shiny pink tricycle -- was already forgotten. Santa had come and gone.

"How do you expect to keep her cooperative now?" I asked Jane.

"Easy," my sister answered with a mischievous smile. "Tomorrow we're telling her we have the Easter Bunny on speed dial."

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