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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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