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The Year Santa Brought Switches

I enjoy hearing about the Christmas traditions of other people. I have a friend who played Find the Pickle with her family. That’s a game I’d never heard of until I met her. Another friend of mine has her kids string popcorn for the tree every Christmas Eve. We did that a few times when I was little, but I think we ultimately decided we liked tinsel better. I didn’t hear about getting coal for Christmas until I was a teen.

Santa visited me in person every year when I little. Mom always told me if I wasn’t good, Santa would bring me switches instead of toys. As Christmas got closer, I heard it more and more often. When I tested the theory, I discovered she was right.

I had a huge fight with my mom a day or two before Christmas when I was less than six years old. My sister wasn’t born yet, so I was still an only child. Mom told me if I didn’t start behaving, she’d call Santa and tell him to bring switches.

“Go ahead. I don’t care!” I cried.

Christmas Eve arrived and I put Santa’s cookies on a plate while I waited for him. When he arrived, his bag wasn’t nearly as full as normal. He sat down on the couch and told me he wanted to talk to me.

I’d forgotten all about my argument with Mom, so I was surprised when when he told me he’d heard I’d been naughty. He understood I’d been sassing and talking back. I, of course, denied any naughtiness.

He pulled a bundle of switches from his bag. They were tied together with red curly ribbon. I’ll never forget the image of him trying to hand them to me.

I shook my head and backed away.

“My elves told me these go to a little girl on this block,” he told me in his thundering voice.

I didn’t even hesitate. “They must go to Molly then,” I said.

Molly was a little girl a few years older than me who lived next door. I guess Mom and Santa had forgotten about her because they both stared at me speechless for a moment. When Santa recovered, he informed me that he was certain the switches were for me because Molly had been good all year. She didn’t engage in sass or backtalk.

I didn’t really want my friend next door to receive switches. I was just trying to convince Santa there had been a terrible mistake. As I recall, I refused the switches and offered Santa some cookies. He told me he’d take the offensive sticks back to the North Pole if I promised to be a good girl and not talk back to my parents. I didn’t want to commit, but I finally gave him my word.

For those of you who don’t know about switches, they are sticks, typically hickory in these parts, used for spanking naughty kids. I believe the switch tradition comes from my German ancestors and the Krampus myth, but I don’t know that for certain. Krampus was known to carry birch switches to beat naughty children.

No one ever discussed the origins of our Christmas traditions with me. They were traditions, and I never asked questions. My parents were raised that way, as were their parents before them. Santa brought toys for good kids and switches for bad ones. All of the kids in my family accepted that without so much as blinking an eye.

The lesson I learned that Christmas was a valuable one. Never argue with someone who knows Santa’s number before Christmas. You sure don’t want to be on the naughty list.

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