Santa Claus' Life Is Not Always Jolly

December 23, 1990|By Daniel P. Clemmens Jr.

The fake white Santa's beard itches to beat the band, and you can't keep the plastic whiskers from finding their way into your mouth.

The makeup suffocates your skin, sending sweat beads treading down your face.

The body stuffing -- which creates that bowlful-of-jelly look -- and the heavy red suit make standing in a microwave while wearing a parka sound refreshing.

Being Santa Claus is a lot less jolly than it looks.

At 3:55 p.m. on a recent Thursday, my Kris Kringle duty at a county mall is nearly over. And none too soon, because after having 103 little nippers parade over my lap during the past five hours, this pseudo-Santa is drained.

Almost giddy, I watched my trusty elfin assistant walk down the long SantaLand gangplank, and clamp the velvet rope across the entrance way.

That's all, folks. We're closed. No room at the inn.

Then a troubling thing happened.

Kid No. 104 -- a little girl, maybe 5 years old -- appeared at the end of the gangplank. She looked shocked.

When she and her mother had strolled by 15 minutes earlier, SantaLand was brimming with lights, color, kids and commotion.

Now the other children were gone. SantaLand was barren, and the little girl was shut out by the thick velvet rope.

For a moment she just stood there, staring a stunned stare. Then her face was transformed from a vision of hope and excitement to one of crushing disappointment.

She opened her mouth slowly, closed her eyes tightly, and began to cry.

Not that self-centered, noisy "You better bring me what I want for Christmas" cry, either.

It was a cry of despair. The cry you cry when you arrive on Main Street and the parade already is over, when you finally find the castle but the the drawbridge is raised, when you realize the Wizard and his balloon have left you behind.

My handlers never briefed me on how to deal with this eventuality. The basic crying, terrorized kid was no problem. The routine slobbering infant, a piece of cake.

But how do you ease the profoundly disheartened youngster? This Kringle business is a lot trickier than I could've imagined.

Don't get me wrong, it's not like I was forced at gunpoint to be Father Christmas. When asked if I wanted to spend a day spreading a little holiday cheer among youngsters, I jumped at the chance.

It's not often you get to portray a timeless, global hero. Who's bigger than Santa Claus? Here's a guy who went from being an anonymous fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey to being the patron saint of Christmas.

What an exciting prospect, I thought -- much better than when I dressed as Gumby a couple of Halloweens ago.

Besides, children do wonders for kindling the Christmas spirit. They are practically the last subscribers to the notion that Christmas is magical and mysterious and wonderful and precious.

We adult-types have long since been vanquished by the physical and emotional toil the holidays exact -- not to mention the expense. For us, Christmas is an annual feeling of dread that begins in early November.

So, I reasoned that mixing with the younger set and talking some Christmas talk would be ideal for sparking my holiday zeal.

And it was working.

No doubt about it, Santa duty will exhaust you. But it also invigorates you. Kids hop into your lap, look you in the eye and instantly become your confidant.

Some kids are admirably composed, with their list of Christmas wishes neatly laid out in their minds. Others ramble nervously, clinging to your beard and staring at their feet.

One little boy walked in a tight circle three times, rubbing his palms on his pant legs while collecting his thoughts for the ultra-important business of consulting with Santa. This summit comes just once a year; you don't want to mess it up.

Of course, some stare at you in confusion for about about three seconds, then start wailing like a rusty gate and screaming for mom.

But the 5-year-old little girl who was barred by the velvet rope was not screaming. She was just crying an anguished cry.

My elfin helper noticed the little girl, then looked at me and smiled.

She was no less pooped than I, but she did not hesitate. She walked down to the entrance way and removed the thick velvet rope.

The little girl scurried up the gangplank, sniffling and wiping away her tears. She climbed into Santa's lap, still shaking. She kept weeping quietly and began to reveal her Christmas wishes.

I don't even remember what she asked for. As she recited her short list, I just looked her in the eye intently and nodded. The tears stopped. The beginnings of a smile emerged. The little girl chuckled.

It struck me how amazing it is that a little compassion and understanding can do so much. Such a simple thing: a small act of caring.

Yet the little girl was renewed. It was a small miracle of sorts.

She finished, and a broad smile crossed her face when I grinned and said, "I'll see what I can do."

"Thank you, Santa," she whispered. She hugged me, then walked away with her small hands clasped in front of her and a bounce in her step.

"No," I thought to myself. "Thank you."

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