In many ways, attics are dumps for our scraps of memory. They are the hidden niches in which we stuff things that no longer have any real use, but at the same time hold too many memories to throw away. This warped logic is wrestled with at this time of year as you ramble to find the slowly crumbling crates of Christmas decorations and tangled fairy lights.
Entering an attic can be like tiptoeing through a minefield. If you make a mistake, long-buried memories can surface – a one-legged Barbie doll, a headless He-Man toy, an avalanche of letters from a broken Scrabble box, a discarded buckaroo mule that still has an unexpected one gets a bucking kick. For me, the dancing Santa Clause of the recent past best captures that oddly unsettling pull of love and fear that attics hold for us. For many years he was left alone in the attic at Christmas, all because his presence next to the tree would open up too many bundles of poignant memories.
Weird, really, considering we’re talking about a foot and a half tall plastic mechanical toy made in China and bought cheaply from a stall on Dublin’s Henry Street. And yet, it was this rather shabby Santa that caused so much joy and laughter from my mother, Eileen, on her last Christmas.
She was well into her 80s at the time and had come to Dublin to stay with her family and be close to the medical treatment that would help delay the inevitable outcome for a while. She sat in front of our fireplace and recounted her homecoming to Mayo, her own house, familiar sounds and smells, the cozy kitchen, her padded wicker chair next to the old Stanley stove, the neighbors who stopped by to chat, the television and her two radios.
There were times during her final months when I would sit her there, lost within herself, staring through me as if she were sifting through memories of the stacked decades of the past, and feeling deep down that she would never be in her own again House would potter, bring in armfuls of peat, see the daffodil bulbs she planted before she left burst into golden life.
So many emotions were swirling around in our hearts this Christmas that we all craved a little distraction. And from the moment my wife Mary and I saw the dancing Santa at the Henry Street stall spinning and giving him socks like a possessed thing, we thought he was the man for the job.
We knew because my mom was great at what she called frills and geegaws. She’s had her fair share of it: the cuckoo clock housing a hermit bird, wedding mugs commemorating Princess Diana and Charles, teapots shaped like alpine chalets. And let’s not forget her array of plastic flowers, which are scattered randomly around her roadside garden in winter, causing many passers-by to pause, puzzled by the unusual show of bright red tulips and vibrant daffodils.
The box that Santa Claus came in told us somewhat haughtily, “This item is an animated Christmas ornament and not a toy.” And indeed, although it was a bit tinny and grating as Santa belted out his tunes, you got the feeling that that there was a little bit of Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis buried in there somewhere. Press the red button and Santa jumps into animated action on his little plastic stage. Hips swiveled, knees bent and twisted like he was in labor The Hucklebuck.
Dancing Santa Claus was quiet under our Christmas tree when my mother arrived. She was a slightly anxious, insecure woman now, no longer the feisty matriarch who had dragged us through hard times, the woman who had survived the London Blitz of World War II and returned to run a small farm in Mayo while her husband worked on construction sites across the UK. But as soon as she looked at the beaming little Santa, a bit of that mischievous fun we loved oozed back. “Ah, look at him. What is this gag? Is he doing something?” she asked. We asked them to press the red button. Santa Claus let it rip with his exuberant performance. she loved him
A few days later she even insisted that we take him to my sister’s house. I can still vividly see my mother leaning forward in the fireside chair, whiskey and a squirt of mint in hand, looking down at the dancing Santa, a look of wonder and curiosity in her eyes and a giggling delight in hers mouth animated. After it stopped, she pressed the red button again, threw her head back and cried out girlishly with laughter.
“Do you want to see it?” she said in a voice laced with a gaiety that dissolved time and age. “Isn’t he the little devil and all.” And when he was done, she pressed the red button again and again and again.
With the help of Dancing Santa, we survived Christmas, vacillating awkwardly between farce, regret and reality. In January he went into the attic with the other decorations. A few weeks later my mother died. The following Christmas we didn’t have the heart to bring down the dancing Santa Claus. His presence alone would have unraveled too many heaps of recent memories.
We said next year, but when the time came and our kids stormed up to the attic to bring down the Christmas tree and decorations, they brought down everything except the dancing Santa Claus. Nobody said anything. That was not necessary. And so Santa Claus stayed in the attic and, as far as we know, did not dance.
Perhaps it is time for deliverance, to restore it to its rightful place in our homes and hearts. We’re ready for his garish show again, to burst out laughing at his endearing quips. Revived with new batteries, he can strut his stuff and his antics will no doubt bring to life the embers of many cherished memories of Christmases past.
https://www.independent.ie/life/dancing-santa-that-brought-joy-to-my-mothers-last-christmas-42227506.html Dancing Santa to cheer up my mother’s last Christmas