My kids’ gingerbread house, complete with yellow crime scene tape and a decapitated Rudolph

This is a Christmas story of Santa gifts and the unintended consequences of trying to outsmart your parents.

When I was five, Christmas was this magical time of sweets and snow forts and trying to outsmart our parents. I was the chief lookout and best distraction for my brothers’ nefarious schemes. Plus, I really liked being in on the action.

“She’s asleep,” I whispered, loud enough to wake most narcoleptics. But not at a volume that would wake my mother from one of her “I never take naps” on the couch.

I snuck behind my brother to the closet in my parents’ darkened bedroom. He reached grubby, little fingers into the pocket of the coat closest to the front of the closet and pulled out a shiny, glass doorknob with all the flourish of a magician.

Think about the time it took for my mom to not only sneak our “Santa” gifts into the unfinished attic. And then to remove the doorknob from the attic door and hide that in a coat pocket in her bedroom. You have to understand that my mother was no run-of-the-mill, simpleton parent. The woman was devious. She had a pedigree in outsmarting people.

Imagine being raised by Lucy Ricardo. That was my childhood, minus the famous people and bongos.

“Come on,” my other brother said. And I followed the boys up the stairs to the attic door.

My oldest brother inserted the doorknob into its rightful place and with the twist of a wrist, and a wobbly bit of maneuvering, the door opened.

Dust particles danced like fairy glitter in the sunlight of the attic window. And there, in the middle of bare floorboards and discarded furniture, sat bags overflowing with brand new, still boxed toys. Toys!

As well thought out as our plans had been up to this point, we abandoned all sense and logic at the sight of all that great stuff. There was no careful unwrapping. We tore in with gusto and spent what seemed like hours enjoying a veritable bevy of Christmas excess.

I found the doll of all dolls – Wonder Woman, complete with her lariat of truth. The lariat was quickly lost in a crack in the floorboards. But I didn’t care. Any piece of twine could be used to force my stuffed animals to reveal their diabolical plans. Mwahahahaha!

A quick start of noise from downstairs and we all froze with arms akimbo in paralyzed play. Our eyes darted around the room and met each others’ gaze with an understood look of warning. Without a word, we maneuvered back to the center scene of destruction and haphazardly restored our prizes to their boxes and bags. Then we crawled, single file out of the room to avoid noisy footsteps being heard below.

I ran straight into the kitchen, doing a little dance in front of my mother.

“Mom, mom, mom?” I sang, hopping on one foot and then the other and turning my body so that she’d have her back facing the door to the kitchen. “When can we go see Santa? Is Santa at the mall? Can we go see him today?”

I didn’t really care about seeing Santa. I already saw the toys my parents would wrap under the tree. If Santa was real, I was pretty sure he’d be leaving us coal – or the kid equivalent of socks and underwear.

But I kept dancing in front of her until I caught a glimpse of my brother darting back out of my parents’ bedroom – a signal that the doorknob was back in her jacket and we were in the clear.

The rest of the week leading up to Christmas dragged so slowly, you’d think three years had passed. Every day, I walked past our tree as more packages appeared, carefully wrapped, on the heap. Every day, my eyes floated to one package, just the right size and shape to be my Wonder Woman.

I told my stuffed animals she was coming. My frog, the trouble maker of the group, quivered in fear – probably realizing his plot to rob my piggy bank would most definitely be foiled.

Finally, finally, Christmas Eve wound down to the point in the evening where my mother let us unwrap the gifts under the tree.

We dove into the heap, throwing gifts at each other to speed in the destruction of wrapping paper and attain our coveted presents. My Wonder Woman was within my grasp. I tore through the Strawberry Shortcake wrapping paper and let out a squeal of delight…that ended abruptly.

What’s this? This isn’t Wonder Woman.

The box contained a Cher doll – much taller than Wonder Woman and with flat feet. She had no lariat of truth or cool American flag superhero garb. Instead, she had long, fringy eyelashes that caught her black hair every time you moved her. And she was wearing some cheesy evening gown.

I unwrapped another, and another. None of the toys I remembered from the attic were there. Not one. And there was no Wonder Woman to be found.

I stared hard at my brother until he finally met my gaze.

“What happened?” I hissed, “Do you think it was Santa?”

“No way,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “We’d have gotten coal. It must’ve been mom.”

Twenty Years Later

Christmas as an adult doesn’t have any of the joyful snow fort silliness. The anticipation of presents is replaced by favorite foods and the fun of sitting around gorging yourselves and joking over drinks.

We sat around my mom’s kitchen table after the plates were cleared, telling the usual family stories. I mentioned buying a pair of boots at a local store.

“I love that store,” my mom said, “Do you know, when you guys were little I used to buy all of your Christmas gifts from there? One year, I pulled the bags out to start wrapping your presents and realized that all of the gifts were damaged and broken. I took them back to the store and they gave me a full refund. I had to buy all new toys right before Christmas.”

“THAT’S what happened!” I shouted, pointing a finger at my mom.

“What do you mean, THAT’S what happened?” She asked, obviously confused.

“We found the toys and played with them before Christmas. Then when we opened our gifts, they were all different toys. We thought you outsmarted us.”

“No! What the hell is wrong with you? I went in there and demanded a full refund!” She yelled.

Her eyes got wide as a thought occurred to her and she gasped.

“Oh my God, I robbed them. You made me rob a store,” she said, shaking her head.

“We didn’t make you do anything. We wanted the toys we already played with. Besides, you can’t get mad over something we did almost 20 years ago.” I giggled.

“You’re all rotten. If I knew you did that, I’d have given you coal!” She said, throwing her dishrag at me.

“I got a Cher doll instead of Wonder Woman. Close enough.”

Outsmarting Santa – A Christmas Story

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