Santa survived another year. I don’t mean “Santa” in the fairy tale sense, or “Santa” in the metaphorical sense, or “Santa” in the nostalgic sense. I mean the fragile construction paper ornament that has hung on a Diebel family Christmas tree for each of the past 50 years. More, I hope, since I would like to believe that the crudely simple little work of childhood fabrication is the product of a very young Tim Diebel. But give it its due: what it lacks in fine artistry it more than makes up for in longevity. Every Advent that we have had it since my parents passed it into our keeping from theirs I have feared for its survival. The paper is increasingly brittle and the folds frightfully thin. Unwilling to risk the tugs of a wire ornament hanger I routinely nestle it in amongst the branches of the tree, crossing my fingers that nothing will dislodge it and send it to its dismemberment.
But here we were on January 8 stowing the precious decorations and dismantling the tree – late, I know, for most households but a precious indulgence in ours – and Paper Santa was the last to be removed. I had worked around it. First came off the glass stars, and then the miscellaneous treasures from travels and friends and family remembrances. The balls were next and then the topping bow.
Everything, one by one, until nothing remained but Santa. I haven’t fully found explanation for my reticence. I am a sentimental fool, and that’s almost certainly part of the reason. Memories of Christmas trees past and the family times around them are powerful forces, and I willingly submit to their embrace. So yes, sentimentality is part of it – but only part.
I’m getting older, too – now months into my 61st year – and touching something of my childhood affords a kind of steadying existential crutch amidst the dizzying awareness of the passage of time. I still can’t believe I have already attended my 40th high school reunion since it feels, for all the world, like that senior year was months rather than decades ago. I rarely see those old classmates and know practically nothing of their present lives, and yet I still think of them as close and best friends. Some of them were around, I suspect, when Paper Santa was getting colored, cut and folded, and there is something grounding about fingering the cotton puffs and the crayon lines.
It could likewise be that with the birth of a new grandson I am anticipating a whole new generation of Paper Santas to come – this ancient one as something of an anticipatory foretaste of the feast to come. I hope so – and look forward to making room on future trees.
Future, then, as well as past; an ancient self visiting a much older one; memory as well as promise; grounding as well as fancy; childhood naiveté confronting and challenging the cynicism of age.
I don’t know completely. All I know is that it was the last to leave its bristly perch and the longest to remain in my hands; held, cherished – not so much as a talisman with magic powers for whatever lies ahead, but more as a touchstone, a blessing of sorts, from all that lies behind that has prepared this self for whatever might yet be.
Goodnight, then, Santa.
Until next year.