To be clear: I didn’t have to buy Gas-X and Tic Tacs.
That purchase was a courtesy to the countless children who were eagerly awaiting their opportunity to sit on my lap, stare deep into my eyes and tell me what they wanted for Christmas.
The dim predawn mists of Southern California’s affluent beachside communities were cold comfort to a budding Santa Claus who'd filled up on chili and tamales the night before. As I sat in my car trying to decide whether to take two or three tablets, I realized I was possibly in over my head.
Most people who know me well would think twice before hiring me to shepherd the Yuletide hopes and dreams of believing children. I am no Billy Bob Thornton–style degenerate alcoholic. Nor am I a sex offender. I am a Scrooge. I do not care for the holiday season and its pretense of jollity. It makes me uneasy.
I figured out the Santa ruse (as well as the Easter Bunny racket and the Tooth Fairy chicanery) during an ill-fated encounter with dental anesthesia when I was 4. Since then I have grown weary of Christmas shenanigans. Few symbols are as insidious and deceptive to me as Kris Kringle.
In my three decades on this rock, I have come to see Santa as the Coca-Cola–approved emblem at the core of a Venn diagram uniting toxic greed, sugar-driven obesity and blind obedience to consumerist rhythms.
To my credit, I am a professional. Which is to say I am an actor (a trained fraud in need of money). How hard could Santa be?
As it turns out, portraying a notorious B&E specialist like jolly St. Nick is no cakewalk. First, there's the aforementioned cynicism. Second, I’m no beanpole but I’m not exactly rotund either. Third, I have long, curly hair and an unkempt beard. Fourth, the prospect of hearing a laundry list of pricey consumer goods from kids an eighth my age always weighs heavy on my soul.
My girlfriend,“Santa’s Side Piece,” helped me maneuver into the ungainly red suit and stuff it to perfection with pillows. After carefully belting the feathered faux-gut into place, we fine-tuned the fake beard-and-wig combo before I donned the jacket, belt, octagonal spectacles and iconic hat.
In the moments before I emerged from my green room (the bathroom-adjacent utility closet tucked away behind the kitchen), I tried to come to grips with my glaring pessimism. Not only would I have to be enthusiastic but also people were counting on me to enable a materialistic social contract.
Again, I’m a professional. I was very invested in being a good Santa Claus because, frankly, I couldn’t afford a dispute over the check I had been promised. So I tried to reason my way through it.
Forget the fact that the elves are a convenient archetypal stand-in for voiceless sweatshop workers around the globe. Gloss over the narrative of discriminatory practices in the reindeer clique. Do not indulge the conspiratorial thinking by which NORAD involves itself in the Santa myth. Just do a good job.
An announcement was made, the door swung open, and there I was in a room full of the most ecstatic miniature human beings I have ever seen. I let out a big, bellowing “ho-ho-ho” as the cafeteria went wild.
Every child in that room had a star-struck look of bewilderment that told of a great and desperate longing to savor every moment with the man in red. Santa was not just the focal point of the day, he was the nexus of the calendar year. It all led up to this.
When the first child sprinted across the stage, arms akimbo to give Santa a hug, I felt a sense of vicarious joy. As you get older, you get guiltier. We’ve all done bad things. We all have regrets. We all wish life could be one way, but it’s another.
When you sit in the chair as Santa, you get to experience anew what it's like to be treated as someone who has never added to the heartache of the world. You get to feel what it's like to be adored, pure and simple.
With great power comes great responsibility. So I took liberties in the banter between gift requests to double down on being nice, not naughty. I was a moralizing Santa sowing seeds of good conduct that I hope will bear much fruit for local parents in 2017.
Things were going pretty swell until the first child asked me for world peace. It was routine and unemotional until that one, dear, good-as-gold, blessed boy opened the floodgates.
God, it’s been a rough year. I don’t think I’m alone here in saying that the world has taken on a grim pallor in 2016. Sometimes it feels as if we’re fated to descend into a maelstrom of ignorance and violence in the name of ego and selfishness.
I wanted to bear-hug this kid and sob. Not for me but for him. Bless his buttons. He tried to cash his year’s harvest of good karma for the one thing no man, be he a magical figure or a day-player hack like me, could ever give.
I asked him if he was sure and he nodded an emphatic yes. Years of improv and a great knack for deadening my emotions produced a piece of brilliant dialogue. “Then you’ve already got a wonderful gift,” Santa said.
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He wasn’t the only one. A whole host of kids asked me for “peace on earth” or “good will for mankind” or “a happy family.” I told every one that I’d do what I could.
This is not to say that some kids didn’t demand iPads or other gaudy commodities. A few did. I gave each and every one the best Santa experience I could. I hope they enjoyed it.
After all’s said and done, I am chagrined to say that I still feel rather ambivalent about Christmas. I think I’ll pass on the sugar and the shopping malls and the endless carol repetitions.
I did manage to walk away from my foray into Christmastime entertainment with a wonderful present. I feel a renewed optimism for the future knowing that there are still good kids with good hearts who would sacrifice something dear to right a wrong, however impossible. That was Santa’s gift to me.