Jefferson Baugh despised Christmas. He hated the incessant month-long cacophony of pop-music-infused holiday carols that began the day after Thanksgiving and droned on through New Years. He loathed holiday sales and the annual cycle of rampant commercialism. He scoffed at animated Christmas shows featuring doe-eyed children who found their way home because they believed. And at fifteen years of age, gifts “from Santa” disgusted him. Christmas was phony, hypocritical, insincere, and absurd.
Jefferson ignored the half-dozen student presentations that preceded his own, thinking of them as so many stepping-stones on the path toward winter break—a respite from teachers, classrooms, homework, and morons wearing elf hats and reindeer antler hairbands that could not come too soon. A final “Feliz Navidad” slide ended Maria Perez's agonizing presentation on Puerto Rican Holiday Traditions. The sprinkle of polite classroom applause faded. Miss Hamilton took a deep breath followed by an unintentionally audible sigh. “Mr. Baugh, what do you have to show us today?”
Jefferson approached the front of the class—not so slowly that he could be accused of stalling, but just slowly enough to inspire a note of tension in the room. His disheveled hair, carelessly tucked-in shirt, and the hole in the thigh of his well-worn jeans suggested that despite his many hours of research, Jefferson was not prepared to deliver his presentation.
But he was prepared—prepared to meet Christmas head-on. Miss Hamilton's “holiday presentation” assignment offered the perfect opportunity to state his case against hollow traditions and “un-Christian practices”—not that he was at all religious—but Jefferson had armed himself with facts—inarguable, incontestable, undeniable facts. What self-respecting person would dare contradict conclusions derived from truth? Jefferson was confident of victory over the dark forces of ignorance.
He fumbled in his pocket for his thumb drive and plugged it awkwardly into the computer at the front of the classroom, double-clicked, and waited for his presentation to launch. His title slide, “The Truth About Christmas” shone in stark, white, sans-serif type against an uninspiring gray-to-black gradient background.
“What the hell does a dimwit like you know about Christmas?” heckled Greg Highland from the second-to-last row.
“Maybe Santa will bring you a brain this year,” added Bill Hagstrom.
Jefferson smiled. “Don't worry. I used short words and big text. I'll try to speak slowly so…”
“That's enough” interrupted Miss Hamilton, peering over her glasses. Mr. Baugh, please proceed.”
Jefferson inhaled and began. “The Truth About Christmas,” he recited, ignoring the fact that everyone already knew full well what his presentation was about. He waited another awkward moment before continuing.
“Today, I'd like to reveal the true origins of three popular Christmas stories and traditions—Christmas trees, mistletoe, and the origin of Santa Claus.”
“How can the origin of Santa Claus be the origin of something else,” interrupted Jeanne Sharpington, but Miss Hamilton arrested her with a stare and nodded to Jefferson to disengage and proceed.
An image of a logging camp faded onto the screen.
“Christmas Trees,” he stated, repeating the caption.
“According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 25–30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the United States every year. It can take as many as 15 years to grow a tree of typical height (6–7 feet), but the average growing time is 7 years.
He clicked to a slide with a big green question mark on it that followed the word “Responsible.” “Is it environmentally responsible to cut down 30 million trees every year?
Leaving that question unanswered, Jefferson clicked again to reveal another question rendered in white text against the dark background. “But most important…,” he prompted the class, “What do Christmas Trees have to do with Christmas?
A photo of The Holy Bible appeared.
Jefferson cleared his throat. “The Prophet Jeremiah condemned the ancient Middle Eastern practice of cutting down trees, bringing them home, and decorating them as Pagan.
“Of course, those weren't really Christmas trees, because Jesus wasn't born until centuries later, but in Jeremiah's time, the ‘heathen' would cut down trees, carve or decorate them in the form of gods or goddesses, and overlay them with precious metals.
A scanned image of an open Bible followed. Jefferson quoted scripture, stretching his arms out and forward as if to deliver his congregation from unholy sin.
“Jeremiah 10:2-4: Thus sayeth the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.”
Bob Parks in the second row stood up. “You're gonna burn in hell, you …”
“Mr. Parks,” interjected Miss Hamilton. “If you….”
“What's your problem, Parks?” Jefferson protested. “It's not like I changed what it says in the Bible. If you don't like that Christmas trees are for heathens, go see your shrink … or your parole officer … or go hassle a priest about it.”
“Stop!” shouted the teacher. “Jefferson, please go on.”
“It wasn't until 1851 that Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio decorated the first Christmas tree in an American church. His parishioners condemned it as a Pagan practice. Some even threatened him with violence.”
The next slide displayed a clip-art glowing light bulb with the word “Conclusions” beneath it. Jefferson revealed his bullet points one at a time.
- Christmas trees disregard life and waste precious resources.
- Christmas trees started as a form of Pagan worship.
- Christmas trees are condemned by the Bible as “heathen.”
- The tradition of decorating Christmas trees in the US is historically recent.
- Despite their popularity, Christmas trees have nothing to do with Christmas.
Miss Hamilton nestled her chin into her elbow-supported hands and closed her eyes.
A cheerful illustration of a smiling young man and woman about to kiss in a doorway beneath a sprig of mistletoe slid onto the screen. “Mistletoe,” recited Jefferson. “What does mistletoe have to do with Christmas?”
“The story of mistletoe comes from Norse mythology.” A comic book Thor character dropped onto the screen.
“Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and mother of Baldur, god of the summer sun. Baldur had a dream of death that alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life would perish. Frigga went to the elements—air, fire, water, and earth—and to every animal and plant asking them to promise that no harm would come to Baldur. All agreed.
“But Loki, god of evil, knew of one plant Frigga had overlooked. Loki made an arrow tip out of mistletoe and shot Baldur dead.
“The elements tried to bring Baldur back to life. Frigga finally revived him. Her tears turned into the white berries on the mistletoe plant, and in her joy, Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which the mistletoe grew. She decreed that no harm should befall anyone standing under the mistletoe. Instead, a kiss should be given as token of love.”
Jefferson paused to take in the annoyed faces of his classmates, and relish his audience's captivity before proceeding.
Jefferson's “giant question mark” motif returned. “What does mistletoe have to do with Christmas?” he asked his classmates.
“Ain't nobody gonna kiss a dumb-ass like you without some sorta excuse,” offered Bob Parks.
Jefferson rolled his eyes and smirked as Miss Hamilton motioned sideways toward the door with her thumb. Parks marched himself self-righteously out of the room.
- Mistletoe has its origins in Norse mythology.
- Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that's propagated through bird poop.
- Mistletoe has no connection whatsoever to biblical Christianity.
“Jefferson, exactly what is your point?” queried Miss Hamilton.
“I have one more topic. If you'll let me finish, I'll get to the conclusion when I…”
“Okay … okay, continue,” urged the teacher. Despite her wish to move on, Miss Hamilton recognized that Jefferson Baugh had—uncharacteristically—done his research, designed his slides (even if they weren't very good), and arrived on time to deliver his assignment.
A jolly, red-faced Saint Nick appeared on-screen. “Santa Claus,” Jefferson began, “is perhaps the most interesting Christmas story of all.”
“Poor Santa,” sighed Haley Martin.
“Legend has it that Santa and his outfit were designed by Coca Cola. He made his first appearance in early-20th century ads, and this defined the way he looks today.
“But Santa's origins go back farther than that.” Jefferson paused for dramatic effect.
“Santa's red robe and his bag of goodies, his sleigh, his flying reindeer, and his coming down the chimney all began with the ancestral traditions of the Kamchadale and Koryak indigenous peoples of Siberia.” Jefferson eviscerated the pronunciations of the names of the tribes, but Miss Hamilton thought better of mentioning it.
“At least there's some truth to this story,” Jefferson intoned. “Santa really does come from the North Pole!” Jefferson looked at his classmates and smiled, mischievously hoping they'd find some solace in his last revelation before he dropped the boom.
“Have you seen the traditional red and white mushrooms in fairytale illustrations—toadstools? Muscaria mushrooms lie at the heart of the Santa story. These mushrooms are poisonous, but when dried out, they're not dangerous.”
Jefferson clicked over to a Norman Rockwell painting of Christmas stockings hanging over a fireplace. “The tribal shaman” would dry the mushrooms out by hanging them in a sock over the fire. That's where the tradition of Christmas stockings began.”
The next slide featured flying reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh across a full-moon sky.
“Reindeer love to eat muscaria mushrooms. The Arctic people observed that when reindeer consumed these mushrooms, they'd leap high into the air and prance around. This is why Santa's sleigh is pulled by flying reindeer in today's version of the story … and obviously, the mushrooms had some unusual effect on the reindeer's behavior.”
“When people saw the fun the reindeer were having and tried eating the mushrooms themselves, they discovered the mushrooms had powerful hallucinogenic properties … but the mushrooms also caused stomach cramps—really bad stomach cramps. A picture of a toilet slid onto the screen.
“But some brave person observed that the reindeer didn't have that problem. And if you let the reindeer eat the mushrooms first, they'd absorb all the toxins and pee out all the hallucinogens. Shamans began to get high … by drinking reindeer urine.”
“That's just gross,” remarked Haley Martin.
Miss Hamilton crossed her arms. “Really, Jefferson, is this necessary? I …”
“I'm sorry if the story is a little unsettling,” replied Jefferson, “but it's not like I'm making this stuff up. I'm just reporting the truth. Isn't that what academic research is supposed to…?”
“And you're almost done?” cringed Miss Hamilton.
“Yes, Ma'am. Just … just a few more slides.”
Miss Hamilton nodded.
Another image of Santa in a red and white robe graced the screen. “When the shaman would go out to collect mushrooms, he'd wear a red and white ceremonial robe in honor of the mushroom's colors.
The next slide showed Santa on a rooftop with a big bag of gifts. “He'd collect mushrooms in a large sack along with some reindeer pee, then return to his yurt—which was sort of like a round teepee or tent where the village elders gathered for the ceremony.
Jefferson clicked over to a photo of a modern-day yurt in Lapland. “What do you do when you live in the Arctic and your door is blocked by four or five feet of snow? You climb up on the roof to the hole where the smoke escapes, and you slide down the lodge pole to get in. That's where the whole crazy tradition of Santa dragging a bag of gifts down the chimney really came from.”
“Question mark slide!” shouted Bob Durmond a moment before Jefferson clicked the remote and validated that prophesy. The class tittered, grateful for a note of comic relief.
“What does Santa Claus have to with Christmas?” continued Jefferson as he tried to conceal his irritation over having been second-guessed. He began to recite his bullet points.
- Santa Claus is a symbolic retelling of a psychedelic mushroom ritual that originated with Arctic tribal peoples.
- Santa Claus has nothing to do with Christianity or Biblical tradition or Christmas.
- Santa Claus…
“Thank you, Mr. Baugh,” interrupted Miss Hamilton.
“But I …”
“Thank you, but we're out of time. We have a lot of presentations to get through and…”
“Jefferson Baugh, please return to your seat. I will see you after class to discuss your presentation and your grade. That will be all.”
Jefferson shuffled to his desk in the back row, stumbling over Bob Durmond's extended foot on the way.
Indignation over having been shot down for what he felt was a legitimate, truthful, and well-researched presentation banished all awareness of the ones that followed. I'm sorry those idiots don't like the truth, but they shouldn't penalize me for pointing out the hypocrisy of their cherished little traditions.
Miss Hamilton pilloried him after class and called his presentation “inappropriate” and “in poor taste.” He listened with feigned politeness, offering “Yes, Ma'am”s and “No Ma'am”s in response to her tirade. Suspecting correctly that quoting Jesus's edict about “Seek the truth…” would not help his case, he endured her lecture and finally, with relief, walked out of the classroom into halls that had emptied of students for the day.
He donned his jacket, slung his book bag over his shoulder, and strode out onto the snowy sidewalk to begin the half-mile trek home.
Two blocks down, Bob Parks, Greg Highland, and Bill Hagstrom ambushed him with a barrage of slushy snowballs. Blinded, he could do nothing to stop them from hurling his book bag onto a nearby fire escape. Bob Parks knocked him down with a blow to his left eye and kicked him repeatedly. “That's from Santa,” said Highland. “Merry Christmas. I hope you enjoy your reindeer piss,” jeered Hagstrom.
Jefferson lay stunned on the pavement in the snow and ice as his assailants moved on and their voices faded. I wonder if my ribs are broken. He sat up slowly, cleared the snow from his face, and tentatively opened his good eye.
He made a mental note about where his books could be retrieved from the second floor fire escape, but thought better of knocking on a stranger's door in his present condition. Pulling a pencil from his pocket, he scrawled a note and his phone number on the back of an advertising flyer, waited for one of the building's occupants to enter, and slipping in behind her, climbed the stairs to slide a note under the door of the apartment that faced the front of the building. I sure hope I get those back.
Taking a last breath of heated air from the apartment building's warm lobby, he entered the foyer, opened the outer door, and continued down the street, shuffling his feet and looking down so his swollen face would be less noticeable to passers-by.
That's when he caught a glimpse of it—a greenish paper corner protruding from the snow. He reached down and retrieved a folded one-hundred-dollar bill: one hundred freaking miraculous American dollars—and not one of those phony advertising, “ha-ha-made-you-look-piss-you-off” hundred-dollar bills. This was “legal tender for all debts public and private.” He slipped the bill into his jacket pocket and shook his head.
Jefferson stepped lightly despite his sore side and painful eye. If his “enlightened” classmates hadn't beaten him, he probably wouldn't have been looking down. He would have missed that tiny paper in the snow.
What a wonderful irony—poetic justice. He'd already concocted a long list of diabolical revenge fantasies—violent acts he'd inflict upon his truth-averse colleagues—but this unexpected boon inspired an idea. They'd be expecting some retaliation from him. He'd overlook what they'd done and let them look over their shoulders for a while—just let those poor stooges wonder when the never-to-happen strike would come. He chuckled and sauntered on, pleased with himself for having discovered his “revenge without revenge” strategy.
Snow fell and stung his cheeks. An icy wind blasted across the sidewalk from an adjacent alley. He zipped his jacket up tight and when the gust subsided, he noticed a figure in the shadows huddled behind a cluster of garbage cans—a shivering woman who had wrapped herself in newspapers to insulate herself from the cold.
Jefferson knew the temperature would continue to drop. He approached the woman. “Miss, take my jacket.”
The woman looked at him through grateful tears. “But son, you…”
“I'm almost home,” he said. “I'm not going to freeze before I get there. You keep warm and safe tonight.”
Jefferson helped the woman slide her arms into the sleeves and pulled up the zipper. “Thank you, young man. You're my Christmas miracle.”
“No,” said Jefferson. “I'm just doing what's right.”
Jefferson nodded and hurried the last few blocks home. He wanted to get there before he got uncomfortably cold, but mostly he didn't think it would be right to be there when the woman looked through his jacket pockets. That just wasn't how Santa worked.