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He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows when you've been bad or good.


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So be good for goodness sake. Sarah Vowell lives essentially on the same block-- no kidding-- where Clement Clarke Moore, the author of the poem "'Twas the Night before Christmas," once lived on Manhattan island nearly two centuries ago. She's a columnist for the online magazine Salon. Coming up, when is Santa not Santa? Another riddle solved in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues. It's This American Life.

Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of different people to tackle that theme.


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We have arrived at Act Three of our program. As we said in the first part of today's program, belief in a Santa who comes down chimneys on Christmas Eve bearing gifts is, at best as anybody can tell, something that began here in America. And so many other variations on what Santa means are also American inventions. Riz Rollins tells this story from his boyhood here in Chicago. Rosie only dresses us like this when we're going somewhere really important. Even the weekly haul to church doesn't get the matching gray, flannel outfits, the ones that cause everybody to ask whether my brother and I are twins, which we adamantly are not.

We wear these clothes usually only when we're going downtown. And we only go downtown when there is a local premiere of a new Disney feature, after which we might lunch at the counter of Woolworth's, co-mingling like immigrants in the new world of de facto integration. My grandmother works as a laundress in an orphanage in Chicago's North Side and makes the long trip to the city's downtown area daily.

But she rarely stops there to visit a shop. She prefers to do most of her shopping on the commercial strip that crawls under the elevated train on 63rd Street on the South Side, closer to her home. It's not just that the goods and services she seeks are less expensive on the South Side. In many cases, they aren't. But commerce there wears a face that closely resembles her own. Even now, after living here for over half a century, there is much of the city she has not seen. The rules of interracial decorum will never change for her. They are God-made.

Each with their own kind, the Bible says. But both my brother and I are sure that the Bible is not the only word of authority in life.

Did Jesus kill the Easter bunny?

Today, as my well-dressed brother and I are led through the high stone corridors of this world by Grandma's hand, we never notice the bitter cold. We are blinded by the lights of Christmas and the season of getting. Grandma Rosie is taking us to meet the man. He has made his way from the northern land, perhaps just this day, to receive the supplications and petitions of children who have kept his precepts and awaited his graces.

While we have been raised to fear the mysterious grace of God, the grace of the fat man in the red and white suit means more. Children know Santa keeps residence in one place in every city. In Chicago, his cathedral is in Marshall Field's. And his holy-of-holies is somewhere on the third floor near the toys. My brother and I have been here many times before through many years. So imagine our panic as we continue walking past the first entrance of the block-long store. We say nothing, not even to each other. Perhaps Rosie is taking us on a shortcut to see the crimson saint. We maintain silence until we stand at the end of the street beyond the last entrance to Marshall Field's.

This is our last chance to make our desires plain. My grandmother replies with unbelievable patience considering the stakes of her mistake, "We are, but this year we're going to a different place.

So where else would Santa want to be? We pass the various stores along the main downtown shopping strip, disheartened with each passing block. We bypass Carson's, then Montgomery Ward, then smaller shops and boutiques further away from the expensive deities, closer to the affordable ones. At this rate, we'll be lucky if we see any elves or reindeer poo. Finally, we stop at our destination, Sears, Roebuck and Company. This is where Grandma intends us to have an audience with the king of dreams?

We stand shivering with horror at the obvious heresy. She is full of adult authority.

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And we know that we should take what she says with the same faith as we do all her other gospel. But how can we? She has never been so obviously mistaken in all the time I've known her. We enter Sears through two large doors, rather than the perpetually revolving doors of Marshall Field's. We march up a stairwell, rather than ascending by escalator or elevator.

And towards the back, next to a section of toys that have their source in the pages of Sears catalog, rather than in the frigid magic of the North Pole, sits my grandmother's version of Santa. His throne is not raised like the throne of the Santa we have come to believe in. It's mundane and accessible. There is no line of acolytes waiting to petition Santa. There's no promise, or grandeur, or terror. In fact, it is as plain to me as the nose on my face that the man in loose-fitting, red and white uniform is the biggest impostor that I've ever had the chance to lay eyes on. For the man underneath the fake, silver beard is black like me.

My grandmother had not prepared us to expect this change in Santa's ethnicity. Most likely, she was trying to provide a vision of goodness that resembled us.

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Maybe she was secretly tired of relying on the white Jesus, watching her children gyrate to their white Elvis, losing sleep waiting for white Santa. But what she did not know was that until that day I hadn't noticed any difference between black and white people. I'm sure that we had seen white people before, but usually from afar. Santa was the only white man we had a personal relationship with. That day, my brother and I silently agreed to let the ruse continue. I remember half-hoping even if this man wasn't Santa that perhaps he had connections to someone who might know Santa.

But unknown to me, or my brother, or Grandma Rosie, was the fact that now the lid was off the box that held the knots and confusions I'd wrestle with for the next 20 years. Nothing would be safe from doubt, no benevolence, sincerity, or article of faith.

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For the first time, I saw things are not what they appear. And I thus began to search for the little lies behind every truth. And I learned that every gift is purchased with sweat, and tears, and sacrifice. What if someone actually did patrol the department store Santas for the forces of good? You know what? We do not even need to speculate about what would happen. Because right now, right at this moment, we can bring you a brand new episode of a very old radio serial that answers this very question.

And Santa Claus, I want a Tiffany doll. Not the Tiffany doll that wets herself. The Tiffany doll that is a nightclub singer. Ho, ho, ho, ho. Well, if you're a good little girl, Santa will see what he can do.

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Halt, vicious criminal impostor. I'm arresting you for being a vicious criminal impostor. That doesn't sound right.

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Oh, don't I look impressed? You can not come into this department store and arrest our Santa. Well, your Santa is not a real Santa. And he fibbed his fat face off to that little girl. Because I can pull on this phony beard, and it will come right off. Boy, it's really glued on tight.