I ran into Santa the other night at the YMCA. I rarely go to the Y at night. I do Yoga on Tuesday and Thursday morning, and try to get in the pool Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon like I used to when I was employed. That doesn’t always happen.
When I went to the Y that night the place was jammed, parking lot overflowing, street parking mostly taken. I swiped myself in and happened to walk by the small gym and who did I see but my old friend Santa Claus. I had to stop and watch. He was rearing back with his big red belly sticking out, giving the room the exaggerated wave of his arm and booming out the Ho Ho Ho’s. The guy cracks me up.
He had just walked in and the kids, who had been eating pizza, were screaming. Some kids were crying and terrified, running away from Santa, burying their face in parents’ necks, while other kids were breaking free of their parents and running straight at Santa. It was the kind of craziness Santa loves. Some kids made it and wrapped themselves around his legs. Santa kept laughing the whole time. I’m telling you, the jolly one is really a ham.
He’s working the crowd, shaking hands, bumping fists, giving high fives, patting heads, smiling at Moms and Dads. Unlike past years Mrs. Claus was with him. Something about her outfit bothered her; the way the apron hung, the hem of her skirt dragging on the floor. Between smiles she fussed with it. But Nick, St. Nicholas that is, was in his glory.
When I was working at the agency I’d see Santa every year, sometimes four or five times. Those last couple of years I saw him all over the place, Rockford and Aurora, Streator, LaSalle, Mendota. And then I retired and our contact stopped. Funny.
As I watched him smiling, his white beard neatly combed, the big red bag on his back, trying to make contact with every person in the room, I realized how much I had missed him. He has a sort of presence, Nick does, that makes you feel good. It’s the jolliness in guess.
He made his way through the gym to a room where a Christmas tree, and chairs for he and Mrs. Claus, were all set up. There he would talk to each boy and girl individually, and Mrs. Claus would give them a smile and a candy cane. That’s where Santa has always been the best.
This year for the first time there was a flat screen TV on the wall behind Santa with a video loop of a burning fireplace. Not a burning fireplace mind you, just the illusion of one. No heat, some light, no additional logs needed. Kind of nice but weird somehow. An elf was behind a camera taking digital pictures. Another elf kept kids quiet in line and let the next family know when it was their turn. Like a starter on a golf course. I made my way quietly to a corner where I could just watch.
Parents rarely do this these days but in the presence of Santa they urge, almost demand, their kids to leave them, for just a few moments, to go to a stranger and talk to him privately. Sit on his lap even. They want the picture, for one thing, but they also want the relationship, the moment, however brief, when their child looks in awe at Santa Claus and tells him what they want for Christmas. Santa will tell you it’s mostly an American phenomena although it happens in one form or another all over the world. But the American Santa experience is the most intimate. Santa is pretty flexible. He’s an international figure you know, well versed in cultural differences.
As good as Santa is at working a room he excels at one on one. If the little boy or girl is even a little comfortable and accepting, Santa manages to engage them. He shuts out the rest of the noise and clatter and focuses on that one child on his lap. Occasionally a family will put two or three kids around him for a picture, but after it’s taken he always does an individual session.
If Santa can make eye contact with a kid, he’s halfway there. Santa has blue eyes, and bushy eyebrows. His cheeks are red. There’s a lot to look at, a bunch of things to catch a kid’s eye. If Santa can get that kid to meet his gaze, bend the right way to get in their line of sight, turn them gently just a bit with his arm or knee so that they look at his eyes, the visit with Santa begins.
“What’s your name?”
“Maddy.” Once Santa gets a name he uses it over and over.
“How old are you Maddy?”
Some kids are just agog and can’t talk. They get lost in the red velvet, the white ball hanging from Santa’s cap, the hairy beard, and this year that damn digital fire behind Santa. Their mouth hangs open. They’re speechless.
“Can you hold up how many fingers old you are?” That usually works. Once Santa gets an age he has information for another question.
Seeing three fingers he asks, “Are you in preschool?”
Maddy is transfixed. Santa repeats his question.
“Yes,” she says softly.
“Do you go to Opportunity School?”
Santa knows all the local preschools. He’s ready with a follow up with another if Maddy says no. These are Ottawa and Marseilles kids, so there’s a limited number of choices.
Maddy nods again. She hasn’t taken her eyes off Santa since she sat down. Her skin is fair and clear. You can see little blood vessels in its whiteness, and just a faint smear of pizza sauce. Her eyes are fresh and bright. They glisten. Little children are magnificent in their innocence. There is splendor in their lack of pretense. Oh to be so young again, to do it all over.
“Are you good to your classmates Maddy?”
She nods again.
“I know you are. You’re a good girl. What can I bring you for Christmas Maddy?”
Maddy looks back at her Mom as if to see if it’s all right to say. Her Mom smiles. She turns back to Santa and says softly
Santa seemed a little confused. “Mrs. Claus do we have any of those Shopkins left that we can give Maddy?”
Mrs. Claus looked as confused as Santa felt. Both of them looked at Maddy’s mother who nodded.
“Yes we do Santa. We have plenty.”
“OK Maddy, Shopkins (?) it is. Anything else?”
Maddy had tuned out. That short exchange was all she could manage. She slipped off Santa’s knee, took a candy cane from Mrs. Claus, and ran back to her mother. From the safety of her Mom’s side she looked back at Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
“Merry Christmas, Maddy.”
Maddy smiled. So did her Mom.
Santa repeated that simple exchange, that little intimate moment, about a hundred and ten times that night at the Y. Each visit varied. Santa changes his delivery based on the age of the kids and their situation. Santa usually asks the five and ups if they’ve been good.
Some just give a timid nod yes, others say yes with bravado of varying degree. The most honest reply something like this:
“I try really hard.” If there is a time during the encounter when they break their gaze with Santa it is usually following this question. How many of us can say yes with certainty, even as adults? It’s a Christmas ideal, something to aim for, not a means test. Santa always says something to the effect of:
“I think you’ve been pretty good.”
Once in a while he makes that question more pointed, especially if there are siblings on his lap or standing with their parent(s) saying things like
“You don’t fight with your brother do you?”
Their look often becomes serious, sometimes they shoot a quick look at their Mom. If the brother in question is standing next to their Mom waiting his turn he often smirks, obviously knowing the answer.
Most kids are amazingly honest. “Not much, but you know, sometimes. Most of the time I don’t.”
Santa is rarely stumped. He’s pretty quick on his feet. I did see him stumped in Streator once. A little boy about five named Jalen got up on Santa’s lap with an extremely serious look on his face. That night Santa had been emphasizing the joy of giving presents in addition to getting them. He was asking each child if they had gotten their mother a present. As he did he looked at the women who had brought them with a smile. He asked Jalen if he’d gotten his mother a present.
The woman with that little boy just shook her head while Jalen looked up at Santa with big liquid eyes and said.
“My Mom’s in jail.”
Santa paused. “Are you going to get to see your Mom on Christmas Jalen?”
Jalen looked up at Santa with a mournful little face.
“They haven’t told us yet. I kind of don’t think so.”
Santa looked up at the woman who had brought Jalen to see Santa and she just shrugged. Santa looked away. He paused so long it was sort of uncomfortable. Finally he looked back at Jalen and said something. His voice cracked a little. This is what he said.
“You know what you could do Jalen? You could make your Mom a picture. Draw it and then color it. Maybe a Christmas tree. And on the picture you could draw you, and wish her a Merry Christmas, and tell her you love her. That might just be the best Christmas present your Mom ever gets. And you could mail it to where she is. Think you could do that Jalen?”
Jalen managed a little smile. “Yeah.”
If I’m not wrong Santa stopped asking that question.
I hung out as Santa had some pizza, talked with the elves, got into a group picture, and made his way out of the building. It was a nice warm night. He and Mrs. Claus looked a little bushed.
I whistled a few bars of “Up on the Housetop” to get their attention as they walked across the parking lot. Santa stopped and turned.
“Dave, how you doing? I haven’t seen you in years. I was afraid once you retired you stopped believing in Santa.”
“I’d never do that Nick.”
“Let me introduce you to my wife. This is Dave. He and I have known each other for a long time. Dave used to work with kids, I would visit them, and we got close.”
I shook her hand. She has blue eyes too, and a great smile.
“Santa you look good. Your suit looks good.”
“I got a new one. I wear them out you know. This one is from China, can you believe it? Well made. Good thick velvet. Nice red don’t you think?”
“Yeah I do.” Some say the suit makes the Santa. I don’t believe that myself.
Santa got out a set of car keys and pushed the fob. The lights flashed and the door locks clicked open on a late model Buick. Nice looking. Chrome wheels. Santa only brings the sleigh out, makes the reindeer work, on Christmas Eve. When he’s making pre Christmas appearances in America he likes to drive a full size Buick. They tell me he drives a big old Mercedes in Germany, and is hell on wheels on the Autobahn.
“Santa you got a new ride there. Last I saw you were driving a 1990 something LeSabre.”
“Yeah, I had to give that one up. The engine was still good but there was a pesky wobble in the front end. That and the gas gauge didn’t work. They wanted to charge me an arm and a leg to fix it. I got almost 170,000 miles out of that LeSabre though. Had the big engine.”
“This one’s a Lucerne with all the bells and whistles. Preset seat positions and outside mirror setting for the Mrs. and me. Dual temperature controls. Back up alerts. Compass in the dash. It’s a 2006 with less than 100,000. Should last seven years if not more. “
“Santa do you have another appearance to make tonight?”
“Nope, this is the last one.”
“Well would you and the Mrs. care to come up to my house for a nightcap? Maybe a bourbon?”
Santa broke into a smile, looked at his wife, and quickly agreed. “Mrs. Claus is kind of partial to red wine. Do you have any? Maybe a Cab or a Zinfandel? I have some in my bag if you don’t. ”
“I got plenty Santa. You can follow me up the hill.”
“Come on Dave. I know where you live. From when the kids were little you know.”
“Oh right. I forgot.”
Soon we were gathered around our kitchen counter enjoying beverages. Mrs. Claus and my wife seemed to have a lot in common. They talked at one end of the kitchen over a bottle of “7 Deadly Zins” while Santa and I toasted a couple of fingers of Bulleit Bourbon on the rocks and had our own conversation.
“You just keep going don’t you Santa. You haven’t lost your touch with the kids at all.”
“It’s the kids that keep me going. How can I stop when they believe so much?”
“You’re such an optimist Santa. You can’t tell me it’s gotten easier for you over the years. Don’t you think the world is in sorry shape?”
“Let me tell you Dave, the world has always had its troubles. Having flown over it once a year for centuries I can tell you there were always troubles out there, you just didn’t know about them. Yeah, I worry about flying over the Middle East. There was an Egyptian passenger plane shot out of the sky not long ago, and then there’s those damn military drones. Nothing good about military drones that I can see. That and the lasers people keep shining at aircraft. Scares the reindeer half to death. But we always make it through. I’ve got other worries.”
“Global warming for one thing. I live at the North Pole you know. Hell, we’ve got open water not a half mile from the workshop now. Getting to be a watery mess up there, everything melting. Poor damn polar bears stranded on ice floes. I’m not sure where it going to end. To tell you the truth, I’m thinking of relocating.”
“Moving from the North Pole?”
Mrs. Claus heard that. “Nick, stop that crazy talk. You’re going to start rumors.”
“I don’t care. Think about it Dave. I have a worldwide logistics operation with its headquarters at the very top of the world. It makes a hell of a lot more sense to locate along the equator. Most of the population is in the temperate zones on either side. I could cut a lot of time and travel off Christmas Eve if I were in say Cuenca, Ecuador.
"Too much altitude."
"Esmeraldas is a nice town." Tropical."
"But it’s on the coast. Coastal cities are threatened by global warming too. ”
"Too much altitude."
"Esmeraldas is a nice town." Tropical."
"But it’s on the coast. Coastal cities are threatened by global warming too. ”
“Dave you’ll have to forgive Nick," Mrs. Claus said loudly from the other side of the kitchen. “He’s been thinking too much in the off season. Deep down he knows he can’t break with tradition like that.”
“The damn tradition is getting in the way dear. Times change. How can we possibly not change with them?”
“Well Santa." I said. "I hate to say this but I don’t think that’s really your core business. Outside of the Christmas Eve trip, which I know must be taxing, you’re an inspirational figure. You’re as important on a night like tonight there at the Y as you are on Christmas Eve.”
“How do you figure Dave?”
“Well the important thing is for kids, and people in general, to develop belief based on hope. You’re the epitome of hope and kindness. There is nothing the least bit violent or extreme about you. You stand for good. You accept everyone. You bring joy and peace. You’re a lot like someone else I admire.”
“Nick, finish your drink," Mrs. Claus yelled. "We’ve got to be going and let these nice people get to bed.”
“Yes Dear,” Santa called back to his wife. To me he asked “Who is this I’m so much like?”
“Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, you’re so international, so well known around the world, you bridge even beyond the Christian religion these days, which is a plus. Think about it. Is it only a coincidence you and Jesus both have your most activity, your biggest celebration, at the same time? It’s his birthday, and you make that trip bringing joy and peace to the world on the same night. You complement each other. I think you’re a lot more alike than different.”
“Oh come on Dave. You’re stretching it.”
“I am not. That bag of yours that never runs out of toys? It’s the loaves and fishes all over again. Or water into wine. You operate out of a belief of abundance. You offer an extravagant welcome. You exemplify good qualities.”
“Yeah, well if you say so. In the end I’m just a persistent myth with a great story. Not that I mind being a myth. Some of my best friends are myths.”
By this time we were walking the Clauses out to their car on our driveway.
Santa leaned in to me and said, “Your point again?”
“It doesn’t matter where you’re headquartered. It’s who you are that counts. It’s what you stand for.”
Santa was getting in the driver’s seat of the Buick and Mrs. Claus in the passenger side. He began talking to her immediately.
“See honey, Dave just said it doesn’t matter where we’re headquartered.”
From inside the car I heard Mrs. Claus say “Damn it Nick, we’re not moving to Ecuador and that’s the end of it. I don’t care what Dave says.”
The Buick left my driveway. As it turned onto Caton Road a power window came down silently and a white gloved hand extended out the driver’s window and waved.
And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”