Ghosts of Christmases Past
My parents always tried to perpetuate the Santa Claus story as long as they could. I’m not sure when I stopped believing (although I’d like to say that I never did stop), but I know it was somewhere after fourth grade, which would have put me in the 10-11 year old range. The reason I know this is because I can clearly picture myself relating a previous year’s experience to my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Margebelle Moore. I told her of hearing footsteps on my roof and hearing sleighbells just after midnight on Christmas Eve. She listened with a wide smile on her face, nodding at each of my excited bits of evidence that I’d really really had a close encounter with the elusive fat man.
We didn’t have a real fireplace at our house. The chimney led directly to the furnace which was always cause for concern for the safety of Santa. I didn’t want him dropping down the chimney into that monstrosity in the basement that roared and banged and groaned like a wounded Wooly Mammoth. There was no need for concern; a few weeks before Christmas, a fireplace constructed of cardboard with red bricks printed on it would magically appear in our front room, and I was told that Santa had visited during the night preparing for his eventual Christmas Eve visit. This fake fireplace allowed him to use the outside chimney and still avoid the furnace.
The fireplace itself was three dimensional, complete with a black mantle that ran across its width. The chimney rose from the mantle, all the way to the ceiling and had a clock with Santa’s face stamped on it halfway up, forever frozen at ten minutes till midnight. In the spot where the fire would have been was a fake fire, constructed of more corrugated board with red mylar inserts every once in a while to make it appear that there was a fire. Behind the façade, there was a spot for a small lightbulb which had an aluminum fan wheel perched on it. The heat from the lightbulb made the fanwheel spin, helping to create the illusion of a burning fire.
A few years after my parents told me that Santa was the one who came in and set it up, I found the folded up fireplace tucked away in a corner of the attic. Mom and Dad, who I now know were a lot quicker on their feet than I ever game them credit for, feigned surprise at my discovery, then reasoned that Santa must store these types of fireplaces at each individual house so he didn’t have to pack it on to his sleigh.
Hey, it made sense to me.
That may have been the beginning of me knowing “The Truth,” but I’m not for sure.
In grade school, I always wondered why Santa was better to some kids than others. Of course I knew that he was watching us all the time, but I didn’t know why one of my good friends always seemed to haul away a lot more stuff from the North Pole that I was getting. While I would hang the longest, stretchiest stocking I could find on our fake fireplace, my buddy and his siblings would set out a clothes basket by theirs.
My stocking would have oranges, grapefruit, nuts, a candy cane, and maybe (if I was lucky) a bottle of bubble. Steve’s basket across town would be laden with all sorts of toys like racing sets or basketballs, but nary a fruit or nut in sight. I spent a better part of my grade school days thinking that doctors’ kids must get extra points on the good side of the ledger for some unknown reason.
Just before I got married, my dad took me aside and told me the facts of life. The main fact he told me was that I was going to have to be Santa’s helper once we had kids. This was a little unnerving at first, but after my wife and I had kids, it became fun.
Kelly was born in 1984 and Erin followed in 1989 (Caroline showed up in 2004, but that’s a long story). After Kelly got into school, it was a little harder to keep her believing in Santa, because not every parent put in the effort that we did to keep the belief alive. But in 1991 it got real easy. In fact, it was so easy, I’m sure it’s illegal in at least six states.
I had gone back to school and was attending Knox College full time in order to get my teaching degree. I had several part time jobs during this time, trying to pay my bills while doing a juggling act with classes and family. One of the jobs I took was at the Sandburg Mall, helping out with the Santa concession.
My main job was that of an elf (who ever heard of an elf that is 6’2 ?!?), guiding the munchkins who came to see Santa up a ramp, and trying to maintain some sort of order. I also helped to take Polaroid photos of the kiddies which we then sold to the parents at an obscene profit. We had several guys who donned the red suit (including one who was the manager of the Adult Bookstore on Henderson Street – this became a Zephyr article which ended up getting me fired) with varying degrees of expertise.
One Sunday afternoon, the Santa on duty wasn’t doing well. I wasn’t sure if it was something he’d drank the night before, or just a good old case of the flu. He had been complaining since he put on the suit, and finally, he gave up the ghost and told us that if he had to stay much longer, he was going to barf all over some poor kid.
A decision was made. The guy in the Santa suit and I went back to feed his reindeer, and I got in the suit. He took off for home (or at least that’s what he told us). Let’s call him Dave for lack of a better name (and because this memory is now 17 years old).
I was a bit tall for the suit, but in a seated position, no one could really tell. My main concern was my weight. At 180 pounds, I was a little light for the job. None of our other Santas needed extra padding but fortunately, they had some extra stuffing in the dressing room which rounded out my tummy. The beard, I found out, was a complex device, complete with a mouthpiece that when clamped between the teeth, kept little ones from yanking it off the face.
And yes, everyone had their own disposable mouthpiece, or else no one would have used it.
The costume was topped off by a wig and hat that covered up my own long hair, and produced about a gallon of sweat per hour.
I was led back to Santa’s throne by some of the other elves and I took the seat of honor for the next few hours. I think I did pretty well, remembering not to promise anything, but rather, telling the kids that Santa would “do his best.”
An hour or so into my shift, I looked up and stiffened in horror. My wife was in line with my two kids. She was looking all over the place, trying to figure out where the heck I was when I told her that I was working that day. My kids, ages seven and almost two, were just anxious to be able to talk to Santa.
They were also at the age where if they recognized me, and called me “Dad,” then the illusion would be shattered for them as well as anyone within listening range. I know my kids well enough to know that meant almost to Monmouth.
Finally, it was show time. Kelly and Erin were next. I greeted them with a hearty “Ho! Ho! Ho!” as they ran to my knees. Meanwhile, my wife was standing there, looking all over the place, wondering where I was, and probably contemplating a form of punishment that would involve extreme pain.
Then I called each girl by name.
Their jaws dropped.
Then my wife looked me in the eye.
Then her jaw dropped. Then she started laughing,
She had the good sense to leave, or else I’d probably have busted a gut (albeit a fake gut) too.
I thanked Kelly and Erin for leaving me cookies and Pepsi the previous year (Santa gets tired of all that milk, doncha know). I asked them how they liked what I had brought them (and I was very specific). I named their cat by name and told them to make sure he was locked up this year so he didn’t shred my suit, reminded them that I really liked the sugar cookies, and that I’d try not to get so many crumbs all over their rug.
Erin was really too young not to believe yet, but her older sister was convinced that she’d just met the real Santa, not some department store or Mall Santa-wannabe. When I got home from work that day, Kelly was a little chatterbox, telling me of her personal close encounter with the real Santa.
I didn’t even half to use my story I’d prepared about not seeing them because I was outside feeding the reindeer.
For the next few years, any time the girls doubted the existence of Santa, all the had to do was think back on that day at the Sandburg Mall when Santa knew them by name, and they believed.
Just before the end of my shift that day, we found out what had made the original Santa’s helper sick. One of my last customers was a nice looking young lady, probably in her early 20s or so. She came up, sat on my knee, put her mouth close to my ear, and whispered, not what she wanted for Christmas, but rather what she was planning to do to me.
I couldn’t figure out whether to put her on the naughty or nice list. While it sure sounded naughty, it sounded nice too.
One of her hands sneaked down to a rather personal part of my costume, and she whispered, “I’ll see you tonight, Dave.”
As she got up to leave, I caught her sleeve and pulled her back. “I’m not Dave!” I whispered.
Her eyebrows knitted together and she looked me straight in the eye. A look of terror washed over her face and it turned alternating shades of white, pink, and red. All she could say was some form of “Omigod!” as she nearly broke her neck trying to get down the ramp and somewhere she wouldn’t be recognized.
Meanwhile, at least we had diagnosed the sudden disease that Dave had contracted earlier in the day.
In most medical circles it’s known technically as “Hot Date.”
Merry Christmas Everyone!