Santa Claus is coming to town

I’m a sap for Christmas. I like most everything about it. Sure, I’m an atheist, but the lights, time off with friends and family, what Robin Williams’ character called “The Good Stuff,” in Good Will Hunting, even the rampant commercialization, what’s not to like? Where this seasonal optimism comes from is simple: no Gods needed, no magic resurrection spells cast, no special gifts received. It’s as simple as being raised in middle class America.

Below the fold is some up to date info on Santa as tracked by NORAD — another sappy tradition I treasure — and some background for new people on why I have to bleg every holiday.

In a nutshell, just a five or six odd years ago at this time of year, you would’ve found me happily curled up with a science book enjoying an uneventful, middle-class lifestyle right down to the modest home with a cozy fireplace and a sheltie stretched out lazily in front of it, staring at me with adoring, brown puppy dog eyes. The thought of being desperately poor wouldn’t have entered my mind. Alas, in the distant netherworld of financial cyberspace, aided by government sanctioned deregulation and sheer incompetence, a foundation was already being laid that would destroy the lives of millions, myself included.

All it took was an economic crash, an untimely personal loss, no jobs available where I was and moving a thousand miles to take a lousy paying one with no margin for error, and then voila, error struck with a deadly vengeance. A freak orthopedic injury led to a series of complications culminating in a widow maker heart-attack, followed by even more complications. It took over a year and a half to physically recover.

It turns out being a progressive blogger actually works against a person; companies worry about exposure, there is no work credit for extended for a liberal or atheist website site. It’s also not easy to get a a traditional office job when you have to answer questions about why you got let go for health reasons on the last one. There were stumbles, I faced wanton age discrimination for the first time in my life. More recently, I was hired and soon laid off in workforce reductions by two huge networking and software companies in 2014. Once in July and then again just a few weeks ago, both times with zero notice and no severance pay. In the last one, hell my Flexible Spending Account card, dutifully well funded from the first day I was eligible, stopped working the next day. There goes a cool hundred bucks, converted overnight, neatly and efficiently and legally, right into the bulging corporate coffers of some firm’s bank account somewhere.

The good news is I survived, very well. Thank genetics or luck, thank a lifetime obsession with working out, and a big shout out to medical science. But that awful five years took an irreparable economic toll. I still haven’t made it back to the middle class and it’s beginning to look like me and a bunch of other people who write in about this on a regular basis never will. Every mid December here at FTB I hang out the shingle for donations. But in 2013, during the worst of my recovery, when I couldn’t work and my employer sponsored disability insurance was playing its usual drag-the-feet and hope-he-dies game, readers stepped in. Now that I’m better, it’s back to just once a year, I choose Christmas time.

If you can send some Paypal bucks my way at Darksydothemoon-at-aol, it will go to good use. Or bad use if you are among the opposition: it will pay for Internet and other basic costs of living that allow me to hack into the matrix and broadcast my pirate godless signal …

And now, as he wee hours of Christmas Day strike the far eastern edge of North America, NORAD reports Santa is on his way after heading first to Asia where it Christmas first dawned. Santa is now weaving his way around the planet at superluminal velocity as his grueling day and half of delivering presents takes him far and wide, to Australia, then back up to Africa and into the Arabian peninsula. He’ll soon turn hard east and fly over the ancient nation-states of Greece, the birthplace of modern science and modern democracy. Santa whipped around the Mediterranean basin a few hours ago, quickly shooting far North to the great, white winter wonderlands of Scandinavia. He blazed over Western Europe, all decked out for the holidays in sparkling ice and snow, flying high above the great cities of continental history, and after a short visit to England, he took a bead across the Atlantic: to the New World, arriving in New Newfoundland just as midnight dawned.

Some people question the value of Santa, a proxy for the advantages or disadvantages of imagination and magic in the young. My own take is it doesn’t hurt much and may actually help. Over 40 years ago, when I was in second grade, my teacher began reading Charlotte’s Web to our class. But my family moved to Austin before the end of the school year and I never got to hear what happened!

When third grade started, and the library at that new Texas school opened up for the Fall, I checked out E. B. White’s endearing masterpiece and finished on my own. From there it went to all kinds of books. My parents noticed my interest and fueled it every step of the way. What a wonderful, thoughtful gift they gave me. And I remember noticing even at that tender age, me and the small group of kids who loved to read, we just sort of took off, intellectually, from our peers over the next two years. Not just in reading comprehension, but in everything. Math, writing, art, and for me, most especially, science.

It takes imagination to go beyond awkwardly reading the words in a school reading group. But once that wonder is stirred and nourished, with just a little practice, we are rooting for the trumpeter Swan, we are hunting Moby Dick, we are whitewashing Tom Sawyer’s fence, we are on adventures with Pepi Longstocking and laughing at Ramona and Beatrice. It may seem like a big jump from there to real dinos and real planets and quasi-real, enigmatic particles of nature. But once the key to imagination is struck at a young, impressionable age, it is yours, forever, to unlock as many doors as you have time to get to in the course of a human lifetime.

As far as NORAD and the power of imagination, that’s kind of a cool story:

For more than 50 years, NORAD and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) have tracked Santa’s flight. … The tradition began in 1955 after a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement misprinted the telephone number for children to call Santa. Instead of reaching Santa, the phone number put kids through to the CONAD Commander-in-Chief’s operations “hotline.” The Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Children who called were given updates on his location, and a tradition was born.

Pretty soon other staff begin pitching in, enriching the experience, reporting it to local news, and today NORAD has a cute webpage with links and a Santa cam, all manned purely by volunteers and paid for by donations, for the entire world to enjoy. And for those of you who may be cynical, just keep in mind what NORAD was originally created for: Of all the intercontinental missiles they could be tracking into US airspace later tonight, it’s hard to think of a better one, than Santa’s legendary red sleigh led by Rudolph’s bright red nose.

Thank you all for reading this year, sending private emails of encouragement, sharing your own challenges, gently correcting my screw ups, posting great comments, patrolling for the usual suspects, and for the direct support, all of which has greatly enriched my life in so many ways. Thank you all for imagining a world without supernatural beings, and having the courage to face and enjoy and revel in reality as is, rather than the ancient cartoonish caricature some insist it must be.

Here’s to a Merry Christmas, a happy holidays, and a great New Year ahead for all of us, every one!


  1. magistramarla says

    I loved what you said about reading.
    As a poor kid growing up with an abusive mother my best friends were books.
    It was important to my future, since I began excelling in school and later earned a scholarship to college.
    That allowed me to escape from my abuser, and I met the love of my life during orientation week at college over 40 years ago.

    Now our granddaughter, who is only 26 months old, is learning to read already. She leaned over her Daddy’s book and saw a word that she knew and pointing to it, she said “like”. On a trip to USAA she saw a sign and read it. It said “stop”, but not with the familiar red shape, so she recognized the word.
    A few days ago, she held up a toy to her Mommy and said “pink – pink starts with P”. Then she walked over to a baby gate and said “white – W,H,I,T,J”. Mommy told her “You’re 26 months, so 4 out of 5 is just fine”.
    She does the same with numbers. Her parents’ friends were babysitting her and she was fascinated by their pool table. She kept picking up each ball and reading out the number. When she picked one up and said “fourteen” in her baby lisp, Yvonne nearly fell over.
    She’s fascinated by violins and watches a performance on a disc over and over while holding her toy violin. Unfortunately, she’s still too young to start lessons. She’s memorized all of the instruments in the orchestra, and can be heard mumbling the list to soothe herself to sleep.
    We’re starting to think that this little girl is scary smart. Grandma and Grandpa just bought “Go Dog Go” for her. We expect that she will soon be reading it all by herself.
    Reading is the most important building block for future learning!

  2. says

    My parents were clever about it. Instead of pushing books on me, they would tell me stuff like “If you do x and y we might be able to go to the bookstore tomorrow and you can pick something out.” Or ‘be sure you do your homework before sitting down with that book.” They wanted me to read, they were delighted that I did, but they were smart enough to make it a reward for me instead of a task to earn their approval. It worked really, really well. I would sneak books and a flashlight into bed with me.

    I don’t know what it is about reading at a young age that kick starts the mind, maybe I’m making a correlation fallacy, what drives what? Did your granddaughter’s mind kick start anyway, and she just started liking to read as a result? Or vice versa … She certainly sounds like a prodigy of sorts, but I suspect for a lot of kids, it works both ways and is sometimes more vice versa. I think there’s something about reading and imagination in a kid that’s like intellectual growth hormone for the brain.

  3. magistramarla says

    Hi Stephen,
    I hope that your holiday was a good one.
    We spent most of the day with my daughter and her family – hubby, 15 year old and the 2 year old. Grandpa and big brother helped her put together her new toys while Mom and Grandma cooked.
    We think that a good part of her interest in reading is that she always sees Mommy reading and studying for work, Daddy working on his master’s and now PHD, brother going to school, reading, studying and practicing his trumpet, Grandpa working on his PHD and Grandma always reading.
    Of course, that doesn’t apply to me. My mother had a third-grade education and truly didn’t encourage reading. I was lucky that I had great teachers who encouraged me.
    After leaving the kids, we met with our Freethinkers’ group to see “Imitation Game” and to meet at a great Indian restaurant afterward. It was a great holiday for us.

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