"'Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la, la la la la..."

"Oh, good morning, Dr. Hewson. Nice to see you in such a cheery mood!"

"Yep, Barbara, guess I've caught the old Christmas spirit."

I approached the door to my office. The embossed white letters on black strips of plastic boldly proclaimed: "DR. LEONARD R. HEWSON, Ph. D., DOCTOR OF PSYCHIATRY." No sooner had I sat down and begun to prepare for the day's work than I received a visitor.

"Morning, Len. Got a minute?"

"Sure. Whatcha need?" It was Ed Bruzenak, my friend and colleague.

"It's about a new patient we're getting in tomorrow. A transferral from the Bedford Institute, name of John Chapman. I thought maybe you'd like to see his records, maybe even take on his case."

Ed handed me the voluminous file. "Oh?" I replied. "Something interesting about this one?"

"You might say that." Ed took off his glasses and grinned. "He's convinced that Santa Claus is the Devil."

Having unloaded that bombshell, Ed abruptly departed, leaving me to learn the life history of John Chapman. It seemed he had had a fairly normal childhood, raised by fairly normal parents in a fairly normal environment. He was described as introverted and rather intelligent, but fairly normal nonetheless. It was apparently in his third year of college that the breakdown began. John became obsessed with researching the respective legends of Santa Claus and Satan. No one knew why. His excellent grades hit rock bottom out of neglect. Then he began a crusade to inform others of his big discovery. When he gave a lecture revealing that Saint Nick and Lucifer are one and the same, his listeners must have thought he was either a firstclass looney or the greatest deadpan comedian of all time.

Having been totally rejected, John quit school and vanished for about three months. He was found lying unconscious in an alleyway. His parents, with their lofty dreams for him obliterated, had him committed to the Bedford Institute. He was a patient there for over two years, but it accomplished nothing. John simply refused to open up to the doctors. Whenever they asked him to explain why he thought that Santa Claus is the Devil, he'd just give them some remark like "Why do you think he wears the red suit?" He was diagnosed as a lost cause. But in his entire stay John had always been extremely peaceful and well-behaved...until last month. He slashed a guard with a pair of scissors and very nearly escaped. He became violent and tense, but for some reason he decided he was now willing to talk to doctors--but not with, as he put it, the "narrow-minded idiots" at Bedford. And thus he came to be transferred here, to Logan Asylum, for fresh doctors and a glimmer of hope.

Ed was right.

I wouldn't've missed this case for the world.

The next day I met John Chapman. Although the two of us spoke alone in a tiny, well-lit room, we were equally aware of the watchful eyes behind a large pseudo-mirror. John glared at me starkly, his long emaciated arms bound in a vice of leather straps and canvas. I tried my best to be friendly and assuring without being patronizing, and I kept a straight face when I tactfully brought up the subject of his delusion. After a few minutes, he agreed to tell me everything, but I had a feeling his acceptance of me owed more to desperation than trust.

"So, John, can you tell me why you think Santa Claus is the Devil?"

He laughed bitterly. "Well, for starters, you've got it backwards. Santa Claus isn't Satan; Satan is Santa Claus."

"I don't understand."

"Okay...Satan has been around forever, or close to it. But Santa, or his legend, I should say, is only a few centuries old. He was based on a real person, of course--Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, patron saint of children, who lived back in 300 A.D. Over the years following his death, an evolving mythology developed about him. For centuries his image in Europe was that of a tall, thin, stately man. The fat, jolly fellow with the reindeer was the creation of nineteenth century America, in particular, Clement C. Moore's poem 'A Visit from St. Nicholas."'

John squirmed in the straitjacket as he caught his breath. "Now Satan, you see, had been watching with much interest the growth of the legend of Saint Nicholas. He found himself enchanted by the idea of a jolly, beloved old man who brings gifts to good children at Christmas...which, as you know, isn't one of his favorite birthdays. So, around 1840 or so, when Moore's image of Santa Claus began gaining in popularity, this idea popped into Satan's head. Part of the current Saint Nicholas mythology was 'He's gonna find out who's naughty and nice', you know. Satan decided to become Santa, and instead of giving presents to the nice children, he would seek out the naughty ones... and take their souls.

"That's why I wouldn't say that Santa Claus is the Devil. It's the other way around. And he's more of an Anti-Claus, really." John leaned back in his chair.

I thought for a moment. "Okay, John, why hasn't there been noted a surge in child deaths every Christmas Eve?"

"He just picks out a dozen or so of the really naughty children to go after, not nearly enough to alter statistics. There's no way he could visit that many naughty kids in one night, Dr. Hewson. Nobody's that fast."

"Oh...of course." I felt ridiculous.

"But the Devil gets more out of this than just playing the Grinch Who Stole Christmas once a year." John sat up and faced me directly, his voice taking on a gravely serious tone. "God and Satan get a great deal of their power from us, from the people. Not just from formal prayer and worship but everything-from the firmest belief to the most careless remark. That's right: every time you thank God they left the onions off your Whopper, or curse the paperboy for throwing The Tribune in the bushes, or say you'd sell your soul to the Devil for that new Mercedes, you're tipping the scales in one direction or the other. It amuses Satan to play Santa; he savors the irony of it. But his true scheme is to make unwitting worshippers out of the millions who love the Santa Claus legend, obscenely channeling that love in his direction, causing his power to swell to massive proportions at the time of year he has long been the weakest."

John went back and filled me in on a few more details, such as the fact that Satan has agents who influence toy companies to keep violent, war-oriented products like G.I. Joe machine guns and Rambo action figures popular among the kiddies. And the huge controversy over the film Silent Night, Deadly Night was ignited and had its flames well fanned by the Evil One. The movie portrayed an axmurderer who dressed as Saint Nick, and Satan wanted people so angry at the idea they wouldn't have the chance to take it seriously. Santa's got to take care of his P.R., you know.

This was truly the most fascinating, complex, and ingenious delusion that I had ever run across. There was not one flaw, not one inconsistency that I could bring out of his remarkably bizarre but well-constructed fabrication, that he couldn't solve to my satisfaction. Clearly John's intellect would have made him a great, powerful man if only he hadn't become so utterly insane. There was just one big question continually lingering in my thoughts, and I waited until the middle of our third session to pose it.

"Could you tell me how you came to learn all of this? Did it all just come to you, or was it the result of your research, or did something...happen, which revealed these things to you...or what?"

My voice had grown softer and slower as I asked the question, and John stared silently at the pseudo-mirror for seconds afterward, as though he had awaited and feared this moment ever since we began.

"Yeah, something happened, all right," he said at last, his head bent forward. "It was when I was four years old. Mom had just had a baby girl, a tiny five-week-old baby girl named Jennifer. One day...one day Dad was gone to the store, or at work, or something...and Mom had just stepped over to our next door neighbors', just for a minute. And I...I was there all by myself, trying to watch some stupid cowboy movie, only I couldn't, because that baby kept crying."

John broke into slow painful tears.

"Beautiful little Jennifer just kept on crying. Wouldn't stop. I yelled at her...I yelled at her a bunch, and it didn't do any good. She'd just get louder. So then...then I got real mad, and I went to her room, and I yelled some more, and she yelled back, and I...I was just four years old. And then, then I picked up her pillow, and then...and then..."

"John... "

"Then she quit crying. And I laughed and I danced and I went back to finish watching my stupid cowboy movie...for God's sake, I was only four... years...old."

John then fell apart completely. I told him assuringly that that was enough for the day, but he refused. He demanded to finish. So I got him a glass of water and allowed him to compose himself.

About ten minutes later he was ready to start again. "The doctors said the suffocation looked self-inflicted. Jennifer was really small, born prematurely, and they said things like that happen. I was so horrified when I realized what I'd done. You're the first person I've ever told...well, I guess they count, too," he added, throwing a disgusted gesture at the pseudomirror.

"Christmas rolled around two months later," John continued, "but we weren't in much of a holiday spirit, so we just kinda ignored it that year. That December 24th would have been just like any other night, except for... except for when I went to bed that night, Satan came for me. Just appeared, right beside my bed. My room was dark but I could see him. He glowed, sort of. He was a horrible, perverted mockery of Santa Claus. His suit was red from a thick coating of dried blood. And he was fat, my God, he was fat. His repulsively huge gut hung out from under his coat, and it had big festering boils with pus oozing out, and his sides had gaping wide holes where his skin had been stretched too tightly and burst, and they were full of maggots. He stood there laughing at me. 'HO, HO, HO!' Strings of bloody drool ran into his cobwebbed beard. 'HO, HO, HO!' He laughed so hard some of his intestines fell out. 'HO, HO, HO!'

"But the worst part was his eyes. I made the mistake of looking into them, just for a second, and I saw Jennifer. All of her innocence, all of her pain; all that she might have been, all that she would never be. All in a second.

"Then he reached out with a half-decomposed hand, saying 'Merry Christmas, Johnny!' And he touched me. All I felt was searing pain. All I saw were blinding lights. All I heard was a deafening roar. I was in Hell, I guess. My mind was somehow made open to all the things I've been telling you the past two days. I was so incredibly sorry for what I'd done. I prayed to God with all my will, through all the unbearable agony. I pleaded and begged Him for a shred of forgiveness, and then I was back in my room, just like nothing had happened. I don't know why, but God saw fit to save me.

"My mind suppressed all memories of this until two years ago. It all came back. I thought it meant God wanted me to tell others, but when I tried they called me crazy. Now I see that it was a warning instead, telling me that he's coming back for me. This Christmas Eve. But I'm not scared. I'll face him again. There's just two things I need."

"What, John?"

"I need you to believe me. Someone else has to go on, to try again to tell others, to make them believe."

"Of course I believe you. What's the other thing?"

"I want to spend Christmas Eve at my church. At St. Peter's Catholic Church, where I can prepare myself for what I must face."

So then I knew the reason. A childhood trauma as severe as accidentally killing a sibling could easily result in a delusion as extreme as John's. I called his church and the priest agreed to let him stay there on Christmas Eve. I really wanted John to. I felt it would be excellent therapy; awaking Christmas morning to find himself safe and sound would go a long way towards his breaking the delusion and recovering.

I myself spent Christmas Eve at home with my wife and our five-year-old Katie. We had a wonderful evening going through our holiday traditions, and after Katie went to sleep, I sneaked out her presents and placed them under the tree. I was about to go back to bed when I remembered to take a couple bites of the slice of chocolate cake she had left for Santa.

"Do you like your presents, Katie?"

Her little face was beaming. "Yes, Mommy! I love you and Daddy, and Santa Claus, too! Hey, I wonder if he ate his cake?"

The plate was now empty.

"Wow, he ate it all! Look, Daddy, Santa left a note, too. What does it say?"

My heart pounded inside my mouth and my hands trembled violently as I read the elegant red calligraphy:

Dear Katie,

You were a very good girl this year, and I hope you enjoy your new toys. And please thank your Daddy for giving me such a wonderful gift for Christmas. He's a very nice man.

I love you,

P.S. Thank you for the cake. Devil's-food is my favorite.

Fancy Renerings