When I was a little girl, well-meaning people often made the mistake of asking me, “Are you ready for Santa?”
Mom shot me a look, warning me not to offend anyone. Then, shaking my pig-tails, I simply said, “No,” leaving the people to wonder if I were an unbeliever or if I had just been bad and knew it.
The notion of Santa appeared only briefly in my childhood. Mom sometimes recalled her childhood memories of St. Nick. One Christmas Eve, she swears Rudolf led Santa’s sleigh through the fog right by her window and landed with a hoofy clatter on the roof above her second story bedroom. And then there were the cookies that magically disappeared by Christmas morning.
The jolly old guy appeared in jokes too. When they wanted me to stay in bed, my parents spoke in code on Christmas Eve. “We’re gonna go help Santa now.” But my sister Heather and I knew to interpret it as “We’re gonna stay up all night wrapping the presents we’ve been stashing in the corner of our bedroom.”
My more regular encounters with Santa came in dogma. According to the churches of my childhood, Santa diluted the true meaning of Christmas—Christ’s birth. In fact, the way they talked, Santa’s North Pole was right next door to Satan’s Hades. I remember hearing an older lady point out, “Santa is just Satan spelled with the n in the wrong place.” And that statue of Santa kneeling by the manger—pure anathema!
“Santa is just Satan spelled with the n in the wrong place.”
Though others in our church sometimes went to extreme measures to make sure their children knew the truth about the Santa lie, my parents didn’t go to ridiculous lengths to debunk Santa’s imaginary existence—they never needed to. To me, Santa was just a claymation character from Rudolph or a pudgy cartoon from Frosty the Snowman. We weren’t banned from watching Santa movies, but we never sat on his knee in the Greenville Mall where his elaborate house jutted up two stories with real furniture inside. Trailing behind Mom, we stared at the line of children and parents wrapped around the house. Poor little suckers, I remember thinking.
People also argued that Santa made kids unthankful to their parents, the real benefactors of Christmas who spent their time and money on the lovely presents. The old guy’s fabled generosity planted greed and covetousness in children who grew into materialistic adults.
When I was a kid I didn’t really need Santa Claus. I got everything I wanted for Christmas—not anything I wanted, but everything on my list, and since I didn’t believe in Santa’s wish-granting magic, I knew to only ask for reasonable things that my parents could afford. As an adult now, I ask for gift cards, TV show seasons, electronics—expensive toys. Could it be that even without Santa, I’ve grown a bit greedy?
Given my anti-Santa history, when he came to town a few Christmases ago, it didn’t mean much to me. But one Saturday morning, two weeks before Thanksgiving, Laura, and I were walking through the mall early, even before the grates went up and the stores unlocked for business. After grabbing vanilla lattes from Starbucks, we walked around distracting ourselves from the MFA projects due later that week.
We’d just passed Kay’s Jewelers when we saw the sign: Pictures with Santa.
“We should get our picture taken with Santa.” Laura stopped walking and pointed at the sign. “And look—there’s no one in line. Come on.” She charged forward with me trailing behind her muttering all the things that could go wrong with two 27 year olds charging up to Santa’s throne.
A person does not walk up to Santa without a strategy.
Though always eager for an adventure, I enjoy them most after they’re thought through. But with no line of parents trying to keep their wiggly kids corralled until their turn on the fleshy, wish-granting knee, I had to stall for time to think. A person does not walk up to Santa without a strategy. “What are we gonna wish for?” I halted at the front of the line, straightening my necklace, tucking my hair behind my ears.
“I don’t know.” Laura fluffed her curls. “I’ll come up with something.” And we proceeded onto the carpet to meet the man in red.
Only when I stood before him, did I realize I was scared. Was I really violating some hidden commandment by approaching the storied wish granter, the stealer of the Christ child’s glory?
“Well, hello there.” He sounded as jolly as I imagine every Santa has sounded since the beginning of Santa time.
His belly laugh calmed my fears. This was a welcoming enough version of Santa. Instead of a red velveteen jacket, he wore a silky vest with a triangle pattern of maroon and jade. He had a real white beard, twinkly blue eyes, and a gleaming smile which he flashed when he saw us coming. “Are you going to sit on Santa’s knee?” he asked, clearly eager at the prospect.
Seeing Laura’s eyes widen in surprise, I knew that she hadn’t planned for this—so I took over. “Oh, sure why not?” Like a veteran Santa believer, I plopped down on his substantial thigh.
Laura settled lightly, not leaning her full weight on his knee. “Are we going to hurt you?”
“Oh, I hope not.” His voice came out deep and deliberate from talking to children for too
We smiled cheesily, and then, while his elves printed the pictures, Santa asked, “Does Santa get a hug?”
We wrapped our arms around him for a side hug and patted his back; but he wanted more. “Aww, come on, give Santa a big hug.”
“So do we get to make a wish?”
As we squeezed him just a tad tighter, Laura looked at me behind his back, her eyes bulging. To distract us from the awkward moment, I went after the full Santa experience. “So do we get to make a wish?”
“Well, what would you like?” he asked.
“I would like inspiration and tenacity.” My wish came out sounding like a six year old
who’d had her Christmas list memorized since June. I’d watched enough Santa movies to know what came next: the benevolent, though empty, promise of my wish.
But to my surprise, he shook his head slowly and gave a drawn out, “Weeelll, I can’t give you those. Inspiration and tenacity are things already inside you. You just have to find them. Tenacity is discipline; you just have to decide to do something. Take baby steps with a positive attitude. And inspiration—well, inspiration is all around you. You just have to look for it.”
I had no Christmas movie protocol for following this response. He might as well have said, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”
He might as well have said, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”
Mistaking my silence for satisfaction, Santa turned to Laura. “And what would you like?”
“Um.” She looked at me blankly, as if calculating the deficits in her life to really make
this wish count. Like my wish, I knew she, too, would ask for some quality to empower her to finish her graduate project. Finally, she decided, “I would like motivation.”
Santa shook his head again. “Weeelll, I can’t give you that either. Now, motivation, that’s simply pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. Doing what you don’t want to do.”
What a rip off, I thought. Then, determined to get more than a psychotherapy session with Dr. Claus, I asked, “So since you can’t grant either of our wishes, could we wish for a million dollars?”
“Well, you can wish for it,” he chuckled, “but I don’t think you’re going to get it.”
“Is the economy in the North Pole as bad as it is here?”
“Well, we made a deal with the treasury department: I won’t print money if they won’t make toys.”
“That makes sense.” I gave a half grin, impressed that he was made of more than sparkles and stuffing. This St. Nick had wit.
He held up a gloved finger, preemptively covering any other ungrantables. “I also can’t bring Xbox 360s or Play Stations or iPhones.”
Before I could ask exactly what he could bring,
he reached into a basket beside him and held out two small toys wrapped in cellophane. A rubber smiley face to remind me to be optimistic. A rubber Santa Claus to remind Laura that Santa sees when she’s sleeping and when she’s been bad or good—if that wasn’t motivation then nothing would be.
Laura’s eyes were still wide when we said goodbye, collected our pictures from the elves, and walked away. Silence accompanied us as we passed Victoria Secret, Hot Topic, Old Navy, and other stores just opening, hoping to lure us in with sales that aren’t really sales on items that we don’t really need. Kind of like Santa. We had slapped down 24 bucks for pictures with a for-hire Santa sporting glittery cheeks, and we walked away with what? Two rubber toys. We noticed later that Laura’s Santa toy didn’t even have eyes painted on his peach face.
But somehow, I felt satisfied by my first meeting with Santa. Not the Santa of my childhood doctrine who stole the true meaning of Christmas and instigated greediness, nor a Santa who promised the impossible and shoved me off his knee, but a Santa who reminded me that what I need is already inside me.
I don’t guess I could wish for anything more than that.