Tradition is all well and good. It can even be argued as essential for the establishment of social mores and public well-being.
There’s a catch. Far too often, tradition cannot withstand serious scientific scrutiny. That’s when it requires us to come up with alternatives.
I bumped up against the conflict between science and tradition when my family moved to Idaho in the early ’60s.
The first thing I noticed about our nice new house was the complete absence of a chimney. Even at such a tender age, I remember thinking: “Well, #@&*!”
Christmas was just a couple of months away. How was Santa supposed to get inside and deliver presents?
I should have waited to ask the Old Man about it. After driving from New York with four kids, he was close to a psychotic episode, with the back of his head all red and sweaty. But the question was too important. So I just blurted it out. How would Santa get inside without a chimney?
“He won’t,” the Old Man said. “And if he tries, the dog we’re going to buy will tear off one of his legs.”
I had another profane thought but let the matter go for the time being. Christmas was still months away. Plenty of time for planning.
All my short life, I had been taught that Santa landed his sleigh on the roof and zipped down the chimney. Proof was in the loot scattered over the front room Christmas morning.
Where we just moved from, the Hancocks hadn’t had a chimney, and Santa still managed to deliver gifts. Maybe a chimney was just his preferred entrance and not necessarily the only one.
I checked the furnace flue, but since the neighbor’s cat wouldn’t fit inside it, St. Nick probably wouldn’t either.
I also noticed that the pitch of our roof was extremely steep. What if the reindeer slid off and got hurt? The rest of the world might lynch us for messing up Christmas.
A number of possibilities occurred to me, including chopping a hole in the roof, leaving exterior doors open, and putting a key in plain view on the porch.
But the Old Man would almost certainly notice these things, so I had to think harder. I finally hit on the idea of propping a ladder against the side of the house and leaving my upstairs bedroom window unlocked.
I began sending letters to Santa advising him of the change in plans. I clued him in about the new dog. I also promised not to peek if I heard him crawling in the window. Rules were rules.
Christmas morning I ran to the window and peered out. The ladder was still there. At the bottom were tracks and scuffle marks in the snow. It worked!
I ran downstairs. The front room was full of presents. I was the smartest person in the world.
It was years before Mom told me she had caught the Old Man tipping over the ladder, leaving an empty black boot in the snow, and spreading around some red paint for blood. She made him clean it up.
My Mom understood that Christmas was a time for thinking of others rather than just of oneself. The most important chimneys we should care about are the ones into other people’s hearts.
Note: I’m still a lot like the Old Man. Christmas Eve of ’86, I sat on the roof of our house with an AR-15 until my daughters started crying. They went and got their mother, who made me climb down and go to bed.
Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.