Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve evening 2008: Santa burnout

In the evening, I pulled out some sugar-cookie dough I'd made a month ago and defrosted today. The Cook's Country recipe using yolks only, no whites. They tout that it can be rerolled a zillion times without toughening, thanks to leaving out the tough protein of the egg whites. They're right.

"Ulysses, I'm going to make some cookies for Santa. Do you want to make cookies with me?"

"Yes!" He jumped off the couch, where he was watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, or maybe it was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by that point. He found his miniature rolling pin in his toy kitchen and ran to the kitchen. He ran to the dough on the counter and held up the pin. I invited him to pick out some cookie cutters from the pile on the kitchen table. He went to the table and looked at them.

Then I saw something in his eyes retreat, disengage.

"I gotta watch Cars," he said.

I stopped myself from saying that Cars is not a Christmas movie. I put it in the player, but by the time the menu had come up, he was playing a video game at his computer. "Do you want to make cookies with me?"

"No," he said.

He never did watch Cars that evening, but neither did he respond again, after that, when we reminded him that Santa was coming tonight. All day, he'd bounced and bounded at the mention of it. By now, it seemed, his emotions had been so thoroughly stimulated, they had just gone into overload.

He was withdrawing, for emotional safety, I thought. The obvious corollary of that, I realized later that night, was that his emotions were vulnerable and raw. They could now be readily abraded, inflamed.

* * *

I made sugar cookies in holiday shapes and colors: green wreaths and trees with little balls of many colors and with royal icing bows and garlands; red Santas with icing for the fur at his wrists, cap and ankles; reindeer with red noses; stars with turbinado sugar sparkles. I assembled a plate, including one of the trees, for Santa's visit later that night, and set it on the dining table.

Ulysses plucked a green Christmas tree from the cooling rack. "I'm eating Santa's cookie," he said, happily. How cute, I thought.

Several minutes later, he came over from his video play again and took another tree cookie.

Several minutes after that, I noticed that Ulysses had picked up the fourth and final tree. Earlier, I had asked Don if he had any requests for cookie shapes. He had told me, "I want a Christmas tree."

"Oops! Sorry," I told Ulysses. "You can't have that one. That's Tata's tree." I plucked it from his hand. "Sorry, we need to leave that one for him. Here are the other cookies. Which one would you like?"

"No! No! I want the tree!" he cried, making a grab for the cookie in my hand.


"How about this flower?"

"No! Not a blue cookie."

"A heart?"

"Not a red one!"

"All right. How about this wreath? It's green."

"No! It's broken!" It had a scalloped center cut out of it. Much like the blown glass ornaments that had offended his aesthetic sensibilities earlier that day. "I want a tree!"

"I'm sorry, this is the last one. It's for Tata. He'll be said if it's gone." I couldn't back off now. I'd established a cookie ownership and I had to follow through. The ownership of this item had to stand. The person whose cookie it was had to be respected.

"Where are the another tree cookies?"

"You ate yours. You ate mine, too," I added dryly, and only for my own amusement. "But that's OK, I let you have mine," I said, to soften the last remark, before continuing with my lesson: "This last one is for Tata and we need to leave it for him."

Don came out of the back computer room. "What's going on?" I filled him in. He said, "It's OK, Ulysses, you can have my tree cookie. I'm giving you my tree cookie." Don tried to hand it to him.

"No, no!" said Ulysses, in tears. "It's your cookie. I can't eat it, I can't. And I ate Mama's cookie!" He collapsed into sobs, falling onto the floor.

I suddenly realized that he grasped the situation far more deeply than I had imagined.

"Ulysses," I said, "Would you like me to make some more tree cookies?"

He fell silent. He looked up at me.

"Would you like me to make more tree cookies for everyone?"

"Yes!" he said, and sprang up.

"You can help me if you like," I said. "You don't have to, though."

He ran to his computer and plunged back into his game.

Fortunately, I still had some dough. Half an hour later, there were six perfect, bedecked Christmas trees on the cooling rack. "Ulysses!" I called.

Ulysses walked over, quietly, and surveyed the little green trees. He picked up three of them.

He ran to the bedroom, where Don was watching TV.

"Here, Tata, this is for you."

He ran back to me and handed me a tree. "This is for you, Mama."

With the third cookie in his hand, he sat down at his video game.

* * *

It wasn't until much later that I considered the tree cookie that had been on Santa's plate all through the conflict.

I could have let Ulysses have the tree cookie that he picked up from the cooling rack, without ever saying a word about whose cookie was whose. There would have been no issue if the trees were simply gone the next time he came grazing. Meantime, I could have taken the tree cookie off Santa's plate and put it out of sight for Don, for later.

I didn't.

I didn't even dream of disturbing the plate I'd prepared for Santa. Because ... because those were Santa's cookies. It wouldn't be right to take away his tree. I had made four trees. One for each of us.

I'd hypnotized myself into respecting the rights of a fictional character.

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