By John Garner

This is the sixth of 10 essays selected to be published in the Deseret News annual Christmas writing contest, “Christmas I Remember Best.”

“I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus, underneath the mistletoe last night.”

Did you ever wonder how emotionally scarring it must be for a child to see his or her saintly mother kissing another man — even Santa Claus (wink, wink)?

Well, as a child I experienced something even more traumatic: Santa Claus saw me naked!

It’s Saturday night, Christmas Eve, at the home of Catherine and Lynn Garner in Hooper, Utah. Outside, the yard is a winter wonderland of dazzling Christmas lights. An occasional car glides slowly by to marvel at the holiday spectacle, giving my parents a glow of satisfaction.

“Perhaps this is the year,” they think, “that we will win the Farm Bureau’s award for Best Display!”

Christmas I Remember Best

Inside, the Christmas tree (actually more of a Christmas shrub — a squat $10 pinion pine purchased at the local Dallas Green Farm and Feed) is sitting in the front room bay window. It’s ablaze with colored lights — the large bulb-type lights rarely used any more, the type that got dangerously hot enough to turn the tree into a pyre of pinion pine. So hot, in fact, that Mother insisted we turn them off every 45 minutes to cool down, “lest we set the house on fire and render ourselves as homeless as Joseph and Mary.”

Despite her caution, she frets that the Farm Bureau judges will drive by while the window is dark.

In the corner, “The Lawrence Welk Holiday Special” is unfolding on the black and white TV — a ‘wunnaful, wunnaful” extravaganza of Christmas music. Currently, Jo Ann Castle, Mom’s favorite — the true Champagne Lady — is punishing the piano, pounding out a ragtime rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Mom, herself a play-by-ear pianist known for “jazzing it up,” is always amazed that Jazzy Jo Ann can maintain that smile while fawning into the camera, and never once looking at her plump, ringed fingers while tickling the ivories.

Meanwhile, in the bathroom nearby, two buddy-boy brothers — John, age 6, and Jay, age 5, are taking their usual Saturday night bath. Since it is Christmas Eve, Mother has given into our pleas to let us take a bubble bath — an unnecessary extravagance to a hard-working farmer’s wife and mother of eight children who never has time to lollygag in a tub laced with Sardo bath oil beads.

Jay and I are giddy and giggly with the thought of Christmas. We have stifled the unthinkable reality that Christmas morning is on a Sunday for the first time in our young lives. It is an unthinkable crime against humanity, more despicable than the Grinch, more hateful than Ebeneezer Scrooge, bleaker than a Christmas sock filled with hard-tack candy and Brazil nuts.

But at the moment, we are happily standing in a tub of tepid water, busily sculpting a billowy beard and a frothy mane on each other’s heads, just like Santa’s. Suddenly, the jingling of bells and a hardy, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” can be heard outside.

“It’s Sannee Claws,” Jay whispers. “He’s here,” while giving me the glassy-eyed look of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer caught in the headlights. And at that very moment, the door (boys at that tender age have not yet learned to lock the bathroom door) bursts open and Santa steps inside.

“Ho! Ho! Ho! And who are these naughty, naked boys and what do they want for Christmas?” he booms while reaching into his bag, a red gunny sack that once held beet pulp, also from the Farm and Feed.

I don’t recall my reply. I should have wished for a towel, a bathrobe, or better yet, a new pair of flannel Christmas jammies hanging, just out of reach, on the hook behind the door (to be put on after the bath and worn the following morning so we wouldn’t look so “neglected” in the Christmas morning photos).

Instead, Santa pulled two candy canes out of his bag — too slender to adequately cover any part of even a boy child’s nakedness. Handing them to us, he bellowed, “Ho! Ho! Ho! And to all a good night!” And in a flurry of bells, he was gone.

It was a dozen years before I discovered the true identity of Santa that night: Mr. Gene, a kindly neighboring dairy farmer whose farm bordered my father’s. By then, junior high and high school locker rooms and occasional visits to the doctor had accustomed me to nakedness in the company of other “naughty boys.”

But even 50 years later, I carry the emotional scars from having Santa see me naked that Christmas Eve. I will never forget it!

He sees you when you’re naked,

While standing in the tub.

Don’t wonder why I’m all messed up

I can tell you, ‘There’s the rub!”

John Garner lives in Ogden.

Editor’s note: In a previous version, a file photo illustrating this essay was of a Santa in a 2010 Christmas parade and wasn’t the Santa from 50 years ago in Idaho.