I’ve never had a particular desire to see the world from inside a Santa suit. They can be hot, the padding confining. And if you’re at all claustrophobic, the last place you want to be is stuck behind a fake beard reeking of the previous occupant’s halitosis.
And yet, I have done my time. I have gained that perspective. And every Yuletide since, as I make my rounds amidst the mall Santas and mistletoe, my mind reverts back to the time when I was in The Chair, a child happily perched on my knee. Yes, Virginia, I was a Santa Claus.
It was many years ago, when Portage Place first opened and recruited volunteers to serve as their official mall Santa. I was a Rotarian at the time, and several among us stepped forward and donated our time, while the mall donated Santa’s salary to charity. A grand idea, we all agreed.
Our shifts were three hours and we went in armed with wit and wisdom culled from an experienced colleague. Know the reindeer. Know the child, even if you don’t know the name. Never assume a letter exists. Never cave in the presence of scepticism. And never, ever make an actual PROMISE.
It’s hard not to. Some will talk your ear off like a long-lost friend. Others will quietly state their wish, give you a hug and be off. Some don’t say a thing. The odd one will give you The Knowing Glare. And you want to promise them the moon.
And most especially, the child who does not bear the obvious marks of love and nourishment, and nurturing by loving parents. The child who looks like he doesn’t have a friend in the world, and not much of anything else, either.
‘Ginny’ looked to be about eight, sitting on Santa’s scrawny knee wearing a dirty blue coat and worn leggings. Her hair was long and unwashed. My impression was that she wasn’t kept very well. There was a foot of fresh snow outside, yet she was wearing running shoes. Off in the distance stood her dishevelled caregivers, I assume they were her parents, both smoking, the guy with a carton of cigarettes under his arm. They were arguing about money. Ginny just looked sad.
“I know you’ve been a good girl this year, Ginny.” Santa said kindly.
“Thanks.” Her eyes revealed she had been waiting for this moment all year.
“What is your wish, my dear?”
Her answer scuppered Santa’s heart. It was the year of Tickle-Me-Elmo (yes, THAT long ago…). You couldn’t find one to save your soul. They had flown off the shelves. Opportunists were hawking rare finds for hundreds of dollars. Santa wanted to say something to comfort her, to give her hope. But what?
“My goodness, Ginny, that’s a popular one this year. The elves are barely keeping up.”
She smiled. A sad smile.
“Well Ginny, I will try. But can I share a secret with you?”
“We like to take a few of the REALLY popular toys and tuck them away. A few extras, for those boys and girls who don’t have a home, who won’t have a Christmas at all. Some children have really big Christmases. Too much, really. And some have smaller Christmases, even tiny Christmases. But some children don’t even have a Christmas at all.”
“That’s awful,” she said, looking serious.
“So you see Ginny, we like to be especially nice to children who won’t even get a Christmas at all.”
She smiled again. “That’s a nice thing, Santa.”
“You have a lovely smile. It’s a gift you can give to others.”
“A wonderful gift…
“Merry Christmas, Ginny. I’ll be sure to bring something special Christmas Night, for you. And remember, because it’s from me, you’ll know it’s special.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, it has to be a surprise. Because it’s from Santa. But it will be special, because it will be from me, just for you.
“Because you are very special, Ginny.”
“ Merry Christmas, Santa,” she said quietly.
“Merry Christmas, my child,” I said.
Miracles do happen. I like to think one happened for ‘Ginny,’ which of course is not her real name. But if Christmas dawned to disappointment, I hope she remembered Santa’s words; that her Tickle-Me-Elmo had gone to a better place, to a kid whose world was a darker shade than even her own. And I’m hoping that she somehow had managed a knowing smile that whatever it was under the tree for her, grand or not, it was special because Santa had brought it just for her.
Now retired from The Chair, after all these years, I still smile when I think of her. She would be in her ‘30s now, perhaps with a family of her own. Somehow I think that she’s very happy, and that her own children are loved, happy and well.
And asking for drones and hover boards…