A Visit from The Yule Goat

Joulupukki
Image by esaskar via Flickr

In the northern hemisphere, winters arrive like a black dog breathing permanent midnight.  The gray threadbare days weave into a thick woolen canopy that never seems to lift. Despite the reassuring lights of Sloane Square, ice skaters in Mayfair and the annual grand Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square, Christmas is a more muted and reverent affair in England. Each December 24th, St. Martins of the Field church broadcasts its medieval Christmas carol concert urging all the masters of the hall to rejoice and pray.

Along the cold and wind-swept Thames, a city hibernates waiting for the resurrection of spring.  As an ex-patriot navigating life among millions, thousands of miles from the moorings of family, Christmas Eve was a hard time to avoid melancholy self-reflection.

Having been wrested from parents, neighbors, friends, familiar institutions and cultural touchstones, our young family was dispatched on a three-year odyssey that would test us and stretch our ability to cope.  Without the traditional support structures, we were reduced to our lowest common denominator – us.

As we had sought to build a new life, we met other displaced diplomats. Out of mutual necessity, we forged deep connections to this diaspora of the disconnected.  Over long dinners and timeless cups of tea, we would share the daily anxieties of international living where life had become a succession of indignities roaring past you in the middle of a motorway with no exit ramps.  Change was everywhere – tugging at your elbow, tearing the side mirror off your car, visiting some mystery illness upon your family or delaying you in a foreign airport due to a sudden labor strike.  It was mad cow and foot and mouth disease closures of a verdant but now forbidden countryside.  It was an unexpected dog bite and the night terrors of a child unable to cope with the massive change of an international move.  It was a washing machine the size of an Easy Bake Oven and a dryer that could only dry five pieces of clothing at a time. It was an alpenglow sunset in Zermatt and a pink pastel dawn in Provence.

We joined an international brigade that had voluntarily been assigned to new lives on a distant, fatal shore.  Our new and extended “family” was a United Nations blend of ex-patriots and locals possessing passports from Peru, Columbia, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Australia, India, Ireland, England, Scotland and Poland. In another place and time, we might have had less in common with these global travelers and passed one another like ships.  Yet, alone on this great ancient island, we found each other and watched as our children moved freely across narrow language barriers and cultural tightropes. Within months we had forged a multinational support network that would sustain us through every conceivable life event.

Holidays were initially the hardest of times. On this December 24th, the darkest corridor of the year, the ancient Druid festival of winter solstice would be celebrated. Christmas in England was a time of evergreens and hard frosts. A pale, frigid mist would settle on the Great Wimbledon Common and across the ancient headstones of St Mary’s church graveyard.  The bleak mid-winter world stands still as the countryside settles into a deep sleep with  the rolling hills of Newlan’s Corner and Box Hill sitting as silent citadels over the South Downs and Kent. In the Cotswolds, wool, market and cathedral towns with names like Chipping Camden, Broadway, Stow on the Wold and Upper Slaughter become fairy tale retreats for the wealthy with roaring fires, curiosity shops and antiques.  It is a quiet, somber time filled with very personal celebrations of resurrection and renewal.

Each Christmas season, we visited with our friends and as we entered each rented home or flat, it would be adorned faithfully with native touches and talisman of their home countries.  One day we might meet a koala with a Santa hat and the next week encounter rich religious icons of Latin America – – Madonna with Child, nativity figurines, candles and white papered gifts — grand colorful offerings of love and sentiment to be offered to those less fortunate at midnight mass..

At this time of year, it was important to keep our own traditions alive. To discard or ignore a cultural touchstone was to defile it and potentially sever another tie with your own past.  It was inevitable that the longer one lived abroad, the more likely it was that one would morph into an international citizen – an odd changeling that was often less wedded to their nationality and more content to be considered part of the global melting pot of mankind.

Christmas was a time of year where I was left with the nagging feeling that I was denying my children some quintessentially American experience. I was obviously superimposing my childhood on to my international children and when those feelings would not fit them, I came away feeling as if I was somehow stunting their growth.

Our youngest was already exhibiting signs of advanced internationalism. Having moved to the UK when he was one, he was not being raised on the empty carbohydrates of Disney movies, American commercialism and a ruddy-faced department store Santa that smelled of Brut and bourbon. My son spoke with a lilting English accent, watched Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob The Builder. He wore a uniform to school and was frighteningly well mannered. He expressed curiosity about  Father Christmas and wanted to “know him better.”

On this particular Christmas eve, I was feeling a wave of yuletide melancholy when the phone rang. It was our Finnish friend Robert.  Bobby and his Peruvian wife, Laila, had joined our extended family after falling in with us on a wild and unforgettable family vacation to Morocco. Bobby was a towering bristled blond Nordic with a rapid-fire mind and a clear, practical lens to the world. The unusual union of a Finn and Peruvian in this international enclave was typical of our circle of friends – a merger of disparate cultures and genetics that produced perpetually clashing perspectives and two gorgeous children who spoke Finnish, Portuguese and Spanish.

According to Bobby, Christmas was first and foremost, a Finnish tradition. All Finns claim that the Lapp mountains of Korvatunturi, not the North Pole, are the true home to Father Christmas. This rugged winter landscape populated by the Sami people is a frozen wonderland of midnight lakes, deep conifer forests and sweeping mountains of ice. It is a magical destination where on certain clear December nights, the aurora borealis swirls and dances on invisible solar winds.

The Finns are stoic culture – except after a few shots of Vodka when they may break into song or break every piece of furniture in your house.  They are a remarkably resilient people and have a fierce history of independence dating back to fated Roman efforts to subdue the tribes living in the “land of the cloudberries.”

“Michael, I have a dilemma,” Bobby said in a thick, educated accent. “Every year, my Finnish friend, Opi and I rent a Father Christmas suit and visit each other’s children, give them gifts, sing with them and then put them to bed” He hesitated. “Opi has abandoned me this year and has taken his family to Lapland. I have no one to play Joulupukki for my children. Could I get you to come over to my house, dress as Father Christmas and visit with them?” It was getting dark and in my late afternoon lethargy, I was feeling more like Scrooge than what the Finns refer to as “  Joulupukki- The Yule Goat”.  Yet, there was an unspoken ex-patriot protocol that when someone in your foxhole needs help, you rise to the occasion.

Within an hour, I was barefoot in a frozen side garden, slipping on boots, a red suit, and a white beard that would have made ZZ Top jealous. I slipped on a long elfin hat and moved across the condominium parking lot in search of their flat. An elderly Englishman walking his Westie looked at me with curiosity and shrugged, “a bit lost, aren’t you?”

I could not see very well through my beard and white bangs. I tripped over a potted plant and thumped against the front door. I could hear someone whispering in Finnish and squeals of excitement inside. Laila opened the door and I greeted them in butchered Finnish.  Bobby was taking pictures as I sat down to play with the children.  They jumped into my lap and sang a traditional Finnish carol.  The beard was gratefully disguising the fact that I had no idea what they were saying. I literally just bobbed up and down speaking gibberish.

The children hugged me with the strength of ten men. I felt myself slowly filling with that elusive goodwill and peace that perfumes the lives of those who choose to serve others. As I drove home, I suddenly saw this winter world for all its charm and tradition. It had lost its depressing decay and tired history. Our village was adorned with evergreens and white faerie lights winding down lampposts and across the eaves of brightly lit pubs. I was finally home.

I returned home to find  my own children restless and unable to sleep. Filled with gratitude and a recognition that Christmas was about my own rebirth, I settled at the edge of the children’s beds to lull them with a yuletide tale of medieval England.  The phone rang downstairs. “It’s Bobby” my wife yelled.

“Michael, I am around the corner now in the costume and was wondering if you wanted me to come in or just climb up on the roof and walk around” I had not expected this Finnish quid pro quo but eagerly encouraged him to come and inspect the house from the street as if he was sizing up how to land his sleigh on our narrow slate roof.

The children were still awake waiting for their story-teller when I instructed them to get up and peer between the indigo blue drapes to the street below where they might see something extraordinary. On this Christmas Eve, a 6’5″ Finnish Father Christmas visited my children on a dark and forgotten English close. “He’s so tall” My daughter squealed. “Santa tall?” my youngest asked rhetorically.  Outside, the oversized elf strained, continued to look for ways to enter our chimney.  The children watched mesmerized as The Yule Goat finally made his notations and disappeared into the night.

“Now quick” I whispered. “Get to bed before he sees you.” They leaped into their bunk beds and after twenty minutes of discussing Father Christmas, they fell into a satisfied sleep that carried them right into morning. It seemed that Christmas would find us after all, and came on the shoulders of a tall stranger from Lapland.

As my children progress into adulthood, I remind them of the visit from St Nicholas and hope they will carry this memory through the years until one night they might find themselves far from home and feeling disconnected from the spirit of the season.  Perhaps then, they will remember that misty, frigid night when they first caught a glimpse of Joulupukki and their own father discovered that Christmas happens wherever there are people.

Dad Duty

There are three stages of a man’s life:  he believes in Santa Claus, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, he is Santa Claus. ~Author Unknown

It was a chilly Northern California evening, as I finally settled into the great green chair in the family room.  It had been a long day – church school, hiking, playgrounds, muddy dogs and an avalanche of diapers, nuks and mushy Wheat-A-Bix crackers.  It was now 9 p.m. and it was my time.  The second half of the 49ers game was kicking off, and the last of my feral children was nodding off.  As I fell into the deep cushions, a blood curdling scream echoed down the hall.  “Pi-yo-yoke!”  “Pi-yo-yoke!”  It was my two-year-old and it sounded as if the furies of hell had been unleashed in his room.  I rushed down the narrow corridor just behind my wife.  It was worse than I had expected.  His beloved companion Pinocchio, the stuffed toy purchased during our fall visit to Disneyland that was never, ever far from his side, was missing.  He was an inconsolable knot of anger, thrashing like a worm on a hot sidewalk and then suddenly going stiff with a form of frustrated rigor mortis.  As my wife tried to gently lay him down in his crib, I made a move to slip unnoticed out of the room and sneak back to watch the 49ers game.  I’ll just leave you two to sort this out…

“I can’t find his stuffed Pinocchio,” my spouse yelled frantically.  She turned and whispered reassuringly to the apoplectic child, “Here’s kitty, honey.”  He shrieked louder, tossing the tabby away with agitation, and fell back into the crib in twisted agony.  “Shhhhhhh, sweetie.  You’re going to wake up your brother and sister.”  I stood there, helpless, the UN observer – well intentioned but overmatched.  “Don’t just stand there, Michael.  Go find Pinocchio!”

As she tried to console him, I tore apart the car and house.  I could hear the cries from inside and cringed when new voices join the chorus.  I rushed back inside with one of the stupid faces I wear when I am adding no value to a situation.  “Wait” my wife blurted. “I know where Pinocchio is.”  She hesitated as if retracing footsteps.  “We left him at the reservoir today when we went for our walk with the kids.  We have to go get him.”  I knew instantly what it meant when we was used in this context.  It meant I (we) was about to drive through a frigid, muddy night to a rural reservoir and go hunting for a stuffed toy.

Thirty minutes later, I was trudging up a steep slope choked with weeds and soft mud.  The state park had long since closed and there was no access except by foot.  I slipped and drove my knee six inches into the soft dirt.  My foot suddenly disappeared into a mire of fresh mud, finally yielding my sock but keeping my loafer as a memento of the journey.  I pulled the destroyed shoe from the wet swamp with a heave and a few choice words.  I stumbled on to the hillside plateau and was soon moving along the ribbon of walking trail that paralleled the ebony water.  I spied the play structure, but my imagination started to play tricks on me.  It was, as the poet Frost described, “a night of dark intent.”  It was the perfect place for a serial killing.  I could just see the shadow of the 6’8” sociopath with a hook for a hand, dangling Pinocchio from his sharpened prosthesis.  “Looking for something, mister?” The probability of a serial killer actually swinging on the sets near my son’s toy was close to zero, but that did not deter my paranoia.  I rushed to every corner of the play area with no success.  As I dejectedly turned to hike back to my car, I noticed the silhouette of an alpine hat and a jutting proboscis propped up on the picnic table.  Geppetto had found his wooden boy.

Eager to be home, I fell down the hill, ripping my sweats on a rock after getting tangled in the roots of an oak tree.  As I tumbled on to the street, I approached my car to find a parking ticket tucked neatly under the wiper blade.  I grabbed it in disgust and drove silently home.  As I crept into the house, I heard the familiar splash of the kitchen faucet and the tinkling of dishes being cleaned.  “Great,” she whispered, ignoring my ripped pants and single shoe.  She walked down the quiet hall to place the stuffed boy in Cole’s crib.  “He fell asleep just after you left.”  They say “comedy is tragedy plus time” and I can now chuckle about my winter midnight hike at the Lafayette Reservoir.  I was not laughing at the time; I was feeling totally put out.  I now realize it was all part of dad duty.

Dad duty changes with each generation as society and social patterns shift.  I love to take the starch out of my Father by dredging the comedy and mild dysfunction that has settled deep in the tributary of our lives.  Yet, I’ve always known he had no higher priority than his family.  I often refer to his generation as the “Dad’s With the Big D.”  They were benevolent dictators, masters and commanders.  Martial law, a strong hand and absolute respect were prerequisites to survival on their tightly run ship.  A Big D Dad was shaped by hands scarred from a Great Depression, world wars and the sense that each generation could improve on the work of those that preceded it.  Life outside his neighborhood was reported through newspapers, magazines and an illuminated radio dial.  Fear was a stranger always lurking in the shadows as polio, communism, war and poverty made a person conservative, patriotic and self-reliant.  My Dad intuitively knew that anything worthwhile was earned and that only hard work could overcome limitations and barriers.  The price he and other Dads paid was occasionally missing milestones that marked their children’s progress in the world.  Yet, they never wavered.  It was their duty.

Dad duty now dictates that a “good” father make every recital, sporting event, choral concert and life moment to be certain we’re supporting our kids.  The commanding general has morphed into a more benign therapist who hovers in a helicopter above each child broadcasting carefully crafted messages over a PA system.  These dads are modern-day wranglers who must actively participate in guiding every head of the herd as it moves inevitably west.  While the new age dad’s job description may have more fine print, the pay remains the same.  Your compensation?  A first dance with your daughter at an Indian Princess outing.  That first hit in tee ball.  Introducing a new book or place to your child and watching them revel in the experience.  The realization that vicarious joy is deeper than personal satisfaction and that being dad means loving unconditionally; your heart has bandwidth that you never imagined.  It crystallizes a concept of the universe where a higher power loves you, blemishes and all, and wants only the best for you.  It helps you understand the precious gift of being responsible for another person and it magnifies your respect for other parents.  Having my own children finally helped me clearly see the man who was my Father.  He was, and still is, a parent with enormous integrity who refused to ever forget that his family was his top priority.  His greatest joy was vicarious as he helped guide and support the success and happiness of his four boys.

They may call it dad duty, that’s an oxymoron.  The chance to serve as a father is perhaps the greatest gift any man can experience.