robertisenberg

Yes, China, There Is a Santa Claus

In Uncategorized on December 14, 2009 at 2:58 pm

As foreign exchange students go, Ping was perfect: She giggled all the time, she loved “Seinfeld,” and she could make a mean dim sum. She was also a student from Beijing pursuing a graduate degree in education. My parents had waited patiently for my brother and I to leave the house, and when Ping showed up, all the years of waiting for an exchange student proved worthwhile.

Each Christmas, I visit my parents’ house in Vermont. No holiday is more pastoral: Our stockings were hand-knit by my Mom, and my Dad always makes pancakes with homemade maple syrup. When Dad designed and built our house, he installed a wood fireplace – our single, primitive heating system – so it was easy to imagine, late into my childhood, that a literal Santa Claus visited each year.

But it was hard to explain this to Ping. “So there’s this old, bearded man who lives in the North Pole,” I’d begin.

“North Pole?” she echoed, her eyes widening.

“Exactly. He lives up there with lots of elves.”

“Elves?”

“Yes. And they help him build toys for all the children in the world. And then he gets in a sleigh, which is pulled by reindeer. Except that this sleigh can fly.”

“Rain… deer?”

Ping looked skeptical – not because she believed that a heavyset men in a red suit could squeeze down our narrow chimney, but because her hosts might very well be insane. In her secular, urban, Communist background, we probably looked like folksy peasants duped by Capitalism’s running dogs. A factory operated by indentured workers in the Arctic Circle? Elves who toil all year and never see the fruits of their labor? Where was this Santa Claus from? Taiwan?

Years after my parents laid out gifts, ate our cookies, and composed letters on a typewriter with red ink (they pulled out all the stops), we switched places: Now I’m the one who fills the stockings while they sleep, and my brother drinks spiked cider and watches “The Late Show,” never peering into the living room where the tree is stationed. It’s a silent agreement, among us all, that Christmas morning means magically stuffed stockings and eggnog. I don’t mind playing St. Nicolas and my brother doesn’t mind passing out in the den, as long as the illusion is halfheartedly preserved.

But now we had Ping to deal with – curious, doubtful Ping, who had been eating cookies all day and would’ve needed a horse sedative to sleep. While we were all in on the joke, somehow it would ruin that trace of magic to have Ping sitting in the living room, munching on a springerle and watching me blandly stack gifts.

When Ping tried to creep down the stairs, scoping around each corner like a cartoon spy, I made a sweeping motion with my hands and said, “No, no, no!” I’d never felt more childish – shooing a girl away from my holiday fantasy because she might taint the delusion. My brother kept smirking and shaking his head as he flipped through the channels, as if to say, Come on, Dude, give it a rest.

But when we woke the next morning, the gifts fully arranged and gleaming in the sun, Ping never mentioned her attempt to foil our plans. It was her first Christmas, and as she unwrapped books and CD’s, calendars and more obscure tokens of friendship, she seemed satisfied that a man in a red suit had broken into our house the previous evening. I can’t imagine how she tells this story, years later, to friends in Beijing, but I’ve always hoped that she’s kept the secret intact. People will look at her funny. But people will do that. They just don’t understand.

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  1. I just discovered that we saved your website on my computer while you were here. I just finished reading this to Mom and we both got a chuckle out of it. While there are some minor factual errors, it is very sweet.

  2. Thanks for helping me find some Christmas spirit this year, Robert! More so than Ping, the thought of you playing “Santa” for your parents is adorable.

    Happy Holidays!

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