When the ghost of Christmas Past visits my dreams, it takes the form of a frog Santa left me when I was seven. Big and ugly, this stuffed animal frog was designed to hold the pajamas of innocent children in its gaping red maw. The frog was about poodle-sized, with two-thirds of its mass made up by an alarmingly large head. This was not your typical stuffed animal. Its skin was made from black cotton fabric printed with the image of dozens of tiny little frogs. I always found that unsettling, like a cow in a leather coat.
At any rate, the frog was about as odd a gift as I had received in my young life. To be honest, it stopped me cold when I raced into the living room that Christmas morning.
But as remarkable as the frog was by itself, this particular creature came with a note attached. I have since forgotten the exact wording, but it was from Santa. The gist of it was that no one else loved this unfortunate amphibian because he was so hideous, but Santa knew that I would find it in my heart to love him anyway. Not only had Santa left this bizarre animal under the tree for me, but he had left a note guilting me into being some sort of cross-species foster parent for a deeply flawed frog prince. There was only one problem with Santa's little scheme. I was, by that time, an avid reader and a quick study. Santa's big blunder was that he had put the note in my mother's handwriting. As I read the note aloud to my eager family, my voice slowed, and then faded as my brain began to register what was so familiar, and yet so wrong, about this picture.
Looking up, I searched my parents' faces for some sign that they recognized the momentous change that was occurring in my life at that moment. But there was nothing. No knowing looks passed between them. No sign of guilt or complicity was apparent. No one came to my rescue, or offered comfort as my life changed forever. I saw only their bright smiles.
Some of life's most significant moments are like that. You can't prepare for them, or even recognize them fully while they're happening. You can only stand like a startled deer as the semi bears down, too stunned to acknowledge the danger until the damage is done. Like the deer, I stood stunned for a moment, then I turned back to the note and finished reading it to my family. It was signed "Santa," but the name had lost its meaning.
In the weeks following Christmas, I went through all the stages of grief, with extra time spent in the "bargaining" stage. It dawned on me that the end of Santa meant the end of double presents. I feared my Christmas gifts would be reduced to the pitifully meager offerings of family and friends. Like my parents, I would receive only a few paltry gifts instead of the piles of presents required to maintain a child's belief in Santa.
In the end I admitted my discovery to my mom one day in the kitchen. She started to deny it, but mercifully recognized that I had gone past the point of no return. I lost something that Christmas, but I kept the frog as an unsightly reminder of what I had once believed.