David Guillen remembers when he learned about Santa. It started with the kids at school.
“It was kind of catastrophic for me,” said Guillen, who was born in Columbia but now lives in Castle Rock. “I remember denying it because I knew that by admitting that there’s no Santa, that I was somehow going to be penalized by not receiving gifts from Santa.”
Eventually though, he said he couldn’t avoid the truth.
“You just kind of hang on as long as you can,” Guillen said. “Until (one day) your parents say, ‘Nope. You know what, you no longer qualify for this colossal lie that you’ve been living your entire life.’”
Ten years ago, Guillen met his now-wife, Miho, while living in Japan. She asked him a lot of things about American culture, but one thing she couldn’t wrap her brain around was Santa Claus.
“She asked me, ‘Why? Why do Americans do that? Why do you guys create this crazy myth around Santa, and then kind of pull the rug out from kids, at some point,’” Guillen said. “And I didn’t have a good answer! I couldn’t say, ‘Because x, y and z.’ I just said, ‘Because we do.’”
The couple decided then and there: No Santa for their kids. Then their first daughter, Sayuri, was born. They didn’t want to have Santa, but they still wanted to do something
“So, after some creative deliberation, we decided that the substitute for Santa was going to be something called the Black Tuna,” Guillen said.
As 6-year-old Sayuri recounted, “The Black Tuna is a black fish that gives us presents.”
But not really. Sayuri knows this because she and her father built the Black Tuna with their own hands out of chicken wire and papier-mâché. The fins are beer bottle caps and the teeth are wine bottle corks. Every year, a new item is added to the fish. This year, it was a pair of googly eyes. At just under 5 feet long, the Black Tuna sits on the mantle along with their stockings.
But Black Tuna is more than just a strange holiday decoration. According to the tradition, each person in the family is responsible for getting one family member a gift and along with that gift, must be a story about where it came from, Guillen said.
One example is the Amulet of Avalor that Sayuri received from the Black Tuna last year. Really, it’s a Disney locket based on the TV character Princess Sofia. But as part of rules of the Black Tuna, the story behind it became that the Black Tuna had traveled to a faraway land and traded a few of his fish scales for the locket.
For Sayuri’s gift to their English bulldog, Usu, she got him a deer antler, Guillen said. The story became that the Black Tuna had gotten it in a fight with a water buffalo on Pluto.
When he and his wife heard the story on Christmas Day they were in tears laughing so hard at the crazy tale Sayuri had created.
“We really love the idea of myth and we love the idea of storytelling, and it’s such an important component of our society -- much less our culture at home -- that we wanted to ingrain that in the process,” Guillen said.
For the most part, the story of the Black Tuna is kept in the family. Guillen said he doesn’t want Sayuri, or his 2-year-old daughter Emi, to accidentally take away Santa from other children.
Although that’s already been tested.
“Just last week we got the phone call from the teacher saying that Sayuri was telling all the kids that Santa wasn’t real,” Guillen said.
David Guillen and his daughter, Sayuri, shared their story of the Black Tuna as part of KUNC’s Curious Colorado project. We asked the question: What’s your weird holiday tradition?