December 25 holds a special place in my heart, mainly because it was the one day of the year when my drunken, abusive old man refrained from yelling or sending anyone to the hospital in a bloody heap. It's from those warm memories of my youth that my adult obsession with Christmas has grown. To be clear, I don't care about any of the goodwill-toward-men-type stuff—my obsession is a completely commercial, superficial one. A Christmas tree stands in our living room year-round, stockings hung with care are always on the mantle, my kids believe that Santa brings their birthday and Easter presents, and the red-and-white candy-cane-themed lights on my roof stay turned on 12 months a year. (Unfortunately, as of last April I have to take all of the Griswold-style lawn decorations down due to receiving a citation from my township.)
As my boys get a bit older and better understand how awesome the marketing of Christmas is, our vacations and day trips have shifted from 9/11-airplane-themed (my first born's birthday) to more Santa Claus–themed. This year my wife found a campsite in Wilmington, New York (about five hours north of NYC) called the North Pole that was billed as being completely Christmas-themed.
Sadly, it was not.
The best thing it had going for it was its proximity to America's oldest amusement park, Santa's Workshop.
Built just after World War II in 1949, Santa's Workshop predates Disneyland by six years. And unlike the Disney parks, with their modern rides and attractions, Santa's Workshop remains virtually untouched by time, right down to what seems like the original paint on the rides. It's like stepping into a snow globe, and 65 years later it's just as fun as ever!
At the low, low price of $23 (a quarter the cost of Disneyland's admission) kids get the choice of nearly EIGHT different rides and a plethora of attractions, including two sets of bathrooms, a chapel, and an empty reindeer barn. And you should feel good in knowing that "Santa's mission is to reinvest every dollar so that Santa's Workshop, North Pole, New York will remain for generations to come."
Despite our 35-year age gap, I could tell that the spirit of Christmas was just as strong in my first son, Christopher II (not to be confused with my other son, Christopher III, or my pending son, Christopher IV), as it is in me, like the Force in Luke Skywalker but with more ribbons and elves. As we approached the front entrance I could hear his imagination running wild as he asked in a deadpan voice, "This? This is it?"
"Yes, son. This is it. And I'm just as excited as you are!" As we passed through the front gates the boy began screaming and gushing tears of joy as a number of his favorite holiday characters walked by.
We must have hit the park at just the right time, because, despite opening hours earlier, we were literally the only ones there. We had the place to ourselves! Just like Wally World! The first stop was the bobsled, a merry-go-round-type ride that looked like a red dildo. Each sled was painted with a flag from a different country, I assume because the Olympics were held twice in nearby Lake Placid. Luckily my son got the sled with the Polish flag because, as the elf manning the ride told us, it was the only one able to go up in the air. My son climbed into the Polack mobile and buckled up as the elf lit some coal in the ride's motor and stoked the fire with a bellow to get it moving. After four laps the Polish dildo carrying my son landed right back where it began. "Do you want to go again?" the elf working the coals asked. "There's no one here, so you can ride it as many times as you like." But the flurry of fun from one go-round was too much for my boy, and he opted instead to ride the mellower ten-foot-tall Ferris wheel.
The Ferris wheel was probably the most fun we had as a whole family, because we all had to pitch in to make it move. It reminded me of the big wheel on The Price Is Right, both because of its size and the fact that I, along with my wife, father-in-law, and an elf, had to spin it to give it the momentum to start moving on its own. As I watched my son float hundreds of millimeters overhead I wondered what kind of fantastic things he could see at that height and how his perspective on life might be changed.
After the ride I asked him what he saw.
"I saw a tree."
"A Christmas tree? With lots of fantastic presents?" I asked.
"No, that tree. Right there. It blocked everything so I couldn't see anything else." So precious, I thought. I remember being blind with holiday joy at that age.
After the Ferris wheel we went to watch the live performance of the nativity scene. My kids are still young and don't yet posses the logic required to understand religious beliefs.
Christopher II asked, "What's going on here?"
I tried to explain: "That mommy and daddy had that baby in a barn. That baby saved the world."
"But you always say the world is messed up and we're all going to die. If he saved us, why is it all still a mess?" he asked.
"It's complicated," I said. "I think the deal is we get saved in the next life."
"That's weird. And why is the daddy wearing DC shoes?" he asked.
"There are some continuity issues here that will make sense when you're older, Christopher II. Want to get a personalized Santa hat?"
"No, thank you."
My son didn't know what he was saying, drunk as he was on joy and yuletide spirit, so I took him to make a hat anyway.
After the hat shop, we headed to the crown jewel of the park, Santa's house, so the boys could tell him what they wanted for their birthdays. Christopher II was so overcome with wonderment at seeing THE real Santa that he couldn't compose himself enough to take a photo with him. Christopher III's birthday was the next day, so he trotted right up to Old Saint Nick and said, "I want an Angry Birds present!"
Santa Claus's best traits are his sense of humor and uncanny ability to stay abreast of the hottest trends in kid culture.
"A bird present? What kind of bird do you want?" Santa asked.
"NO! Angry birds!" Christopher III yelled.
"What's that?" Santa joked.
"ANGRY BIRDS!" Christopher III again shouted.
Santa turned to me and asked, "What is he saying?"
I laughed and said, "Oh, Santa! You're hilarious!"
"No, really? What is he saying?" Santa asked, still messing with us.
"Angry birds," I replied. "A-N-G-R-Y B-I-R-D-S."
Santa turned to Christopher III and said, " You don't want an angry bird. They'll peck your eyes out. How about a candy cane instead?" Then, from his magic bag he pulled the world's smallest candy cane and handed it to my son, who was so overcome with emotion that he began to cry tears of joy. I remember that feeling after meeting Santa; it's a moment you remember for the rest of your life.
As we walked toward the exit Christopher II and Christopher III asked, "Is it time to go home now?" I looked at their innocent faces and felt awful. They didn't want the day to end. "I don't want to leave either, guys," I told them. "But we've been here almost an hour! We've seen everything. If you want to stay, though, we can stay."
I looked down at Christopher II as he played some skateboarding game on my wife's phone, and watched as my boy became a man right before my eyes. Fighting every desire to stay and play at Santa's Workshop for hours and hours, possibly even hiding in the bathroom until the park closed so we could stay there overnight and run around in the dark, he said, "No, Dad. Let's go now."
Out the door, past the floral Star of David he went. Off to become a man, never again to return to the happiest place on Earth until he becomes a daddy himself and shares the Christmas spirit with his boys.
The next day Christopher III unwrapped superhero present after superhero present for his birthday. I looked at his misty eyes, still buzzing from meeting Kris Kringle, as he said to me, "I told Santa Claus Angry Birds!"
His childish naivety melted my heart. "No," I said. "I'm pretty sure you said Spider-Man. Santa doesn't make mistakes."