In late September, a friend asked if I would play Santa Claus for her three year old child. I said yes. Who could refuse a chance to bring a little joy into a child’s life? Later, my friend casually told me that her mother in France had promised to send a Santa suit.
“Wonderful.” I said, thinking about an elaborate French costume sewn together by an old craftsman, a sweeping gown of the finest blood-red velvet trimmed with the soft fur of a dozen baby albino mink. The kind of costume that would incite the jealously of a Cardinal dressed for midnight-mass,
I didn’t start to worry until about a week before Christmas. That’s when the clouds rolled in.
First, was the logistics. How do you set up a casual encounter with Santa on his busiest night? I suggested I wait in the lobby next to the silver Christmas tree and they could accidentally come across me after walking the dog. I even had a story to go with that, Santa was taking a break while the reindeers scoffed grass on Mount Royal.
“No way,” the mother said. “If you say that, she’ll want to go up on the mountain with you to see Rudolph”.
The mother suggested I tell the child that I had just finished delivering toys to all the good children in the building and was taking a quick break.
“That way, she’ll go straight home to see her presents.”
Mothers have a knack of seeing deep into the avaricious hearts of their offspring, so the cover story was agreed.
The costume was delivered on December 23rd. Instead of the hand-crafted work of art by French artisans, it was a package from the French Dollarama, the material was so thin, if you rubbed it between your fingers you’d find a hole. Holding it up to the light it was see-through, and in my soul I knew that if I passed close to a naked flame I’d be incinerated in a second.
I tried it on and looked in the mirror. Instead of every child’s dream of a larger than life Santa beaming out joy and happiness, I was looking at an emaciated, sad-eyed Santa, a skinny, pathetic imposter. I met his eyes again and he asked silently why I had agreed to such a mockery. What sane child would ever be deceived by sad Santa? He had a point, and I sat down and heard the unmistakable sound of a ripped seam in sad Santa’s pants.
By the morning of Christmas Eve I was having serious doubts.
For one, there was the stark realization that I was about to destroy a child’s entire belief system. No one, not even a sleep deprived three year old, would believe the skinny, sad-eyed character in the red costume was the real Santa Claus. I would be walking the child to the cliff edge of knowledge that life is not all sunshine and roses. I would be responsible for replacing Santa Claus, flying reindeers, peace, love, joy, and loads of toys, with a dark understanding of life’s bitterness. I was dooming the poor child to becoming a nihilist, convinced that happiness is a delusion.
That’s a lot of responsibility to take on.
To make matters worse, I was imagining weeping Santa showing up as soon as the child arrived. This last year has been difficult for me for a number of reasons, and a river of emotion is never far from the surface waiting to escape as uncontrollable tears. I had visions of being overcome by emotions and breaking down in tears. What child wants to look at a Santa weeping into his beard? Imagine the effect that would have on a child’s view of the world. Yet here I was, risking the emotional wellbeing of a young child, likely condemning her to a lifetime of therapy to overcome the shock of crossing paths with weeping Santa.
But it was too late to abandon. I pushed ahead. First I tried to beef up Santa with a pillow strapped to my belly. It was too obvious. The Dollarama costume was built with cheap in mind, not for the luxury of hiding pillows. I folded towels and tucked them into a pillowcase that I then tied the pillowcase around my chest. It was better and gave me a few extra inches of girth, but the towels moved around and stuck out at unusual angles like the Alien baby about to burst through Sigourney Weaver’s chest. I could just about keep things under control providing I didn’t move. I rubbed flour on my eyebrows to whiten them and looked into the mirror. Not even close to the Coca-Cola Santa, but I was putting a little distance between me and the Steven King version.
I sat in the lobby waiting, practicing my best Santa laughs while keeping a keen eye out for candles. I couldn’t move because of the hole in the back of my pants and the shifting towels.
Then they appeared, mother, child, and a very suspicious dog. In seconds, it was clear the deception worked. The child’s eyes widened and she accepted the impossible. She was beaming like a cherub; there really was a Santa Claus and he was sitting in the lobby of her apartment building taking a break from a hard night’s work. She told me her name, introduced the dog and her mother, and then told me her modest wishes for Christmas. The dog looked a little less threatening.
Before they left, the child gave me a hug.
Have you ever been hugged by a three year old? Hugs from three year olds are always wonderful, but imagine being hugged as Santa Claus by a three year old who believes in Santa Claus. It’s the purest, distilled love there is. It touched me deeply.
I watched as they left, waving backwards over their shoulders, and I realized how very lucky I was. Lucky to have been invited to play Santa Claus, and lucky to have been hugged as Santa Claus.
Later in the evening, there was a knock on the door and mother, child and dog were outside waiting to tell me the news. I did a lightening-fast cleanup of the apartment to remove all traces of Santa and went to the door, just as I remembered about the bushy eyebrows full of self-rising flour. I dashed to the bathroom and began to ladle water onto the bushes of hair filled with flour. Do you know what happens when you mix flour and water? I looked into the mirror and saw two gigantic pretzel sticks over my eyes. I yelled “J’arrive” at the door and turned the tap to produce hotter and hotter water. Didn’t work. The pretzels were beginning to bake.
I answered the door. The dog was suspicious again. The mother was staring at my eyebrows, and the child was busy telling me everything that had happened. The mother handed me a China bowl with the most delicious lamb stew. It was magic.
I smiled, was amazed at the child’s stories, said thank you for the lamb stew, and petted Sam on the head. He seemed to accept that.
I closed the door, put the lamb stew in the kitchen, and sat down on the couch listening to the furthest thing from Christmas music I could find, Ben Webster from 1950. I was thinking about how lucky I was to have been invited to play Santa Claus, how lucky to have been hugged as Santa Claus, and how lucky to have someone knock on your door on Christmas Eve to deliver a lamb stew and wish you Merry Christmas.