(This is the first in a series that will appear occasionally, leading up to Christmas)
I believe in Santa Claus. And here’s why:
In 1996, I was laid off from my job as a daily newspaper reporter. I had some assurances that it would be temporary, so I was hesitant to uproot my wife and son and move to a new city. A friend who handled marketing for a local shopping centre called one day and offered me a job: Santa.
This wouldn’t be my first time in costume. I had been working as one of those giant mascots for a while, dressing up as a big cookie, a dairy cow, a rolled-up newspaper and various strange creatures on both a volunteer and paying basis. It was a lot of fun. I love kids, and love entertaining them. The first time my little guy realized it was his daddy under the mask was one of the best moments of my life.
Santa Claus, though, was a different challenge. For one thing, I was 28, tall and skinny and pretty brown. “No problem,” my friend assured me. “We have a top-of-the-line Santa suit.”
She wasn’t kidding. This thing was gorgeous. Red velour, white faux fur, real leather boots and gloves, a big lush cap … the beard and wig were snow-white. We had to invest in a second artificial belly to fill it out, but once it was on and I was parked on the big throne in Santa’s Workshop for our test run, I looked the part.
I used spirit gum for the beard. For one thing, it felt better. For another, it looked more real. I have never liked fake-looking mall Santas; this beard was of such good quality that once it was glued on, it looked like part of me.
My first appearance was scheduled for right after the city’s Santa Claus Parade. I was to make a grand entrance, work the crowd, and head to the Workshop to start visiting with kids and getting pictures taken. I thought there might be a hundred people. There were more than a thousand. And I don’t like crowds.
I stood there, panicking, my “helpers” urging me forward, and I pretty much decided “Nope, this is not for me.” I almost quit right there. But then … I still can’t explain it, but everything changed. I was suddenly an ancient elf, smaller, fatter and, for some reason, Irish. I moved through that crowd, my eyes twinkling, my fake belly indeed jiggling like a bowlful of jelly. I was hugged by about 500 children in less than 20 minutes. And when I sat down on that big chair, I had a line of visitors that snaked off past the Saint Cinnamon in the food court, which is pretty far, trust me.
That first night was a blur. I barely remember any of it, except that I was chatting with kids in a lilting brogue (and I can’t do accents, not then and not now) and somehow, miraculously, knowing exactly what each kid wanted for Christmas, almost all the time. I had a wonderful time, but I did not feel like myself. Someone, something, was speaking through me.
I had been hired to work every day, seven days a week, from mid-November until Christmas Eve, 9 a.m to 9 p.m., noon to five on Sundays. It was a big workload. And I loved every minute of it. Because whatever Santa Claus is, whatever the spirit of Christmas is, it parked itself in a skinny brown mall Santa and brought the real deal to a lot of kids.
That’s not to say there weren’t some bizarre misadventures mixed in with the shining moments. I’ll share more of them in the weeks to come.
Ho ho ho.
(Note: I’m looking for the photos from that Christmas.)