Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Velveteen Reindeer

      My son Zysean, who will be two in February, was only 10 months old for his first Christmas last year. What he got out of the whole holiday was two solid weeks of family and some really, really long stares at Christmas lights. He went right to work on all the toys from loved ones, but at 10 months old, who knows where toys come from or what its all about? One gift, from my supervisor and her family, was this chubby stuffed reindeer. It had a saxaphone in its mouth and when you pinched its foot, a verse of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" on sax came out, slow and dream-like. The reindeer's head swayed with the rhythm, and the baby's head would sway, too. It became such a good friend, we put it in his crib at night. He would play it over and over until he fell asleep. It went far beyond being a Christmas toy, and by April it had had several battery changes. By summer, its feathery hat was torn up, the stuffing was bunched in its limbs and its fleecy fur was pilled. We no longer heard the tune as Christmas music. It was the reindeer's serenade, the notes lifting and falling while we ate, played, took road trips. It was different than most. The tune was gentle and relaxed, a likeable contrast to the over-the-top enthusiasm that all toys seem to need today. He played it so much that the music track finally got a little warped - the rhythm wavered even when batteries were brand new. It became too jumpy to sway along with, but the two had become such good friends by then that Zysean didn't let on that he even noticed.
       I don't recall when it happened, but one day the music stopped altogether. Zysean squeezed and squeezed that foot every time he saw it, getting nothing but a blank, bead-eyed stare from the reindeer, the plastic horn quietly stitched to its mouth. I wondered how to talk about it. He'd point to the battery drawer, but not even a lithium EverReady could take the Don McClean song out of our parental minds, or send that warm ribbon of music back through that droopy old reindeer. "The music is all gone." was all I could report, turning my palms up in a letting-go gesture. After a few days he did stop looking at me when he pinched that foot. Inside a week he stopped pinching the foot altogether. So many other toys have battery-run squeaks, growls and happy melodies that the quiet reindeer got left in the toy basket more and more. Or stayed in the crib all day.
     If you know anything about toys with batteries, you may be familiar with the random uprising of otherwise dead computer chips, and how toys sometimes do a postmortem dance on their own volition. This reindeer had a few such spasms. We'd be eating dinner or watching a movie and suddenly a muffled sax solo would wail from under a pile of toys, wishing us a Merry Little Christmas. We'd startle, laugh, and if Zysean was there, a moment of hope would cross his face and we might dig it out to try the foot again. But it was really dead. Just a phantom.
    Just before Christmas this year, we cleared away the toys-whose-time-had-come to make room for a new pile that would surely take its place. It was decided that the reindeer would have to go, too. If only it could still play its Christmas song, it might have had a chance at a second season. But it was retired with all the love-wounds a stuffed toy would ever want. It spent the holiday in the garage, its damaged Santa hat poking out the top of the bag of outgrown toys.  
    Meanwhile, this Christmas there were many more teachable moments. We got familiar with Santa images. We looked at creches and talked about the "Mommy, Daddy and the Baby." And the cows. And the angels. And the star. We learned how to tear open presents. Toys filled the floors. Family surrounded Zysean in every direction and music came from harmonicas, ukuleles, whistles and voices, much of it made by Zysean himself. It was a day or two after the visiting family went home that Zysean and I were in the garage together filling bird feeders. It was good that he got bored and wandered off - birdseed was getting all over the floor and there would be sweeping to do. He got attracted to the bag of discarded toys and yanked his old reindeer out by one leg. Walking over to show me his discovery, his hands went instinctively to squeeze the foot. "I know, all gone." I sighed. But the reindeer's head began to sway and the plastic sax shifted with a click. The music began. Our eyes struck on each other and we both laughed out loud. Hanging upside down, wriggling with sudden life, our reindeer's presence was felt as he belted out his creed one last time, not too late to have ourselves a Merry Little Christmas with him.


  1. Beautiful story, and one that Z will appreciate reading when he's grown. So sweet!

  2. Precious story! Christmas magic still happens!

  3. Sweet story reminding me of "Birdie" and "Dino-man" at my house.