I ran in to Santa unexpectedly this week. He was heading into Opportunity School from the parking lot, clothing bag over his shoulder, dressed in jeans, red flannel shirt, and tennis shoes. He had his head down, with a scarf wrapped around his neck. I can’t remember seeing him before without the velvet robes and black boots.“Santa, is that you?”
He looked up with a start.
“McClure, what are you doing here?“I was just about to ask you the same thing. I’m on the board here, came to do a little business. How you been? Haven’t seen you in a couple years.”
“I’ve been…oh…fair.”Santa has this way of looking into your eyes that is piercing. He can say a lot with a look. His look troubled me some.
“I’m running late. On track to meet three classes of little people here at the school today. Couple more tomorrow.”“Thanks for coming Santa, it means a lot to us.”
“Walk with me. Maybe you can help.”
“I’m a little big to be an elf I’m afraid.”
“No such thing. Come on.”
I’ve been running into Santa for twenty years. At YSB we used to get fake Santas until we finally got disgusted with them. We had a Santa come drunk, another with bad body odor, but mostly grumpy Santas. Their hearts weren't in it.
I didn’t know the protocol, but decided to reach out to the real deal. To my surprise, he said yes. Said his requests for personal appearances had been dwindling for centuries. He put us on his calendar. Streator Youth Group, Santa at The Kids’ Place day care, Pizza with Santa in Marseilles at Bobaluks, all over. Very accommodating guy.He did draw the line after “Pets with Santa”. It was a well intentioned but half baked fund raising idea targeting animal lovers. Let people come in and have pictures taken with their dogs, cats, birds, iguana, what have you, and asked for a donation for the privilege. Guy came in with two boxers who totally slobbered out Santa’s velvet britches. His thighs were soaked in dog drool. That turned out to be a one-time event.
As we were going up the stairs to the library, where he would set up in a wing back chair by the fireplace, he seemed a little slower than usual.“Something wrong Santa?”
"Knee’s been bothering me a little. Getting better quickly though. Good therapy is the key.”“I didn’t think you had those kind of troubles Santa, being immortal and all.”
“Hey, just because you’re a beloved saint looking at life without end doesn’t mean you don’t feel things.”
Santa had sort of an edge to him I hadn’t seen before.
Santa suited up and the first class came in tentatively. They were four and five years old. Most of them had seen Santa before, but that didn’t mean they all wanted to get up close and personal. At their teachers’ direction they sat on the floor quietly in front of Santa, some at his feet, some against the wall ten feet away, a few as close to their teacher as they could get, and one with his head buried in his teacher's chest, too scared to even look. Santa can be an imposing figure. I mean he’s a worldwide myth built up over fourteen hundred years. In some ways he’s lost control of his persona.
He knows that of course and works immediately to connect and be human. In addition to being mythical, he is human too you know. Very human believe me. He’s been working with kids a long time. Sort of the ultimate youth worker. There are some basic things that always work. Santa starts in by raising his voice just a little and talking to them all at once, getting them to listen as a group.
He asks if they know how long till Christmas day, how many more times they need to sleep before they wake up on Christmas morning. He stresses the importance of being asleep on Christmas Eve, so he can come in their house, and puts in a plug for leaving not only cookies and milk for Santa, but a carrot stick or two for the reindeer (8 of them, not counting Rudolf). They get hungry too., he explains.And if they are paying attention well, which they often are, he points out the joy of not only getting presents but giving presents. He suggests closely watching the faces of those opening presents you give them, and by doing so seeing firsthand the joy of giving.
All that calms them down and gets them ready for the Santa moment everyone has come to expect, sitting on Santa’s lap for a picture. Cameras changed everything for Santa at Christmas. What used to be a private intimate moment is now caught in pixels somewhere so as to be a lifetime digital memento. Parents will do damn near anything for that picture, including placing screaming terrorized children on Santa’s lap, regardless of the trauma, just for the picture. Santa is not into it. He has his own approach.
As he talked he closely watched the boy with his head buried in his teacher’s lap to see if his curiosity caused him to look up. When he did Santa did all he could to return his gaze and smile. Just look and smile, not talk directly to him, not stare him down, just engage him in a kind look and try to hold it for a few seconds, as if to prove that old men with white beards are not categorically scary.
The session shifted to individual talk. Santa invited those who wanted to talk to him, sit on his lap or stand beside him, to tell him what they wanted for Christmas. Some were eager, insisting on being first, and came in with their arms wide wanting to be picked up. Other’s moved not a muscle, weighing their options, holding fast to the possibility of skipping it once again this year. He started with the willing.
Santa turned all his attention to whatever child was before him. Not all of them wanted to look at him, but he looked steadily at them so that if they turned their head, they could look him in the eye. Eye contact counts for so much. Sometimes that’s all you get. Santa has a boy on his lap, they look at each other while Santa asks if he’s been good. No answer. He remarks about the Christmas sweater he’s wearing with a reindeer and asks which reindeer he thinks that is. In return he gets a mute unwavering stare. Sometimes kids are transfixed and can’t talk. But they are still having their Santa experience.
Invariably, because it is expected, Santa asks what they want him to bring them for Christmas. This is the point at which he is most likely to get a response. Most want one thing only. They whisper it in the tiniest of voices. Santa leans in to hear, asking them to say it again. Sometimes they speak louder and sometimes not. Sometimes Santa gets it and sometimes he fakes it. But it’s not about the present, its about connecting.
And then it’s over. Santa thanks them for coming to see him. He gives them whatever they appear to want as a closer-fist bump, high five, hug, or maybe just one more smile. And as one child slides off his lap Santa looks again to where the shy little boy was. He is watching closely, now facing forward, sitting not in his teacher’s lap but just in front of her. Slightly closer to Santa.It goes on. The bold, talkative, outgoing kids talk and smile while others, more reserved, are quiet and polite. Almost all have come to see Santa. As children leave Santa’s chair and another approaches, he keeps engaging the shy little boy who hangs back. He thinks he sees the shadow of a smile on his face.
“Has everyone seen Santa?” a teacher asks of the group.Some of the kids who have seen him act like they haven’t but the teacher doesn’t go for it.
“How about you?” one of the teachers says to the shy boy still sitting next to his teacher.The boy looks at her with a alarm. The teacher next to him bends down and says something softly in his ear, offering to go with him Santa figured.
“You don’t have to sit on my lap,” Santa says quietly. “You can just stand beside me. Lots of kids do that.”He stands up and takes steps toward Santa. He had those shoes in which the heels flash blue when he walked. Santa makes sure not to reach out, just lets him come at his own pace. Soon he is standing in front of him.
“Thanks for coming to see me. How old are you?”
Very slowly he raises his right hand with four fingers.
“I thought maybe you were five. You seem five.”
“Have you been good? I bet you have.”
He nods. His eyes have not left Santa. They shine; bright and clear.“Can I bring you something for Christmas?”
“Would you like to get up my lap and tell me what it is?”He stands motionless and stares at Santa. Then he lifts his arms. Santa reaches toward him slowly, picks him up, and puts him on his knee. He keeps looking at Santa. Santa bends his ear towards him. He speaks in a whisper.
“WolVol train? The elves have a lot of those. They light up right? Big item this Christmas, those WolVol trains.”Not wanting to waste the moment, knowing it could be over any second, Santa said
“How about a picture?”Santa and the little boy turn their heads to the teacher beside them with her cell phone.
“Can you smile?”Santa smiled. The little boy tried, but it was too much. Or maybe he did smile just a little. Judge for yourself.
“Thanks again for coming to see Santa. You were brave. Have a Merry Christmas.”And then he was gone.
That’s the way it went the rest of the morning. Santa saw three groups of kids, used the same basic formula, engaged the shy kids, humored the talkers, cajoled the reluctant, and tried to bring joy to everyone.
After it was over I invited him for a drink at the Lone Buffalo, our local brew pub/restaurant featuring Tangled Roots beer. He agreed right away. Santa somehow looked like a guy who needed a drink.
“I drove the Buick today. The reindeer needed a break.”
“The Lone Buff is close. We can walk.”Soon we were there, Santa incognito, back in his jeans, the two of us at the bar relaxing with a couple of nice dark winter stouts.
“Santa I can’t help but notice you seem a little down.”“Yeah, well I’m sorry if it shows. I’m not supposed to be anything but merry but I’m thinking about my trip Monday night and I’m apprehensive.”
“Apprehensive of what?”“You Americans kill me sometimes. So optimistic, so capitalistic. You forget I live in an international zone at the North Pole. Instead of being a man without a country, I consider myself a citizen of the world. Americans tend to think of Christmas in terms of department stores, shopping, the holiday’s importance to the retail sector of your economy. I think of Christmas in different terms. I think of it as a spirit around the globe. I think of it bringing hope and peace.”
He took a big swig of stout and looked a little longingly, I thought, at the bourbon bottles sitting in front of those big copper kettles.
“C’mon Santa. We think of hope and peace too. We’re not all jerks here in America.”“I know that, but do you want to go with me to Yemen on Christmas Eve? You know what the elves are packing in the bags for Yemen? Enriched baby formula. Nutritional supplements for malnutrition. Cholera medicine. That war doesn’t have to happen, and your country is part of it, your weapons are being used. You forget there are kids there, caught up in some political grudge match. Starving. Dying.”
“I didn’t realize you were political Santa.”“Not wanting kids to starve to death? Is that politics now? It used to be decency, and kindness, and love.”
He took another drink.
“How about Honduras? You want to ride in the sleigh when I visit the homes of the parents who were deported and whose kids are still detained at the border? How do you think Christmas is going for them?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Since the 1700’s, hell the 1600’s, when I flew over this part of North America I always felt good. I thought you led the world in hope for change. The U.S. was the change. You stood for things. The world coveted your freedoms. A free press, the ability to speak your mind without fear, fair open elections, a political system regular people really owned. Now I don’t know what to think. France, Britain, they’re all struggling with you. What the hell are you doing?”
“Santa. Did you get a smart phone? Watching too much cable news? Don’t go getting morose on us. We need you pal. You can’t get down. If we lose you, and what you stand for, we’ll be in even bigger trouble. Can I buy you whiskey?”
“Maybe I need one.”I ordered us a couple of Basil Hayden’s on the rocks with a twist.
"Here’s to Christmas.”
We clicked glasses, took a sip, and settled our elbows on the bar, both looking straight ahead.
As if to change the subject Santa asked
"How are things going at The Kids' Place, your old day care operation in LaSalle?"
"They had to close. Building was wearing out. Enrollment had dropped."
"That's too bad McClure. I always liked that place. But you had a good run. After all, you provided 30 years of day care."
"You're right. YSB took it over in 1988. How'd you know?"
"C'mon McClure. It's part of my deal. I know everything. You know that."
“OK, yeah. I forgot. But you forget nothing. Think back Santa. Are things really so bad these days? What was it like to do Christmas Eve in Europe during World War II?
“It was hell. Visiting the German Christian families, knowing what was happening to the Jewish families. Flying the sleigh over Dachau. I thought I’d never have to do that again. But now I’m not so sure.”
Santa took a long pull on his bourbon.“Come on Santa, get it together. You can’t go dark on us. You’re Santa Claus, the spirit of Christmas. You’re joy and merriment embodied in a real person. If you lose that feeling I’m afraid we’re lost.”
“You should be afraid. You take it all for granted. I’ve seen it go bad in other parts of the world. It could happen here, and don’t think it couldn’t. Instead of getting better it feels like the world is regressing. And the U.S. is now part of the problem.”I took a big pull on MY bourbon. Santa was scaring me.
“You know me what keeps me going? Now and always? Maybe it will work for you. Here’s what it is. You look closely at the people around you, search for the beauty within them, and do all you can to reflect that beauty.”“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Who am I around constantly? Kids. Children from all over the world. I spend hours and hours looking into their eyes. Like that little boy this morning who trusted me enough to get on my lap. You know what I saw in his eyes? An endless pool of hope. Clear shining windows into a soul filled to the brim with hope and possibility.”I’d never heard Santa talk this way.
“You know what else I see? Trust. Unqualified trust that the world will be all right and the adults in their lives will show them the way. I think we have to let children lead us. If we look to them to we will find what our role in the world should be. We have to do better for kids. And if we concentrate on them, and their future, we will.”I was blown away. I sat there not knowing what to say.
“Don’t even think about ordering me another drink McClure. I’ve got stuff to do. There’s only so much time before Christmas, and kids are counting on me.”With that he drained his glass, gave me a big smile and a pat on the shoulder, and walked out the door.
Outside, on LaSalle Street, he paused on the sidewalk and peered back through the window into the Lone Buffalo. Spotting me he flashed a thumbs up, put his hands on his belly, leaned back and gave me, and all those around him a very loud HO, HO, HO. Before he made his way to the Buick he bellowed out, both to me and no one in particular:“Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night.”