Full episode
Transcript

728: Lights, Camera, Christmas!

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

OK, everybody. Ready? Ready? Lights, camera, Christmas.

Pirecua

Well, my parents say that I can't have a dog.

Ira Glass

This is Pirecua, age 11.

Pirecua

So I wanted like another animal that is fuzzy and it walks around.

Linda Lutton

I'm not really a pet sort of person. I think she knew she couldn't get a dog, basically.

Ira Glass

This is Linda, her mom. Linda is a reporter at WBEZ, the public radio station that's our home.

Linda Lutton

So a guinea pig was, I think, something she felt she could actually ask for. You know, this is second place, I guess. It's still fuzzy and walks around.

Ira Glass

Linda's husband is Mexican. And the kids lived in Mexico when they were smaller, so they don't write to Santa to ask for what they want. The Mexican tradition at Christmas is to write to the Three Kings.

Linda Lutton

So she wrote this letter to the three kings. And do you want me to read it?

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, could you read it?

Linda Lutton

All right. It says,

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

She says, like, dear Three Kings, I hope you're doing very well. I hope you're well.

Ira Glass

I thought that was a nice touch.

Linda Lutton

That is a nice touch.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Linda Lutton

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

She says, this year, I was thinking of asking for a guinea pig. And then she writes-- she has, like, an arrow. She's like, it's like an afterthought. She wrote, a real one, [SPEAKING SPANISH] Then she goes on and asks for some other things. But what she really wanted, and she has this whole list of things. But honestly, I don't ever remember her talking about anything else except the guinea pig.

Ira Glass

So comes the big morning. This was two years ago. Pirecua was just nine. The Three Kings did, in fact, bring her a guinea pig. And, of course, she was thrilled. She named it Luna.

Linda Lutton

The guinea pig was like in her arms, and it was running around her bed. And she was just in love. Well, that lasted about an hour before I just noticed she was scratching her forearms a lot.

Pirecua

And she said that they were hives. I was allergic to my guinea pig.

Linda Lutton

She was completely scared that I would give the guinea pig away immediately. And I think her one goal was to keep the guinea pig. So she definitely did not complain about the hives.

Ira Glass

They were big, red blotches the size of silver dollars. Pirecua, however, would not be deterred.

Linda Lutton

She still held it. She tried for a while. I was like, maybe if you cover yourself up. So what she started doing was she would put on this full face mask that she usually used on the coldest days in Chicago.

Ira Glass

It was black. All you could see were her eyes. Linda showed me a photo of the full getup. You can see it on our website.

Linda Lutton

She basically looks like a Zapatista rebel.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Linda Lutton

She's got a long-sleeve shirt. She's got her winter gloves on. And in the winter gloves is the little guinea pig peeking out from her hands.

Ira Glass

Meanwhile, paper towels stick out several inches from the gloves.

Linda Lutton

So that there's absolutely no gap between her long-sleeve shirt and the gloves.

Ira Glass

She looks like a young terrorist.

Linda Lutton

[LAUGHS] With a cute guinea pig.

Ira Glass

[CHUCKLES] With a cute guinea pig. Exactly. It looks like she's taken the guinea pig hostage or something.

[LAUGHTER]

Pirecua is devoted to Luna still-- lets it run around her room, makes sure it's fed. In third grade, she had a photo of Luna that she pasted onto a little hand-drawn cardboard frame with a little cardboard leg that she would prop up on her desk at the beginning of every school day facing her.

Linda Lutton

But it just feels a little weird, because she can't pick it up or hold it or even really pet it. So it's kind of like, all the things-- all the reasons you'd want a guinea pig-- she can't have those.

Ira Glass

All a parent wants to do this time of year is make a nice Christmas for their kids. Linda does not even like pets, isn't crazy about having animals in the house. But the Three Kings brought a guinea pig.

Linda Lutton

The Three Kings is-- they do test. They have tested me. They test parents, I think.

Ira Glass

And not just parents. Linda asked Pirecua on tape, did the Three Kings know she was allergic when they brought her that gift? Pirecua told her she had never even considered the question.

Linda Lutton

But aren't they supposed to be [SPANISH], like, wise men? If they did know that you were going to be allergic to Luna, why do you think they still brought her for you?

Pirecua

Well, they would probably also know that I would love her even if I did have allergies.

Ira Glass

And the Three Wise Men made the right call. Today on our radio program, this Christmas holiday weekend, we have stories of parents and others trying to make the holiday incredible for the people that they love, going to great and ridiculous lengths involving live animals, a deer, a sled, ancient reindeer bones, which lead only, sometimes, to the most magical Christmases. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. Stay with us.

Act One: Christmas in 3-D

Ira Glass

Act One, Christmas in 3D. We all learn, at some point, that our parents make mistakes, and that can even-- and I know this will be a shock-- make them when they are trying their hardest at Christmas. Maya Gurantz tells the story. A quick warning for people listening with young children, this is a story about one family's Santa Claus traditions which may not be the same as yours. Also, I should say, today's show is a rerun from a few years back, so everybody who you're hearing in the story is just a bit older now. Anyway, here's Maya.

Maya Gurantz

My friend Colin Mutchler is 36. And to this day, he talks about his Christmases as a kid. That's because his parents were determined to make the magic of Christmas come alive for their three kids-- Colin, Adam, and Erica. But they went further than any parents I know. They wanted it to be real-- really real. This wasn't an airbrushed "ho, ho, ho" Christmas but a darker, grittier one, like that one year when Colin was seven and his dad sent him to the garage for some firewood.

Colin Mutchler

And I heard some bells, and it freaked me out. And so I ran inside. And I was like, oh, my god, you guys, like I swear, I heard some bells. And my dad was like, no way. Really? And so I went-- we went back slowly outside. And basically, we found this older man.

Maya Gurantz

Colin's younger brother Adam was there, too.

Adam Mutchler

This man had fallen in the backyard and slipped on the ice. But I was so young that it was like, who was this crazy man in our backyard? And I sort of-- are you OK? Are you OK? And they brought him inside.

Colin Mutchler

He was wearing a very old, rundown, weathered jacket. He said he had windburn.

Adam Mutchler

And could you dim the lights? I've got snow blindness from the time in the North Pole, and there's a certain amount of glare that I can't deal with. So we dimmed the lights. He talked in a very soft-spoken-- not a whisper, but where he talked quietly enough that the whole room was silent, and you had to lean in. And it was that weird, intimate-- you're just immersed in whatever he was saying. And he basically said, I'm Kris Kringle.

Maya Gurantz

Adam was four, and he says this is his earliest memory of Christmas. All the Mutchler kids have memories like this, probably because they talked about it all the time when they were little. Colin and Adam didn't think there was just one Santa Claus living at the North Pole. The Mutchler family had their own mythology with its own logic. There wasn't just one Santa, but a network of Santas all working together as Christmas helpers. Kris Kringle was just one of them-- a working-man Santa. And just like a guy on a night shift from hell, he was exhausted.

Colin Mutchler

We were almost helping him. The dynamic was such that it was like, he was in a rough place, and we were trying to help him. And so I think we talked with him for a bit and then put him on his way.

Maya Gurantz

Visitors like Kris appeared every couple of years or so in the band of woods dividing their house in Harrington Park, New Jersey, from a nearby golf course. Never the same guy, never in exactly the same place. They'd be disheveled, bearded, and hoarse-voiced, abandoned by their skittish and surprisingly losable reindeer, and searching for the Mutchlers, whose home address they never quite figured out.

The Mutchlers also had a family elf, Jeko, who the kids never saw but who apparently lived in the attic for a few weeks before Christmas. The kids would hear noises coming from upstairs-- hammering, walking. And when Christmas was over, they'd find wood scraps in the attic from the gifts he'd made for them, proof that Jeko had been there.

Both their father and grandfather grew up with Jeko. Their grandfather especially loved to tell scary stories about how mean Jeko could be. And so every Christmas, the family spent hours combing over the details of Jeko and their visitors, comparing them to previous Christmases, anticipating the next.

When you ask the Mutchler kids which Christmas visitor was the one who outdid the rest, there's no question-- Christmas Eve, 1984. Colin was eight. Adam was five. Erica was two. The family was out taking their usual walk. And on this night, they went down to the golf course. It was foggy and dark. Here's Adam.

Adam Mutchler

And then in the distance, we see this silhouette of a shadow scampering from tree to tree-- and it's a golf course. It's an open, wide spaces-- and looking like it doesn't-- they don't want us to know that they're there. And my dad says, look, let's go find out who that is. And so we start walking faster to try to catch up with this guy.

When we come upon him, he's in this very worn, dirty Santa Claus suit that's this greenish-brown tint. And he introduces himself as Klaus Hoffer. And he's one of many-- the Santa Claus incarnations. Then he goes into a full explanation, but he definitely explains that-- I think we mentioned Kris Kringle. And it's like, oh, yeah. I know Kris.

Maya Gurantz

Klaus had a worn sack and began pulling out presents.

Adam Mutchler

But the presents were very odd. There was vegetables, a head of broccoli, an onion. And then he also, I think, gave us some bones. And that comes to the most important thing, is he broke out one bone in particular. And he said, this is one of the bones from the original Rudolph. I use it to call the reindeer.

Maya Gurantz

Again, here's Colin and their sister Erica.

Colin Mutchler

And literally, when he broke out bones and started blowing on them, we were like, oh my god. This is crazy.

Erica Mutchler

It made no noise. We couldn't hear it. But he said it was a pitch that only the reindeer could hear.

Colin Mutchler

And when he talked about Rudolph, it wasn't like (SINGING) Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was like he was honoring the history of Rudolph as some reindeer that they all honored. And the fact that he had some of these bones of Rudolph and was using them to call to the reindeer just-- it made sense to us. It was like, that makes sense.

Maya Gurantz

The details were perfectly calibrated, as only people who know you as well as your parents can get just right. Here's Adam.

Adam Mutchler

And that's when it got scary. He offered all the kids. And he said, I can only invite the kids, but do you guys want to come on the sleigh? Do you want to come to the North Pole with me? And we just sat there frozen. Wow. I could say, yes.

Colin Mutchler

The answer is no. The truth is, when some old man that you just met in the dark golf course on Christmas Eve actually asks me and my brother and my sister if we want to go with him somewhere that we have no idea-- while that might be the coolest thing of all time, it might also be the end of life as I know it.

Maya Gurantz

Again, Erica, who, remember, was two at the time.

Erica Mutchler

And I remember screaming and not wanting to go. I was just terrified.

Maya Gurantz

Actually, that invitation to the North Pole? That never happened, at least not the way they remember it.

Grandfather

It's "Klus" not "Klaus"

Child

Yeah, yeah, "Klas."

Grandfather

"Klaus."

Child

"Klas"

Grandfather

"Klus."

Maya Gurantz

This is a recording from that Christmas Eve in 1984. Erica, Adam, and Colin had just come back from meeting Klaus. On the recording, the kids seem happy and hopped up on adrenaline. They talk about Klaus, but in the entire recording, never mention any invitation to the North Pole. What you hear instead is the grandfather suggesting, how would you like it if he had asked you to the North Pole? Then their father Glenn jumps in.

Glenn Mutchler

Well, look. You guys could have asked, and he would've taken you. I had a feeling he was going to-- he would be willing to take somebody for a short trip.

Grandfather

They were scared. That's--

Woman

They were scared--

Child

I was scared, too.

Grandfather

I was--

Maya Gurantz

Behold, the power of suggestion.

Child

Grandma.

Maya Gurantz

That's how it seemed like a lot of it worked-- the Mutchler parents making suggestions and adding details, and then retelling it all year after year. Christmas was a big topic of conversation, and the Mutchler parents encouraged their kids with the most exciting versions of what happened on those nights, to the point where the stories gained an unstoppable momentum.

As the Mutchler kids got older, things, as they do, changed. Each of the kids dealt with it differently. Both Colin and Erica say they knew, at a certain point, to not talk about Jeko and the others to people outside their closest circles. But Adam didn't get that at all. Adam loved to tell a good story. He couldn't not tell this one. And he believed wholeheartedly in his experiences, even as a teenager in public school in New Jersey. And it had consequences.

When Adam was in fifth grade, he defended his stories about Klaus and Kris and the rest in front of his whole class. It got so confrontational, with Adam telling the whole group how wrong they were, that the teacher ended up calling Adam's parents, telling them it had almost started a fight, and asking them to please tell Adam to stop talking about it. Adam remembers many arguments like this well into middle school. People would call him an idiot or weird, and he would insist that these events were true. He was there. It was real. You guys are crazy, not me.

The next year, sixth grade, Adam was at his grandparents' house at Christmastime when his great aunt Blanche made some offhanded comment about which uncle played what part what year back when they were kids. Adam walked himself through the logic of what she was saying. And he knew right then that his parents had lied to him.

Adam Mutchler

Not only did they lie to me, it was-- 13 years old, I had to deal with that as a social thing that I had done. I had defended myself and told these stories.

Maya Gurantz

In front of lots of people.

Adam Mutchler

Lots of people. And to know that my parents were responsible for allowing me to perpetuate something that made me a liar and a laughingstock.

Maya Gurantz

You were embarrassed.

Adam Mutchler

I was very embarrassed.

Maya Gurantz

Adam felt betrayed and was angry about it for years. One year, he came home from college and accused his parents for being the reason he couldn't trust anyone enough to have a serious girlfriend-- not too different from the sorts of speeches lots of kids make to their parents at that age, except it was about Santa. Even he admits it was pretty extreme.

Adam Mutchler

I think it was--

Maya Gurantz

So this one thing made you feel like you couldn't trust your parents even though they were trustworthy parents.

Adam Mutchler

Well, for me, it was the intricacy and the planning of, like, you spent seven years, or 10 years, perpetrating a lie that was so deep and complex, whether it was hiring people, vintage suits, hunting people through the golf course and through the woods. What are you, insane? This is diabolical. For me, there was a big breakdown in the way I trusted people in my life that actually-- I think it carried on into my adult life. And even to this day, I don't 100% trust anyone anymore.

Maya Gurantz

Do you feel like it made you cynical?

Adam Mutchler

A little bit. Yeah, a little bit.

Ira Glass

Adam is 33 and can laugh about most of this now. He sees what was great about what his parents did at Christmas. But he won't be doing anything like it, he says, when he has his own kids. And because of the way he reacted as a teenager, these childhood Christmases are still a touchy subject in his family. When they talk about it, everybody's careful to keep things upbeat. I wondered if the parents had any regrets for how they handled it, so I went to meet the Mutchlers.

[FOOTSTEPS]

Laurie Mutchler

Oh, you know my two boys--

Maya Gurantz

I do.

Laurie Mutchler

--huh?

Maya Gurantz

I do. And--

Glenn and Laurie Mutchler live on a beautiful, quiet street. It's the kind of place where deer wander through the yards. A giant wreath hangs off the top of the Mutchler's beige clapboard house. Christmas lights twinkle inside and outside.

We sit in the living room, where the mantle has been turned into an altar crowded with an assortment of spiritual icons-- Buddhas, Vishnu, a ceramic bust of Jesus, and two different portraits of Jerry Garcia. I was a hippie and did the whole nine yards, Glenn told me, on the West Coast in the '70s, though he doesn't like the word "hippie"-- thinks it's come to connote laziness, and he's anything but.

Glenn Mutchler

And who knows--

Maya Gurantz

We started talking about the elaborate Christmases the Mutchlers used to have for their kids, and I asked Laurie.

Maya Gurantz

How did you get roped into all of this, Laurie?

Laurie Mutchler

Well, I-- as we were talking about this--

Glenn Mutchler

That's a cynic.

Laurie Mutchler

I'm going to talk--

Glenn Mutchler

Listen to this.

Laurie Mutchler

No, no, no. I want to talk--

Glenn Mutchler

Roped in.

Laurie Mutchler

No, no, no--

Maya Gurantz

I don't know if you caught that, but he called me a cynic.

Maya Gurantz

I'm not a cynic. We're just so excited about how you pulled this off.

Glenn Mutchler

There is no pulling off. Something happened. People had an experience. And then you have this thought called "somebody pulled something off."

Maya Gurantz

I wasn't prepared for this. Decades after these Christmases, Glenn was refusing to admit he had anything to do with creating them.

Glenn Mutchler

So the conjecture and all that stuff would really undermine the magic. In fact, all the details-- the, as you call them, the mechanics or as called, how'd you pull it off? It happened. That's the magic, and that's the secret.

Maya Gurantz

We went back and forth about this for more than 10 minutes. Here's my producer Robin having a go at it.

Robyn Semien

It would help to know if that's just an impossible thing for us to ask, because we have some questions about how it works, and I just would-- I'm wondering if we could--

Glenn Mutchler

Well, you could make something up. You could hypothesize. But that's you, because the magic is too powerful. And you want to go--

Maya Gurantz

And did they have any regrets about when their kids learned the truth? I asked Glenn and Laurie about the time that Adam fought with his fifth grade class about the Mutchler Christmas stories. It seemed like it would have been a perfect moment to come clean.

They said after the school called them, they did talk to Adam, but they didn't tell him he was wrong. They didn't tell him the truth. If anything, they encouraged him to believe the stories were real, saying, I was there. You were there. Their only parental advice was, be more private about it. Stop talking about it at school. Though, Laurie did come to worry that they should have handled it differently.

Laurie Mutchler

I think, for me, I did really start to question whether we should be making such a big deal about it. And I wanted to stop doing it. It definitely happened, in my mind. I did. And as you can tell, Glenn's a very powerful force in our family. And he's a very powerful for it. Yeah, he is. And even before this interview, it was like, you set up the ground rules about how we were going to have the interview. They're going to ask us, and we're not going to tell, right?

Maya Gurantz

Both Glenn and Laurie say they tried to make it right for Adam. They had no idea how betrayed he felt until later. Laurie says for a while, she didn't know what to do.

Laurie Mutchler

We talked about it a lot. We talked about the magic and the wanting it to-- Adam, can you see-- can you find a place where you see where it all came from-- it all came from good. It didn't come from lying. It didn't come from tricking. We are not bad parents because we did that.

Maya Gurantz

Finally, Laurie tells me this story. It's an important one for her. And before she starts, she says she knows Glenn doesn't want her to tell it. But that's not going to stop her. One Christmas Eve when Adam was in junior high school, Laurie went to his bedroom.

Laurie Mutchler

And I was giving him a goodnight kiss and hug and Merry Christmas. And he looked me straight in the eyes, and he said, you've got to tell me the truth. Your son is looking you right in the eyes, saying, you've got to tell me the truth. Were those rea-- did Santa really visit us? And in the back of my mind, it was Glenn's voice going, you never tell. You never tell. The magic. The magic. And I spewed all this magic. And it's the magic, and it's the spirit. And I went on and on.

And he would not let it down. He just said, stop it. Don't talk about that stuff. Glenn talks about that stuff. You'll tell me the truth. Tell me the truth. And I don't even know what I exactly said, but I did let him know that it wasn't real. And we just cried, the two of us.

[SOBBING] And it was really sad. Because then, over the years, he would-- when he did say, later-- when he said, I can't believe that that was a parenting decision that you made, that you went to that extreme, he just-- it just hurt him. And it was so weird because Colin and Erica had taken the same wonderful experience and held it as a wonderful experience, no matter what happened or what was real. They could hold it as just a magical, wonderful moment. And he, somehow, couldn't. And it made me really sad.

Maya Gurantz

Glenn understands that something went wrong with Adam.

Glenn Mutchler

My experiences like this with kids-- you do the best you can. And sometimes, you do the right thing, and maybe you do the wrong thing when you thought you did the right thing. There's a time when the kids are young, and you experience the magic through them. And it's just so special to be around young kids and to be in that-- maybe you cheat a little bit, and you become-- you're living through them.

[FOOTSTEPS]

Maya Gurantz

Glenn had been eager, from the moment we arrived at his house, to take us on a tour of Christmas past. And after our interview, Glenn and Laurie head out with us for a walk. We go up the street, passed through some trees, and onto the golf course.

It was darker than I had imagined it would be, barely illuminated by the ambient orange of nearby street lights. Mist clung to the rolling expanse of grass. Then Glenn does what he's clearly been itching to do all night-- gives us the play-by-play from his finest hour, the night Klaus Hoffer came to visit.

Glenn Mutchler

Get away! Stay away! Who is it? I'm looking for the Mucklers. And then the kids would say, no, the Mutchlers?

Maya Gurantz

Glenn hunches down and reenacts Klaus Hoffer's disappearance into the distance.

Glenn Mutchler

It's kind of like this and like this and like this and like this.

Maya Gurantz

He lopes along. He's happy. Magic is Glenn's strength--

Glenn Mutchler

--into the darkness--

Maya Gurantz

--and his blind spot.

Glenn Mutchler

And we're all standing there going, like, oh, my god. Did that really happen? It was like that. It was perfect. It was perfect.

Ira Glass

Maya Gurantz. She's the co-host of the culture and politics podcast The Sauce. Coming up, typecast. Typecast-- do you hear me-- as a reindeer in a Christmas pageant, the tail-twitching injustice of it. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues

Act Two: Deer in the Footlights

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show for the holidays, "Lights, Camera, Christmas"-- stories of people trying to throw a nice Christmas for those they love. We've arrived at Act Two of our program, Act Two, Deer in the Footlights. So Connie grew up on this ranch outside of a little town in Utah called Woodruff. And maybe you've never been to Woodruff.

Connie Rex

It's-- let me tell you about it. You'll have to edit this now, because I'm going to say it like I always say it.

Ira Glass

OK.

Connie Rex

You go through town. There's a church on the right. There's an old school on the left. You get down to the crossroads, and there's a half-assed store on one side and the post office on the other side.

Ira Glass

That's it-- the whole town. Maybe 250 people, she says. Maybe fewer. And the basic facts of her childhood are the kinds of things that lots of little girls only read about in storybooks. During the summer, Connie and her two sisters, they would get up. They'd have some food. And they would spend the whole day, she says, on their own horses, riding far and wide together.

And when they were little, they got a baby deer-- a baby deer of their very own-- who ended up a part of Christmas at their elementary school in a way that, I think, probably very rarely happens with deers and elementary schools and Christmases.

Ira Glass

So the story that I want you to tell is, I want to know how a deer ended up on the stage as part of your school's Christmas pageant when you were a kid. And I guess you should explain how you even ended up with a deer in the first place. Do you remember when you first saw the deer?

Connie Rex

Oh, yeah. Yeah. We were all on our horses, and there was a doe that had just had a baby. It was, I'd say, maybe two or three days old. Well, we chased the doe off and took the deer-- took the fawn.

Ira Glass

Did you run off the mom hoping to get the baby?

Connie Rex

Oh, yeah.

Ira Glass

You did?

Connie Rex

Yeah. Oh, yeah, and brought it home. Let me tell you what. We never done it again, because my dad was really pissed-- just livid. He lit into us like you can't believe.

Ira Glass

And what was his argument? What was the problem with bringing in this deer?

Connie Rex

Nature should be left to nature. Why did we want to run that deer off-- that mother-- when she was perfectly capable of raising this fawn and taking care of it? Why did we-- what give us the right to do with it, to take Mother Nature's course away from her.

Ira Glass

How big is a fawn when it's that little? Is it the size of a big dog?

Connie Rex

Oh--

Ira Glass

I'm trying to picture.

Connie Rex

Yeah, it'd be about the size of a big dog-- maybe not a real big dog. And they're light. It couldn't have weighed any more than, I'm going to say, 25, 35 pounds. And we put it on our horses-- put it across the saddle and packed it back to the house. Oh, we was tickled. We really thought we'd done something good.

Ira Glass

And so you raised it. How do you feed it?

Connie Rex

You put a nipple-- a lamb nipple-- on a pop bottle-- on the end of a pop bottle. And they suck it. And so we raised him that summer. And then, of course, he lost his spots.

Ira Glass

Did you give it a name?

Connie Rex

Well, we called him Bambi.

Ira Glass

Very original. OK.

Connie Rex

Yeah, very original.

Ira Glass

So was he a good pet?

Connie Rex

Oh, yeah. Yeah. He was a lot of fun. We never had a collar or anything on him, never did break him to lead. We just put our hands on his-- what we call their withers, where their neck goes right into their shoulders. And he'd walk by you. So we could walk him-- damn near any place we wanted to go, he'd go.

So that year, the year we got him-- that was the year that they done the play. And they took a balloon, and blowed it up about the size of a golf ball, and put it on his nose. And he stood there with this red thing on his nose all during the play.

Ira Glass

Hmm.

Connie Rex

And if I remember right, the story just, more or less, centered around Santa Claus being sad because he couldn't get around.

Ira Glass

Well, it sounds like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," where his nose is what guides them. The light from his nose is what guides them to where they need to go.

Connie Rex

I think so. I think that's what it was. And I can remember that the hall was just crowded. Everybody knew that deer was going to be in there, and so everybody come to watch it.

Ira Glass

Oh, really? He was the star attraction of the show? He brought the crowd?

Connie Rex

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. They still talk about that play. I don't think they ever did top that play. How could you?

Ira Glass

Was he on stage for most of the show?

Connie Rex

Oh, he was on stage for the whole show. He probably stood there for a good two hours. So we spent the whole night standing there by the deer. He'd look out in the crowd and look everybody over. You could see his ears moving back and forth. But we'd pet him or scratch him on the neck.

Ira Glass

What did he do when they applauded? I would think that for an animal that must have been so strange-- the noise that would come from that.

Connie Rex

Nothing. He stood there. That's when he'd wiggle his tail. And his ears would go back and forth.

Ira Glass

Now, your dad, who had been against bringing in a wild animal the whole time, do you remember what his reaction was to the play?

Connie Rex

I can remember him saying that it was really a nice play and he was glad that the deer had a part in it. But I remember when we started to brand, we just begged Dad to let us castrate him, and he wouldn't do it. And as a kid, I just-- oh, I was upset.

Ira Glass

Wait, why did you want your dad to castrate him?

Connie Rex

So he'd stay home. It's just like a dog. You take a dog, and if you've got a male dog, and you don't want that dog to go-- I call it tramping-- all over the countryside, you castrate him. We knew that if Dad had let us castrate him, we would have had him forever. But no. So he wouldn't let us castrate him.

Ira Glass

Over the next year, Bambi grew up, developed antlers. Connie and her sisters liked to touch the velvet on his antlers, she says. And Bambi started acting differently. Sometimes, he'd just wander away for days. And when hunting season rolled around, the girls begged their dad to lock up Bambi somewhere on their property. But their dad said, no, that wasn't right. And they didn't ask twice, she says.

Fortunately, because it was a small town, and especially after the Christmas play, everybody in the valley there knew about Bambi. The girls would take him into town sometimes in a car. And people would come up to them on the street and pet him. And they took special precautions during hunting season so everybody would recognize him.

Connie Rex

We had a big red scarf on him. And then we had a sheep bell, which is just a little smaller than a cow bell. And we'd painted this sheep bell red. And then, of course, when fall came-- late fall-- why, he took off. And about 10 miles away, some guy, I guess they said-- I never did ever talk to the guy, but they said he drove right up to him and shot him.

Ira Glass

Oh, the deer didn't even run away.

Connie Rex

No, no. No, he wouldn't run because he was desensitized. He wasn't afraid of people.

Ira Glass

When the deer was killed, what did your dad say?

Connie Rex

Just told us that that's just the way it was, and that's what we got for bringing him home. He told us then-- he said, that's what happens when you mess with Mother Nature.

Ira Glass

Hmm.

Connie Rex

So I guess, you know, if there's a moral to the story, is you don't mess with something that's wild. You just leave it be.

Ira Glass

Oh, really? Do you think your dad was right?

Connie Rex

I think he was right. At the time, I didn't. But looking back on it now-- I'm still pissed at that guy that shot him.

Ira Glass

Because you're sure that he knew him?

Connie Rex

Oh, sure, he did. He'd a had to have known. Well, in fact, I heard that he did-- that he knew. I hope he enjoyed eating him, the son of a bitch. You better edit that out. [SCOFFS]

Ira Glass

No, I'd like to leave that in. Is that OK?

Connie Rex

That's fine.

Ira Glass

OK.

Connie Rex

No, that's fine.

Ira Glass

I just don't understand how he could shoot him knowing that he was your pet. Like he knew you guys, right?

Connie Rex

Yeah, yeah. And thinking back, I would imagine he'd probably-- what, 19 years old? Smart-ass teenager is what he was. I can remember we cried. Mother cried. And Dad was pissed. He thought that was pretty low for somebody to do that to an animal, especially when he knew that it was ours.

Ira Glass

Did you blame yourselves?

Connie Rex

Yes, I did. Yes. The end result would have probably been the same, but he probably would have lived-- he'd have probably got another year or two before he'd have got shot.

Ira Glass

You mean if you had left him with his mom?

Connie Rex

Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Ira Glass

It's funny. I thought we were going to have a sweet little sentimental Christmas story here, but now I feel so sad.

Connie Rex

Yeah, it did end up sad. And you know, if I was you, and you was doing the story, I think maybe I'd take a little liberty with it and not burden kids with what happened to him.

Ira Glass

Really? How would you want it to end?

Connie Rex

Oh, like it was just a really nice play.

Ira Glass

And not tell anything that happens afterwards.

Connie Rex

Yeah, yeah.

Ira Glass

But then if you do that version of the story, then in the argument between you guys and your dad, you win, because everything works out happily ever after.

Connie Rex

Well, I think at Christmastime, maybe we should win.

Ira Glass

All right. Well, let's do take two. So after the play, what happened to the deer?

Connie Rex

Oh, we took him home. The play was always put on on Christmas Eve. So we went home, 'cause it would have been, like, 10 o'clock. And of course, Santa Claus was going to come, and we was all excited.

Ira Glass

And so in this version of the story, you guys live happily ever after, right?

Connie Rex

Yeah, right. Yeah. And then I vividly remember the next morning after. We asked if we could bring him in. And they-- Mother and Dad-- both said yes. So we put a lot of Christmas bows on him, and we let him stay in the house until he wandered into Mother's plants. And then he had to go out.

[CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

Connie Rex talking to me from the ranch where she grew up outside Woodruff, Utah. That interview was recorded back in 2012. I am really sad to say right here that Connie Rex died last year.

Act Three: Replacement Claus

Ira Glass

Act Three, Replacement Claus. So we end today's show about people who go above and beyond to make Christmas special with the man who does that more than anybody, the gift givingest person there is. He operates on a global scale. I'm talking, of course, about Santa Claus. He is a man who wants for nothing. That is, until things change for him. Jonathan Goldstein explains.

Jonathan Goldstein

Each life was a lonely tumble down a cold, dark chimney, falling, falling, then blackness. These were Santa's thoughts as he prepared snicker doodles in the kitchen. In the other room, the elves performed Christmas tunes and do-si-doed. Carefully, he carried the tray of sweets into the living room. His wife, Martha, had been dead five years now, and he was alone-- alone in a house full of elves. Jesus had dignity, apostles. All he had was high blood pressure and a communal toilet the size of a cereal bowl.

He sat down on the couch and watched the elves dance to "Feliz Navidad." Jingles broke from the group of dancing elves and approached him. You're killing yourself with the doodles, Jingles said, slamming down his gin rickey. And lately, he'd been on Santa's case to stop overeating, to get out of the house, and to get himself a girlfriend.

Glenda, the good witch of the North, lived only a few miles away and had just been left by her boyfriend, a walrus hunter who looked somewhat like a walrus himself. Glenda's into the Wilford Brimley type, said Jingles, so you've totally got a chance. Glenda? Said Santa. But she's so sparkly.

I miss Martha, Santa said quietly. He knew this was true, though not the entire truth. There was missing, of course, but there was also fear. Look, I miss Martha, too, said Jingles, but it's time to move on. She was the only gal for me, said Santa. Jingles put his tiny hand on Santa's knee. To be frank, Jingles said, I always thought your relationship a little narcissistic. Mrs. Claus was like your twin but with bosoms. Did you plan your outfits together? We just had the same taste, Santa sobbed.

"Jingle Bell Rock" started up on the squeezebox, and Santa took that as his cue to head to bed. He never could stand rock-and-roll Christmas songs. He liked Christmas songs, and he liked rock and roll. He just didn't like them together. Martha had felt the exact same way.

On their first-year anniversary, Martha had presented him with a pen-- the fancy kind that came in a box. Oh, for the love of Saint Nicholas, Santa had said, what good is a pen? I'll just end up losing it. Save your money, and buy yourself something nice, or let me buy for you. That would make me most happy of all.

For a man famous for his giving, Santa was terrible at receiving. Martha took the pen back and apologized, and that was the end of the gifts. After she had died, and Santa was cleaning out her stuff, in a jewelry box filled with the old love letters he'd sent during their courtship, he found the pen. He clutched it on the edge of the bed and wept.

Jingles took it upon himself to just go ahead and arrange a date for Santa unbidden. Glenda's expecting you at 8:00, said Jingles, sidling up to him in the reindeer stable one morning. And do me a favor. Trim your whiskers and put on your Spanx.

As instructed, Santa appeared at Glenda's doorstep that evening, a paper bag of roasted chestnuts in his hand. Come on in, Mr. Claus, said Glenda, with a sweep of her arm. She was dressed all in white, and the house smelled of fresh gingerbread. Santa observed, with a smile, that there were several magic wands, gold and sparkly, in the umbrella rack.

For most of the evening, they sat by the hearth and made clumsy conversation about the loneliness of living at the North Pole, mostly. Unless I absolutely have to, I don't even bother going outside, said Glenda. And when the cable goes out, it is out, said Santa. After a beat of silence, Glenda looked at him, a smile across her face. Is this a good conversation? she asked. Santa laughed and assured her it was.

They played cribbage, drank eggnog, and watched the snow outside the window fall. And in the vestibule before leaving, Glenda placed her hand on Santa's shoulder and kissed him right beneath his eye. As she did, Santa felt as though his chest were a chimney. And inside, a sleeping dove was stirring awake.

They made a date for the following weekend. And just before he left, Glenda gave him a container of cranberry mini muffins she'd baked. Santa told her he could not accept such a gift, at which point, she thrust it into his chest with surprising force. Take it, she said. On the sleigh ride home, Santa realized, with mixed feelings, that he'd hardly thought of Martha the whole night.

When he showed up the following Saturday, Glenda was all apologies. Change of plans, she said, stopping him in the vestibule. Sheila's here-- flew in this afternoon from Tampa. Sheila? Asked Santa. A.k.a. The Wicked Witch of the East, she said quickly-- my old college roommate. College? asked Santa. For witches? She's always showing up like this, Glenda went on. Every time there's trouble in Tampa, I get a knock at the door.

In the den, Sheila was lying on the couch in a kittenish tangle, all in black and smoking what smelled like European cigarettes. She studied Santa while playing with her hair. Hey, Chubs, she said. I told you to smoke outside, said Glenda, with exasperation. She went into the kitchen to get some fruitcake as Santa made his way over to the couch. Sheila didn't move. So he squeezed into the corner, her black stocking toes touching his thigh.

So what do you do, fatso? Santa began to stammer. Oh, I-- relax, [BLEEP] hole. I know who you are. You're famous, she said, taking the last cookie from the serving tray. So how do you know Glenda? Oh, we're neighbors, said Santa. And you buy this good witch bull [BLEEP]? she asked in a whisper. A downward turn in the black arts, and all of a sudden, she's moved to the North Pole and rebranded herself a good witch.

Whoever heard of a good witch? Am I right? It's an oxymoron, like baby grand or jolly fat man. Everyone knows fat men are sad. Look at you-- totally depressed. Am I right? I mean, maybe a little, Santa said. My wife recently died. And what's with this Glenda [BLEEP]? interrupted Sheila. Her name's Linda. Often, when Santa didn't know what else to say, he'd break into a jolly-sounding chuckle. He tried it just then, but the chuckle got caught in his throat and came out sounding sweaty and choked. Sheila stared at him.

You have this weird crap in your beard, she said. She reached in to pull it out. And as she did, she brought her face in close enough for Santa to smell her. Whereas, Glenda smelled like baby powder and cinnamon, Sheila smelled of something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Cigarettes, of course, but something else, too. It set the chimney in his chest ablaze, ashy black doves trying to flap out their flaming wings.

As Sheila rummaged through his beard, the look on her face was all little-girl concentration. You have nice bone structure, she said. You should try wearing black. It would have a slimming effect. Withdrawing a tiny, shriveled raisin from Santa's beard, Sheila crinkled up her face and flicked it onto the carpet. Ew, gross, she said. Glenda walked back into the room with drinks. And when Santa reached for one, he realized his hand was shaking. He excused himself to use the bathroom, where he thought he might hum a few carols to calm himself down.

Everything inside the bathroom was glittery and white-- white glittery soaps, shampoos, curtains. But there, hanging from the white shower curtain rod was something black. Strung there for all the world to see were a pair of silky black stockings-- Sheila's black stockings.

For years, Santa had dealt intimately with stockings, stuffing them with coal or presents, and never thought about it twice. But just then, seeing those black stockings of hers, being alone with them, something came over him. And suddenly, he was on his toes, biting the tips like a playful pup-- like a fat, old, playful pup. Returning to the living room, Santa sat back down on the couch and listened, enraptured, as Sheila encouraged him to revise his policy on naughtiness. Santa nodded his head, as though giving her suggestion some thought.

In bed that night, Santa replayed each of Sheila's words and gestures. Sheila said whatever she felt like, touching and smelling everything like an animal. She was not afraid to take, avail herself of the world-- drinks, cigarettes, hospitality. Without so much as asking, she'd even plunged her hand into Santa's Shirley Temple, plucking the maraschino cherry right out and using his hat to wipe her hands.

For Santa, one so in love with giving, he could not help but see before him a kind of black hole-- a sexy and sublime black hole, into which he could deliver forth his greatest gifts. In Sheila, he saw an insatiable hunger for life. With such a woman to give to, to give himself to, it would feel as though every day was Christmas.

When they had made plans for the following weekend, Glenda had asked if Santa could bring along a friend for Sheila. And so he showed up with Jingles. Anything to help a brother out, Jingles had said. Strolling into Glenda's living room, Jingles did that thing where he jumped onto the couch while crossing his legs in midair. He landed right beside Sheila.

You are just too cute for words, exclaimed Sheila. Try anyways, said Jingles, snipping the tip of his cigar. It was the length of his forearm. I'd prefer to keep the house smoke free, said Glenda. More like fun free, said Sheila. Say, what do you call people who live around here, anyway? North Pollacks? We call ourselves Cold Poles, said Jingles. Ever put your tongue on a cold pole, honey? Tends to get stuck there. Sheila slapped him on the head. Dork, she said, laughing.

Sheila and Jingles had a million things to talk about. All the while, Glenda and Santa just sort of sat there, smiling awkwardly and watching the snow fall. It's an uninhabitable wasteland, Santa heard Sheila say. Tampa sounds awesome, said Jingles. If only I could convince El Jefe over there to move the operation south.

Jingles looked over at Santa and, seeing his bro struggling with his date, decided to kick things into gear. Come on, y'all, said the elf, addressing the group. Gather around for a little spin 'o the bottle. I've got just the one, said Sheila, downing the last of the red wine straight from the bottle. Spin the what? asked Glenda. Sheila rolled her eyes, placed the bottle down on the carpet, and spun.

Santa watched the bottle spin with an anxiety that bordered on mania. What if the bottle dictated that he was to kiss Sheila? He would almost certainly die. But he did not have to ponder such a kiss for very long. For soon, the bottle slowed to a halt, pointing directly at Jingles. And when Sheila licked her lips and leaned her face downward, Jingles grabbed her head in his small hands and planted his tiny mouth on hers. Santa felt the chimney fire in his chest snuff out.

He and Glenda watched them kiss. Then, after a while, they watched the snow fall. Then they went back to watching them kiss. Eventually, Jingles led Sheila into the vestibule, where he said he wanted to show her the secret to getting the tips of his shoes so curly.

Left alone and at somewhat of a loss, Glenda got up and fished around in a cabinet drawer beside the couch. Santa thought she might be looking for a game of some sort. But then she said, I have something for you. She held out a glistening package. No way, José, Santa said. I'm the gift giver around here. And it's not even Christmas yet.

Santa was about to really kick up a fuss. But then, as a downright witchy look fell across Glenda's face, he trailed off. It's nothing that big, she insisted, thrusting the present at his chest. Besides, it was fun trying to find the perfect something for you. And then to actually find it-- there's no greater feeling in the world. But look who I'm telling this to.

Hearing her words and seeing the look of excitement on her face, Santa had a puzzling thought. Perhaps he'd somehow misjudged things. Perhaps he'd somehow gotten it wrong. By refusing the gifts people wished to bestow on him, he'd consistently failed to give the experience of giving. He'd hogged that particular pleasure all to himself. And so he took the package.

It was flat and square. Tearing the wrapping paper open, he saw it was a record-- Rockin' Christmas Party Songs, Volume 1. He absolutely hated it, not just because the thought of listening to it made him feel like one of those old, white-haired hippies who had to make everything from getting their prostate checked to celebrating Christmas not just a good time, but a rockin' good time.

But it was also one of those gifts that said something about the recipient, something that was hard to swallow, like the gift of a back scratcher that says, you're alone in this world and must fend for yourself, or the gift of a warm house coat that says, your days of party dresses are over. The gift of a perfectly awful Christmas album being handed to you by a woman who liked you said, loud and clear, you must learn to compromise.

For after all his years of giving, Santa knew better than anyone that we don't always receive what we want, nor even what we deserve. We receive what life brings us. And when it comes to life, we haven't a choice but to open our arms. I love it, said Santa, with a half smile. Unpeeling the plastic, they placed the album on the record player. Santa held out his arms, and Glenda entered his embrace. And together, they danced about the room as Chuck Berry belted out "Run, Rudolph, Run." And it was almost enough to drown out the sounds in the vestibule.

[MUSIC - "RUN, RUDOLPH, RUN" BY CHUCK BERRY]

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein used to work here at our program and is now the host of the podcast Heavyweight, where he tells amazing true stories about people. I recommend it. You can hear it on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Our program was produced today by Brian Reed and Jonathan Menjivar, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Senior producer for today's program was Julie Snyder. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddes. Additional production help on this rerun from Noor Gill, Stowe Nelson, Beth Lake, and Matt Tierney.

Special thanks today to Jon Ronson, Sarah Henderson, Michelle Harris, Richard Stewart, and [? Luke ?] [? Teddy ?] at [INAUDIBLE]. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, one of the most experienced programmers in public broadcasting. He knows the ingredients you need for any successful radio show. And of course, they are--

Adam Mutchler

Vegetables, a head of broccoli, and an onion, and one of the bones from the original Rudolph.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "RUN, RUDOLPH, RUN" BY CHUCK BERRY]