Christmas in the Kalin household was a very big deal every single year. While nominally aware that our family didn’t have a lot of money, the lack never seemed to impact the annual yuletide festivities. Mom and Dad always went overboard on gifts, food, and general cheer.
Christmas was the one time of year where we, like any number of other children around the world, dared to dream of all the things we could possibly receive. Giving wasn’t as big a priority for us children, we were as self-centered as any when it came to Christmas. For us, it was all about the presents! Oh, we would mouth the platitudes about peace, goodwill, better-to-give-than-receive, and so forth, but we didn’t really believe any of it.
Mom started baking Christmas cookies and making candy almost immediately after the Thanksgiving holiday, storing them in the freezer, hidden away from grasping hands. A real tree would be obtained from a Christmas tree lot in Brawley or El Centro, generally during the second week of December, filling the house with the strong smell of pine. Later in the week, we all trimmed the tree with the same decorations we had packed away after the end of the previous year. There was something comforting about seeing the same decorations every year – they felt like old friends.
Like most children in the United States, the whole process was enough to whip us into a covetous frenzy. Mom had to deploy the age-old caution “Santa will know whether you’ve been good or bad!” often in order to maintain some semblance of order. We really would try to behave, given the tangible evidence of impending gifts in full sight every day. That verbal reminder didn’t really do much to motivate in mid-summer when we had months of waiting in front of us, and the decorative accoutrements of the holidays were not yet on display. After all, there was always time to get the record repaired. If I had to guess, I expect that most children’s best behavior occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.
Not only did we kids have to be extra good, we also had to spend time reflecting on why there was a Christmas holiday in the first place. In a Christian fundamentalist home, this meant hours of additional Bible study, extra sessions in church, proper responses to questions or platitudes, and an overall demeanor that suggested rapture when contemplating the holiday commemorating Christ’s birth. It meant wearing festive attire in which we normally would not be caught dead. All of those things were part of how we children paid for our Christmas gifts. By the time we had gotten to the big event, opening presents, we generally felt that we had more than earned them. Or at least, that is the way I saw it.
No matter how good your Christmas haul was, as children you always thought you had been shortchanged in some way. Maybe one item from your list didn’t make it; maybe the ratio of wardrobe-replacement to play-gifts was too high that year; maybe you thought Santa knew the one thing you really wanted and just chose not to bring it. Note that this describes our thinking when we all believed in Santa Claus. It wasn’t Mom or Dad’s fault that we didn’t get the presents we wanted most – it was Santa’s!
We paid a lot of attention to what would please Santa. Every year, on Christmas Eve, we would gather after dinner and await his arrival. Of course, Santa wouldn’t come if the children remained to witness so we were always relegated to a bedroom with an adult minder. We would hear jingling bells and “Ho, ho, ho!” approaching from outside of the house. In our Niland home, we didn’t have a fireplace or chimney so Santa had to make some compromises in order to deliver our gifts. This resulted in a slightly unorthodox routine. Every year upon arrival, he would go around the outside of the house at least twice, banging the walls with his fist, shouting “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!”, while jingling his bells. Then he would come in through the kitchen door, leave our gifts by the tree (taking time that seemed like an eternity to us children), and exit by the same door with more shouts of Christmas cheer.
Santa did this every year. His path around the house was the same every year, and we felt we could depend on it happening every year. So much so that I formed a plan for the next year; a plan to ensure that yours truly got the Christmas haul of a lifetime! I was going to trap Santa Claus and only let him go once he had agreed to my demands. Next year, it was me making a list. A list of all of the swag that the unsuspecting Santa would have to impart. As I think back on it, I probably conflated the concepts of elf (which Santa was) and leprechaun to arrive at such a plan. But what does one expect from 3rd grade elementary school thinking? My only defense is that I was blinded by Christmas avarice, and a flimsy defense it remains.
How could Santa be captured?
Simple: a deep hole with a camouflaged cover should do the trick nicely. The hole had to be deep enough to prevent his escape and, since Santa was an adult, it had to be at least six feet deep. Dad was six feet tall and I was certain Santa was shorter than that. Santa’s being fat would also work against an escape, but there was no sense in taking chances with something as important as this.
The next step of the project was determining where Santa could be captured. I finally decided that the very best place would be immediately after the back corner of the house – the dark side of the house. At night, the outside lights were on the opposite side of the home, leaving the whole back side in complete darkness. We kids had used that fact for years in playing hide-and-seek with our cousins. If it wasn’t a moonlit night it was impossible to see where you were going. Putting the hole just after the corner precluded any chance of seeing it in advance. The location was also next to the room where we normally waited for Santa to finish leaving presents. It was the perfect plan!
The second step required obtaining permission from the ruling monarch of our household: Dad. It was very important to pick exactly the right time to pose the request, as well as frame it in the proper fashion. The very best timing to put my request forward would be once Dad had eaten dinner and sat relaxing. After a long day of mostly physical work, Dad tended to eat a huge meal at dinner and sit with distended stomach overlooking splayed legs in his chair, while digestion had its way with him for an hour or so. Dad was generally in his best mood after such a satisfying meal.
Dad’s normal answer to most requests was “No” and explaining why wasn’t one of his strong suits. For a positive response, it was very important to catch him at his most vulnerable moment. He seldom changed his mind on a ruling. If he said “No”, he wasn’t going to revisit that decision. If you had the temerity to ask a second time, you were really asking for a spanking. You had one shot with a request. You stood a better chance, too, if Dad didn’t have to do anything other than give his approval. Therefore, a request had to be both simple and harmless in order to have the best chance for success.
Asking Dad if I could trap Santa Claus was probably not the best approach, since parents and Santa share a desire for well-behaved children. Dad might even tip Santa off, after all, as a professional courtesy. If you had to answer questions a request was generally doomed. I eventually arrived at a request that covered the main point while leaving the objectives murky at best.
I approached the throne cautiously, looking for any indication that the timing wasn’t absolutely perfect.
“Dad?” I piped in a small, unassuming boy voice. This too was important; being wheedling or whiny could doom the enterprise. Setting the right respectful tone improved your chances.
His eyes slowly turned to me and, luckily for me, did not seem put-off by my approach.
“What do you want, Danny?” he asked.
You had to get right to the point with Dad.
“Could we dig a big hole to play in, in the yard?”
I could see him thinking that over, I waited a few more seconds and followed up.
“We’ll fill it back in when we’re done, clean the tools, and put them away.”
He thought some more about it, probably wondering why I had asked. We dug small holes all the time, and the key rule was the cleaning and replacing of tools when done. He probably also asked himself how big a hole can a 3rd-grader dig?
“Okay, Danny, as long as you clean up when you’re done.”
Success! The permitting process was now complete. I tendered my thanks and made myself scarce. While Dad wouldn’t revisit a “No” decision, he had no reluctance whatsoever to reconsider a “Yes”. Keeping a low profile immediately thereafter was only prudent.
I was thus free to start the execution phase of the project. While I had no doubt I could dig the hole I needed, it occurred to me that having help would be a good thing. This project cried out for cousin-labor, I thought to myself. As fate would have it, Theresa and Kathy were scheduled to visit in a few weeks for the Thanksgiving holiday. As mentioned elsewhere, they weren’t very large, but every bit they contributed would be less for me. Of course, Jeanne and Rex would be pulled in as well, but they would still be there after the cousins had departed. No, I had to come up with a story that would make them want to help. I couldn’t tell them about the ultimate objective, as I suspected that my demands alone could deplete Santa’s capacity for gifts. So something else was needed.
In the meantime, I started the hole next to the house, wanting to be ensure that it was set astride Santa’s predicted route. Our house was wood frame suspended over a crawl space by cement and wood footers. In most houses, the crawl space would be blocked off by a screen or trellis so that animals and kids couldn’t spend any time there. Our crawl space was free to access from any direction, which we children used to our advantage during hide-and-seek games. We were deadly serious about playing hide-and-seek, and most cousins wouldn’t think of hiding (or seeking) within the crawl space.
The hole itself was to be next to the corner footer of the house, so I tied a rope to the footer anticipating a need to later be able to climb out of my six-foot deep hole. I started the hole to be about six feet across, but quickly realized that it needed to be even wider. It couldn’t be too wide, though, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to disguise the trap with boards and a tarp. It was also tricky at first to learn how to keep the walls vertical, as the sandy top layer of soil tended to collapse.
There was a consequential problem of what to do with the extra dirt. I hadn’t thought about that previously, but decided it needed to be put on the far side of the hole, away from Santa’s incoming path. I started to dig and a six-foot mountain of dirt started to take shape next to the hole. Rex eventually solved the problem of what to do with the excess dirt by sculpting a mountain he could use to make roads for his miniature car collection. He soon had things well in hand, even making a game when the next load of dirt made new construction necessary.
I soon had the hole ready for Kathy and Theresa’s visit; it was about a foot and a half deep. When they arrived late in the day, I didn’t bring up the hole. There would be plenty of time for that the next day when we were all looking for something to do. The next morning, after breakfast, we were all banished from the house and toured the yard. Rex wanted to show the girls his car mountain, so we all followed him back.
“What’s that?” Theresa asked pointing at the hole.
“That’s mine, I need to dig a really deep hole. Rex gets the extra dirt.” I said.
“Why do you need a hole, what will you use it for?” she persisted.
Acting as if I had a secret, I looked right and left before speaking, “Because I want to win the blue ribbon!”
“What blue ribbon?”
“The blue ribbon they give anyone who has dug a hole all the way to China!”
I could tell that she was hooked. Everyone likes to win a blue ribbon, and in those days not everyone could get one. Blue ribbon meant winner; everyone knew that.
“They give blue ribbons to everyone who digs or just the first one through?”
Definitely hooked! “I’m pretty sure they are given to everyone who helps. Rex and Jeanne are going to get one, I’m certain. They are part of the team.”
“Kathy and I will help, won’t we Kathy?” Kathy nodded assent.
“It’s pretty hard work but, if you really want to, that would be great!”
While I supervised, Kathy, Theresa, and Jeanne got down into the hole, ready to start work. Since none of the girls could really handle the shovel all that well, I tied a rope to a bucket and had them put dirt in the bucket after which I would lift it out and dump it on the far side of Rex’s mountain.
Like most childhood endeavors, there was an initial rush of enthusiasm where distinct progress was made, followed by a slow decay of speed and motivation. Whenever things started to slow down, I would holler “Look, over there, I think I see a blue ribbon. Dig there!” That would pick things up for a while, but as fatigue set in less and less was getting done.
I called a halt eventually, telling them all that we had a bigger job than I thought. When I eventually broke through to China, though, I would be sure to tell them about Kathy and Theresa’s help in order to get their blue ribbons. Theresa is still miffed to this day, that I “fooled” her into doing all that work. She swears that I believed the blue ribbon story as well. However, it wasn’t me that was working the hardest, and I think she forgot about that. How hard is supervising? Besides, I had quite another goal in mind for that hole.
Cousin-labor had gotten the hole between three and four feet deep, the rest was up to me. In the next few weeks, I dug the hole to where it was substantially over my head and I needed to climb the rope to get out of it. Finally, the floor of the hole became muddy because it was approaching the water table and I decided the depth was as good as it was going to be.
The finishing touch involved placing boards across the hole with a canvas tarp spread over the surface. I sprinkled a little dirt over the canvas so it would be hard to see even in the daytime. The resulting pit-trap was a thing of beauty! I had certainly read enough stories of trapping wild beasts in the jungles of Africa to provide the working design. I noticed that it also made a pretty good bunker too, once the dirt was on top. I’d have to remember that for future playing reference.
Now Dad could have put the brakes on the whole affair at any time just by noticing the hole. Mom as well. It is a certainty that we kids talked about the hole in the run-up to the Christmas holiday, Rex in particular was rightly proud of his mountain. But neither parent noticed or recognized any significance in our activities at the time.
By Christmas Eve, my excitement was running at a fever pitch in anticipation of receiving more presents than ever before! Things were progressing like they always did: a nice meal, Christmas sweets, and the obligatory Jesus Christmas story told by Mom. Even in a normal year, we children had trouble sitting still due to the anticipation of opening the presents. In our home, we opened the presents on Christmas Eve which freed up Christmas day for playing with our new toys. Later as a parent, I continued that tradition because it made for a less hectic Christmas morning.
We three children lived for the announcement that we had to go into the bedroom, so that Santa Claus could come. Banished finally to the bedroom, we heard every external bump, creak, and laugh as we sat listening for Santa to begin his route around the house.
I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Mustache-twirling was definitely in order except for the fact I didn’t have one.
“Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!” a deep voice shouted.
Bang, bang, bang the walls vibrated as Santa headed around the house hitting it with his fist.
Santa always started his route around the outside of the house next to a pair of large cottonwood trees. The first turn after that led directly into my trap.
He turned the corner in the midst of a “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!”
I heard a crash and my initial elation turned to fear when I heard Dad’s voice, using language that wasn’t heard unless he was very, very, angry. The cursing worked its way around the rest of the house to the back door, which banged open. There was a few seconds of excited conversation in the next room then he burst into the bedroom where we were waiting.
His face florid with anger, he really didn’t have to do any fact-finding in this case. He just pointed a finger at me and said, “Come with me, now!” I was doomed. I knew it. I slowly followed him as he limped into his bedroom. The whipping that followed must have been one for the record books! I don’t know because I can’t remember it. I remember following him in, and later having trouble sitting down, but nothing of the whipping itself.
In all, we were very lucky that Dad didn’t seriously injure himself. He only had a slight ankle sprain. If he had broken a leg, it could have proved economically disastrous being unable to work, due to the poor health coverage from his job.
Christmas wasn’t ruined, however. Neither Mom nor Dad wanted that to happen. So after both Dad and I had licked our wounds, we got on with the more important business of opening presents and eating Christmas goodies.
To this day, I have a residual indignation about receiving that spanking, a feeling of suffered injustice. After all, we were blatantly lied to about Santa Claus! That simple lie started the whole ball rolling, in the mind of an admittedly avaricious child. Furthermore, I did humbly ask permission from the highest household authority prior to seeking my white whale. Life just wasn’t fair sometimes.
I was about the right age to learn about the fiction of Santa Claus, but Jeanne and Rex should have had a few more years of blissful ignorance. We all learned about Santa that night, one of us the hard way.