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We hadn’t gone to see Santa yet, at least in his official capacity. We’d seen him at the Holidazzle, but Gnat hadn’t told him what she wants. Usually I take her to Southdale, which has the same Santa year after year, a retired Honeywell guy who has the beard and the belly 24/7/365. For some reason, he’s Santa to me; I don’t trust department store impostors. Where did they come from? Who died and made them Claus?

But. It’s a tradition in these parts to go to Dayton’s and see the big Holiday display on the eighth floor of the downtown flagship store. (Dayton’s changed its name to Marshall Fields as part of a big brand-goodwill-squandering initiative, but it’s still Dayton’s to most of us – a fact that no doubt mystifies and annoys the MBA geniuses who run the place.) Santa waits at the end of the display, like the Minotaur without all the crunching and screaming and blood. You hope, anyway. Perhaps they’ve changed the way they do things.

I sent wife & child & mother-in-law ahead, told them I’d meet them at the doorway to Santa’s lair. Up the escalators, floor by floor. In Fargo the big department store had three floors, and I don’t think we ever had cause to brave the top; rumor had it noses bled, and people fainted from lack of oxygen. To have eight floors – why, isn’t that blasphemous, somehow? I’ve noticed that time slows, the higher you go up; the lower floors are devoted to bangles and blouses, and the styles change four times a year. When you get up higher it’s Matron Clothes, lamps, rugs, sofas. The pace of change goes from monthly to yearly to every other year until you finally find a Grandfather Clock that would have looked familiar to, well, grandfather. I like the upper floors.

The line on the eighth floor was long. Evacuation-of-Paris long. You expected a few dead horses by the side. Somewhat more cheerful mood, though. I went past the queue, since I wasn’t heading into the maze itself, and waited for my party to stagger out. Then I looked at the last diorama. (These are grainy vidcaps, sorry.)

The Prince has elaborately spiked hair, and looks like one of those hip smirky stoner-eyed non-threatening cadavers who hang around with the Bratz hooker-in-training dolls. Here’s the scene where he like totally all about waking Snow White:

The final horror of the last tableau was explained, wearily, by my wife: turns out that the Diamond Mine in which the dwarves labored was actually a hot nightclub. Which explains the DJ with two turntables. Which explains why the soundtrack was “Last Dance” by Donna Summer. Because nothing says “the wonder of Christmas” to small children like Donna Summer disco tunes.

I’m surprised elves didn’t drag the kids into the VIP room to do poppers with Halston. Oh: during the scene where the Queen discovers she’s not the fairest in the land, the soundtrack played “You’re So Vain.” Because that’s what you want in your Holiday Wonderland for All the Kids: Ironic Camp. I have no doubt that somewhere in the exhibit was a snowman with a slouch hat and sunglasses and the physique of Truman Capote. At least it explained the expression of most of the people staggering out of the maze, which was Right, okay, whatever. Where are the bathrooms. Gnat was unmoved. Daddy was so proud.

Then, Santa. Let’s say he was efficient. On the lap, pose for the picture. He took Gnat off his lap – and then he asked what she wanted for Christmas, which seems out of sequence. That’s a question for lap time, no? She told him she wanted a My Size Barbie, which he repeated in his Trademarked Twinkly Voice, and gave her a sheet of paper to color. It had a scene from Disco Snow White’s Holiday Whatever. We bought the pictures – Gnat for once did not make a goofy Village-Idiot face – and went off for lunch at the unfortunately named Potbelly Stove sandwich shop. It has this regrettable 70s vibe, but they toast the bread, so it’s a draw.

I left them in the IDS center and wandered around downtown, shopping. Nothing I love more than the last few days of shopping. I always have enough stuff, but it’s those final items assembled at leisure on the waning days that feel the most, well, Christmasesque. (A much better word than Chrismassy, no? Nobler.) All the stores and skyways had that festive bustle you crave, that sense of merry purpose and goodwill. Twilight outside, rows of red brake lights below on the streets, holiday songs trickling from the Muzak speakers. If you’re in the wrong mood it would be annoying or depressing, I suppose. If you’re preoccupied it’s just another winter day. If you’re in the mood it’s much better than an eighth floor arrangement of over-moussed club-hopping robots.

I walked back to the office in the brutal godless cold – about 20 below, with the wind chill – and went to the grocery store. While I stood in aisle 2 trying to decide, once again, between Jif, Peter Pan and Skippy, the loudspeaker crackled on and the music shut off. “Time for our holiday trivial question,” the voice said. The entire grocery store went dead silent. “Who was most identified with these songs? ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ and ‘The Christmas Song.’ First person to get all three at checkout lane #1 gets a five dollar gift certificate.” Well, duh; Der Bingle, Burl “Currier And” Ives, and Nat King Mathis. Later we got the answers, and I have to disagree: Rudolph belongs to Burl Ives more than Gene Autry nowadays, thanks to forty years of annual repetition.

Back home. It was now about 30 below, which is the point where the weather really starts to get your attention. The evening was spent making cookies. Say no more.

Burl “His politics gave some people h” Ives just came on the seasonal music channel: “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” Another tune from childhood, frozen in frosted amber. If only it aged as we do; if only the distance between now and then was somehow reflected in the sound of the record, to give you a sense of the passage of time. The Goodyear records we played got scratchier every year, and every Christmas we put a new skip in another song. The album covers grew battered and the edges split.

Tradition adds, and tradition takes away; every new ornament pushes another one out. Which is good, I suppose. It keeps the holiday from being just an elaborately staged play. Every year the plot is the same, and every year you improvise a few new lines. We switched to opening presents Christmas Morning a few years ago, because in 02 Gnat had a meltdown Christmas Eve. Fine by me; I prefer it this way. (See also yesterday’s Fence. I think. Or Tuesday’s. They’re all bleeding together at this point; last Sunday I had to write my first Post-Christmas column.) When I was growing up the tree had an ornament I made in school – a drum made out of a toilet paper roll and some painted Q-tips for mallets. It meant a lot to my Mom, obviously, and you could have given her a Faberge egg that came from the birth canal of a Romanoff queen and she wouldn’t have traded it for her son’s handiwork. It’s gone now, I’m sure. My dad didn’t put a tree for a few years after she died, and then he moved. It’s in the landfill now.

But it’s all in the landfill eventually. Maybe that’s an argument against Tradition. An argument for doing it differently every year. Or perhaps just the same old gentle reminder for Moderation, the middle way: a nod to the past, a hail-fellow-well-met wave to the new. (Unless it has spiked hair and a Quaalude habit.) This Christmas has felt like the first one we’ve had, to be honest; it’s the first one Gnat has really seen coming from a long way off, understood and enjoyed. She got it last year, but she’s so much more verbal now it’s a delight to see it unfold anew. Makes me realize that the traditions start now, for her. Did I give any thought to my parents’ traditions, after all? No. Who does?

Gnat keeps asking me what I want for Christmas, and I tell her I don’t need anything, just Christmas at home with her and Mommy. This frustrates her immensely. This is not a reasonable reply. I never believed my parents when they said they didn’t want anything, either. She’ll get it. Give her three decades. But she’ll understand.

Since I started writing this, the channel has put up some unbearable contemporary carol sung by one of those “divas” with a vibrato as wide as the English Channel, and a Huey Lewis version of “Let It Snow.” Now it’s those famous Armenian rodents singing the Chipmunk Song . . .now it’s Neil Diamond doing a country-western version of “Silver Bells,” complete with spoken-word section AND whistling and weepy steel guitar. My new tradition: programming the cable boxes to lock out the seasonal music channel.

Oh, and I apologize for not updating the Matchbook section this month. Let me do something about that right now. This one is a giant oversized number with wooden matches.

And if I may quote the front of the matchbook:

Merry Christmas!