The Good That You Do

In 1993, I was Santa Claus at the stylish Westside Pavilion in West Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Times asked me to write a series of articles on the experience.  From the outset, it was a hit.  To read the text, skip below the photograph.

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“Have you been good this year?”

That’s the question I ask children about 400 times a day at the Westside Pavilion.  The question itself is a hallowed tradition.

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“Yes,” answered Sadler, 7 3/4.  “I helped Haley get away from Alex and Johnny.  They were running after her and tackling her to the ground.  Haley’s my best friend.  I helped her to run away.”

“What did you do this year that was good?” is my frequent followup question.

Lots of kids are stumped at this one, and have to be helped to an answer.  Other kids answer, “Play.”

Five-year-old Andre’s answer turned the question on its head: “I didn’t hit anybody.”

Derek, 6, answered like Ronald Reagan on Iran-Contra: “Too many things, I can’t remember.”

Sam, 4, answered existentially: “I was around.  Every day.”

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With one particularly verbal and confident child, Julian, I was more persistent than usual with my question.

“Have you been good this year?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Julian, who is 5.

“How good have you been?”

“Real good.”

“How good is that?”

“Super good.”

“How super good?”

“Super duper good.”

“How good is that?”

“As good as…as good as you can be.”

“How good is that?”

“Good like…like…like you don’t do anything wrong.”

And then his mother added: “He has been really good.”

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These days, being good means different things to different people.  What Julian meant was that he’d been good as a person, according to Mitch Golant, a clinical psychologist in West Los Angeles and author of the book, Disciplining Your Preschooler and Feeling Good About It.

“Julian was able to separate his goodness as a human being from those minor, day-to-day mistakes that we all make,” Golant said.  “When Julian said he was good, he was really talking about his self-esteem.  And his Mom mirrored his goodness as a person.  What you saw in Julian was the result of good parenting.”

Some parents use Santa’s good-bad shtick as behavior control.

“Be good or you won’t get anything from Santa,” some parents have said in my presence.

That, of course, makes Santa’s opinion of their behavior of the utmost importance.

“Don’t give her anything, she’s bad,” said Tommy, 6, of his sister Lynnette, 9.

“Shut up,” said Lynnette.

“She hits me.”

“He pinches me.”

“Shut up.”

“You shut up.”

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What we’re doing with this whole Santa business, really, is teaching our children about values.  But these days, many people have lost their beliefs in rigid absolutes.  After all, who can believe in traditional goodness after witnessing the behavior of all kinds of political leaders of the hypocrisy of the Bakkers or the Swaggarts, or hearing the long list of allegations against Woody Allen and Michael Jackson?  It can all make one cynical.

One Santa Claus I know has become a bit cynical about his role as a shameless pusher of good thoughts and deeds.  Bill Perron, 53, of El Monte, has been performing as Santa Claus for eight years now for a family in Covina.

One year, the family wanted Perron to call up 5-year-old Joey to help correct a behavior problem.  Perron agreed.

“Hello Joey!” Perron said over the phone.

“Yes?”

“This is Santa Claus.”

“Hi, Santa Claus.”

“Joey, your parents tell me that you’ve been pulling your sister’s hair lately.”

Joey paused.

“Yes,” he reluctantly answered.

“Well, listen to me carefully, all right?”

“Okay.”

“You can keep pulling your sister’s hair,” Perron said.  “Just don’t do it while your mother’s around.”

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When I was a teenager, being good was very important to me.  I rebelled against my parents not by taking drugs and telling my Dad where to get off, but by becoming a radical born-again Christian.  I wanted to be holier–more good–than my parents.

And as a religious radical, being good took on what I now consider a rather sinister meaning.  Being good meant not dancing, because dancing was sinfully sensual.  Being good meant asking strangers about their conception of God, and then telling them that they were going to hell unless they converted to my conception of God.  Being good, according to my Jesus, meant setting “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a son’s wife against her mother-in-law.” (Matthew 10:35)

In the intervening years, I’ve considerably softened my radical ideas.  Today, my definition of goodness is best expressed by my friend Nancy Berg’s bumper sticker: “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

Practice is right.  If you practice anything–that is, do something over and over again–you’ll get better at it.  Then, when the opportunity comes for performing a major act of kindness, one that requires a lot more courage, you’ll already know how to do it well.

And that’s one of the great things about being Santa Claus.  The job has offered me countless opportunities for little kindnesses.  Opportunities for being good.

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An opportunity came last week with Addison, 6.

“I have a problem,” Addison told me.

“Yes?”

“I know that my Mom brings out the presents.”

I looked into his eyes–the saddest eyes I’d seen all season.  I took his hand and began to explain about the spirit of Christmas.

“When kids are really little, like two or three,” I said, “they can’t understand about complicated things like love and giving.  So we tell them it’s Santa Claus.  They can understand Santa Claus.  But when they get to be your age, you begin to understand that it’s just your Mom and Dad, because you’re smarter at age six.

“You see, nobody’s trying to lie to you.  We just explain to the kids what the kids can understand.”

Addison’s mood didn’t undergo a major transformation, but it did seem to settle a bit.  I’m pretty sure I helped him.

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As Santa Claus, though, the good that you can do often remains unknowable.  You see brief moments in a child’s life–usually two minutes at the most–and then the child walks away from your chair, usually gone from your life forever.

Earlier this month, though, I got a chance glimpse at some of the good I had done.  I had been hired as a magician-Santa Claus for the holiday party at Truck Air Corp. in Compton.   There were about 25 children at the party, including 4-year-old Kristina, who became especially attached to me.  Kristina wanted to help with everything, was very chatty, and followed me wherever I went.

After the show, I ducked into a locking restroom and changed into my street clothes.  When I came out, I was surprised to find Kristina waiting for me.

“Where’s Santa Claus?” Kristina asked.

“Oh, he left,” I said.  “I’m helping with his stuff.”

I quickly wheeled out my dolly, left the building, and headed towards my car.  As I was loading my boxes of Santa paraphernalia into the car, I heard a child call out.

“Santa!”

I looked back and saw little Kristina standing outside Truck Air’s front door.

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“Santa!  Where did you go, Santa?” Kristina called into the darkness, walking back and forth in the cold night air.  “Where are you, Santa Claus?”

If you’re Santa Claus and someone is that sad when you leave, you can rest assured: You’ve been good.  You’ve been very good.

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Wanting to Believe

In 1993, I was Santa Claus at the stylish Westside Pavilion in West Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Times asked me to write a series of articles on the experience.  From the outset, it was a hit.  To read the text, skip below the photograph.

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When little Jessica, walked up to  my chair this week, she hugged me with such abandon, and sat on my knee and held my hand with such trust, that I knew she believed in Santa Claus with all her heart.

Jessica and I had a long talk.  At one point, she asked me how old I was.

“Older than time itself,” I said.

“I’m 4,” she said.

Before Jessica visited me, I would end each visit with, “Merry Christmas.”  After Jessica left, I began ending visits with, “I love you.”  As Santa Claus, there’s so much you learn.

There is a touching beauty in such total, blind belief.  Some people, however, consider such belief evil.  Last holiday season, KFI talk radio featured a guest who suggested The Santa Lie is an assault on children that marks the beginning of family dysfunction and leads to alcoholism, drug abuse, and worse.

Santa is a lie, of course.  And lies generally do lead to other lies.  For example, while visiting me at the Westside Pavilion this week, Kelly Hayes-Raitt of Santa Monica recalled a lie her father told her when she was 3.

“Dad came in the front door with a box that had a picture of a globe on the front,” Hayes-Raitt said.  “And I said, ‘Oh Daddy, you bought me a globe for Christmas!’  And Daddy put his finger to his lips and said, ‘Shhh, it’s a frying pan for Mommy.’  And I said, ‘No it’s not, look, it’s a globe for me.’  And Daddy said, ‘Shhh–no, it’s a frying pan for Mommy.'”

Of course, Daddy was lying: It was indeed a globe for his daughter and he was merely trying to preserve the surprise.  But this lie had a happy ending.  Over the next few years, the girl and her Dad spent many happy hours in front of that globe dreaming of foreign lands.

This week, I put a leading question to many of the children who visited me at the Westside Pavilion:

“You believe in Santa Claus, don’t you?”

Most of those under age 7 answered with a confident yes.  Still, they were precarious yeses, because by age 5, there seem to be a lot of rumors floating around the schoolyard questioning Santa Claus’ authenticity.

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“You believe in Santa Claus, don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Ryan, 6.

“And all your friends do, too, don’t they?”

“No.”

“Oh no,” I said,  “What do they say?”

“That’s it’s just your Mom and Dad.  That they get up at midnight and put presents under the tree.”

“Touch my hand,” I said.  “See, I’m real.”

“I know.”

Sometimes, it’s the grownups who are the most determined to perpetuate belief.  A few days ago, I was talking to Steve, whose 7-year-old son Daniel still believed–“at least I think he does,” Steve said.  Then Daniel walked up.

“Daniel,” his father asked, “on Christmas Eve, who lands on the roof?”

Daniel smirked.

“A fake Santa,” he said.

This answer did not please Daniel’s father.

“Well then, who’s he?” Steve asked, pointing at me.

“A fake Santa,” he said.

“Touch my hand,” I said.  “See, I’m real.”

“You’re a real person, but you’re a fake Santa.”

Nothing was working.  This kid had all the angles covered.  That is when Steve came to the rescue.

“Well of course he’s fake,” Steve said.  “They have hundreds of fake Santas in malls all around the country.  Do you think they’d go to all that trouble if there weren’t a real Santa Claus?”

Daniel thought for a moment, confused.  It was the type of logic that’s so misargued that you can’t argue against it.  And it ended the discussion, which was a little victory in itself.

But in the end, it was a doomed battle, of course.  Sooner or later, every kid discovers the truth about Santa.  So why do we lie?

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The answer might be that, although Santa is technically a lie, there is actually more truth than lie in this whole Santa business.  In fact, it is much more appropriate to call it The Santa Myth, according to Maureen O’Sullivan, who has done research on the subject of deception for 20 years.

“There’s plenty of research to support the idea that when grownups talk to children, they speak in a different language,” said O’Sullivan, who is professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco.  “So when you’re trying to communicate abstract ideas, you’ll use analogies, metaphors, and the like in order to make them more concrete and understandable.  And Santa is something like that.

“Many of the Greek gods and goddesses were personifications of human characteristics–the god of war, the goddess of love, etc.  So Santa is a way of conveying a sense of wonder and magic that are present in the world, that despite all the bad things that happen, good things can happen too.”

As the Pavilion Santa Claus, I feel that quite strongly.  I work a 3-day weekend as Santa–Friday through Sunday–and time seems to float by like I’m walking through a dream.  More than a person, I’m an icon, like Zeus, or George Washington, or Barbie.

Two-year-old Samira knew I was an icon.  He toddled up to me, smiled, and waved.

“Hi, Christmas tree,” Samira said, waving at me.

Right holiday, wrong icon.

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Some older children believe in Santa Claus despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.  Tracy, 10 1/2 still believed, as did Clarissa, 9.  And they were not embarrassed to be seen sitting on Santa’s knee, either.

To a certain degree, children such as Tracy and Clarissa conspire with their parents to not know the truth, according to O’Sullivan.  They don’t just believe, they want to believe.  And when you believe in anything–a spouse, a god, a political movement, whatever–you lose a certain amount of street-smarts.  But when you disbelieve, you lose something, too.  You lose the ability to dream.

“What do you want for Christmas?” I asked.

I was talking to two 16-year-old best friends, Penny and Rahwa.

“To find love,” said Penny.  “And give me a new father, too.”

On Being the Big Man

Being the Big Man is an honor.  I’ve been doing it for 23 years now.  In 1993, I was Santa Claus at the stylish Westside Pavilion in West Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Times asked me to write a series of articles on the experience.  From the outset, it was a hit.  To read the text, skip below the photograph.

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I slipped into the red suit, the padding and the Black Hawk boots last Friday, and the high Santa season began.  Walking out of m y dressing room and through the mall, I spotted my first child of the year, a 4-year-old boy.  When he saw me, he froze.

“Mom, it’s Santa Claus!” he whispered in urgent tones.

In that moment of recognition, I became Santa Claus.

Once I opened for business, the lines formed quickly.  Some mothers handed me their 4-month-old bundles to prop up and gurgle for the camera.  Others handed me 18-month toddlers who, the moment they were out of mother’s hands, began to bawl uncontrollably.  Then there were the more eager and articulate 3- through 7-year-olds who had things to tell me that were of the utmost importance.

“What do you want for Christmas/” I asked about 400 times on that first Friday.

“Back ball hoo,” said James, 3.

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It’s not important to know exactly what they’re saying.  Just nod, smile, and love them.  Mom and Dad will handle the translations.

What do we want?  That is one of the most difficult and riveting questions for anyone, even an adult, to answer.  It brings all the efforts and threads of our lives down to a single focus.

Imagine, for example, if you were able to sit on President Obama’s lap every December, and he asked, “Okay, what do you want for Christmas?”

What would you ask for?  A 14-bedroom mansion next door to a Tommy’s burger stand?  Your own late-night talk show?  A box of those old Beatles fan magazines that your grandmother threw away all those years ago?  The possibilities boggle the mind.  And in just such a way, the Santa concept boggles the minds of our children, even though the price tags of their dreams may be more modest.

For Jessica, 4, sitting on Santa’s knee was a big moment.  She went down her list slowly and deliberately, making sure I understood.

“I’ll have…a life-size Barbie.  And a Baby Checkup.  And a Polly Pocket Deluxe Gift Set.”

Suddenly, Mommy scurried up and whispered in Jessica’s ear:

“Ask to save the poor people.”

For a moment, Jessica hesitated.  Mommy scurried away again.  When she was safely out of earshot, Jessica continued.

“And a dress.  And a….”

There actually was one 8-year-old named Laura, who, all on her own, asked Santa to save the poor.

“How would we do that?” I asked.

“Well, they can come to live where I live,” said Laura, “and I’ll go live where they live.”

I don’t think she has all the bugs in her plan quite worked out yet.

Bryan, 3, wanted a stuffed panther.  I asked why.

“Because sometimes…sometimes I…sometimes…sometimes I…”

Perhaps Bryan might include a thesaurus on his list.

“Sometimes,” he continued, “I want to snuggle with my cat, but he doesn’t want to snuggle.  And a stuffed panther always wants to snuggle.”

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For my work, the Westside Pavilion compensates me quite nicely.  But for a single man with no children, the work itself has even greater, non-economic rewards.  To be in a position to give so much, for example, is a gift that affects the whole texture of my life.  Children give me well-thought-out lists with colorful pictures drawn on them, and my valuable gift to them in return is simply to graciously accept them.

Being Santa Claus also gives me a unique ringside view on the inner lives of families.  Some confess the facts of their lives to me as they would to a priest.

For example, when 4-year-old Farrah was giving me her list, Mom piped up with: “Tell Santa what Momma wants.”  Farrah didn’t know.

“Mom wants Chris back,” Mom said.  “Chris is my boyfriend.  He’s being stupid right now.”

I didn’t know quite what to say.  Neither did Farrah.

“Well,” I said cheerfully, “I’ll have to talk with Chris’s mother.”

Which prompted a deep belly laugh from Mom.

Santa, of course, is very concerned with who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

“What did you do that was good this year?” I asked Nicole, 5.

“I went to sleep.  And when the other kids woke up, I’m so good that I even stayed asleep.”

Despite the rewards, Santa Clausing sometimes gets grueling.  It is hard work, like mothering is hard work: It’s managing kids.

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It’s dealing with slobbery and poopy infants.  It’s being strapped into your beard with elastic bands that run over the top of your ears, eventually biting into your flesh.  It’s wearing a wig that makes your hair itch.  It’s slapping double-stick tape on your upper and lower lips.  It’s sitting so long that the blood pools painfully in your gluteus maximus.

And then there was the middle-aged stockbroker who lovingly handed over her two bundles of joy–Jody, 4, and Keiko, 2–to hold on my lap.  They were Lhasa apso dogs.  It as an absurdly touching moment–this single, childless woman who loved her dogs to dearly.

At the end of the day, I finally changed clothes and headed home, stopping at a Subway sandwich shop for a bit of dinner.  While I waited in line, there was the cutest little brown-haired 4-year-old girl standing next to her father, and I smiled and waved hello.  The little girl cowered, and then I remembered: You no longer possess the power of your costume.

It’s at moments like those that I feel sorry for everybody who is not Santa Claus.

To invite a Santa Claus to your Southern California party or event, contact us at (310) 962-7051 or santasmiles@gmail.com.