Mesa Musings: Cotton Santa's history comes to light

Santa Claus celebrates his 60th birthday in our household this holiday season.

I speak not of Father Christmas, who's more like 400 years old and dates back to 17th century Britain, or St. Nick, who was birthed in New York some time in the 19th century.

I'm talking about a little 6-inch-tall, cotton-ball Santa who joined my family in December 1951. He's been perched atop the loftiest branches of our Christmas tree — next to the angel — every year since.

That's 61 Christmases this year.

My mother and father hosted him on their tree for decades. Now my eldest daughter, Jenn, proudly carries on the tradition. My brother and sister, our seven children and our seven (to date) grandchildren have all paid homage to cotton-ball Santa over the years.

Little Santa was a party favor I collected at a Christmas party in Miss Collins' second-grade class at Corona del Mar Elementary School in '51. To be sure, the story of his introduction into our family has been substantially embellished over the decades in the fog of holiday exuberance. In fact, the story wasn't finally fully vetted until Christmas last.

I was 6 when I proudly brought Santa home. Though I thought I was clear in conveying to my parents that Santa had been a party favor, that, apparently, was not the case. They chose to believe that cotton-ball Santa was my handiwork.

Au contraire.

Last year, my 87-year-old mother sat down her 4-year-old great-granddaughter to relate to her the cotton-ball Santa tale. I was forced to intervene.

"No, Mom, I didn't make Santa," I protested during the poignant retelling of the family narrative. "He was a party favor."

My words were followed by stunned silence.

"You mean you didn't make him?" Her tone revealed deep distress. "You didn't create him with your own little hands?"

My mother, quite obviously, was having difficulty accepting my shocking admission.

"Then why have we kept him on the tree all these years?"

Her rebuke was painful.

"Mom, I've never claimed to be his creator," I said defensively. "I guess I never paid attention to the fact that you thought otherwise."

"Your dear departed father thought all these years that you made our Santa. He was so proud."

"Mom, we keep Santa on our tree because he's a family heirloom and a link with our past."

I tried desperately to salvage the season.

Thankfully, she soon brightened. It was Christmas!

I attended CdM Elementary from 1949-52, until our family moved from Newport Beach to Costa Mesa.

CdM Elementary, which no longer exists, stood between Carnation and Dahlia streets. I was there during my kindergarten, first- and second-grade years. I spent the fall semester of third grade there as well, then transferred to Lindbergh School in Costa Mesa.

I have three indelible memories of my three-and-a-half years at CdM Elementary. First, I remember honeybees swarming apocalyptically one day in our kindergarten playground, forcing us to remain indoors until "Mr. Bee Man" could attend to them. (I also remember having a crush on a little blonde kindergartner named Dixie.)

Second, I remember breaking my elbow while falling from the monkey bars in second grade. A kindly school nurse treated me until my parents arrived and transported me to St. Joseph Hospital's emergency room (Hoag didn't exist at the time).

And, finally, I remember cotton-ball Santa.

Twenty-five Santas were distributed to my classmates at Miss Collins' 1951 second-grade classroom party, but I daresay Jimmy C's Santa must surely be the sole survivor. I'd wager that the vast majority of Santas bit the dust before their first New Year's Eve.

And, true to form, for the 61st consecutive Christmas, cotton-ball Santa sits proudly astride the branches of our family tree.

But, truly, all of the above is rather trifling and silly. Infinitely more significant to my family this season is the One behind the season, the Christ Child of Bethlehem.

Here's wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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