CHICAGO -- In his 25 years as a part-time Santa, 71-year-old Roger Smith has had children wet their pants while on his lap, pull down his beard and shriek in terror at him.
One little boy even told him earnestly, "I hate you, Santa Claus."
But nothing has bothered the stocky Santa as much as the little
9-year-old boy who walked up earlier this month, climbed on Mr. Smith's lap and asked for a new pair of shoes for Christmas.
"He was wearing terrible tennis shoes with holes, and he was all by himself," said Mr. Smith, between customers at Lincoln Mall. "I didn't dare ask where his parents were."
At the end of his shift, Santa bought the boy new winter boots, then hugged him and watched him walk away.
Then there was the well-dressed, quiet 12-year-old who stopped by to ask Santa to bring his father home for Christmas.
"I asked him what he wanted and he said, 'Just my Dad,' " Mr. Smith said. "He came up all by himself and said, 'I want my Daddy with my Mommy.'
"I asked him if he knew where his father was and he said, 'He left. He won't come see me.'
"It just kills me," Mr. Smith said. "I had tears in my eyes."
Such wishes, many that even Santa cannot fulfill, are anything but uncommon this Christmas season, said Mr. Smith. Though most of the children who wait in line to talk with Santa still ask for the old standbys, increasing numbers are asking for warm coats, shoes, clothing or for Santa to repair their lives.
"They talk to you real quiet, up close, and tell you things Mom would probably say, 'Don't you dare tell Santa,' " said Mr. Smith. "You find out what's really happening to them."
What's happening, he believes, is that a variety of changes in society, from a threatening recession to growing rates of divorce and family members shipped off to the Persian Gulf, are making life harder for children, especially during the holiday season when they are confronted everywhere with images of happy families together awash in gifts.
For those children whose lives don't match the image, Santa becomes a counselor, a last magical hope for making everything right.