David Sedaris wrote the final word on Christmas. Santaland Diaries. An essay, rife with snarky cynicism of the season. And sarcasm directed at Sedaris’ own sad-sack persona. Words drawn from his tenure as an elf working at the heels of a department-store Santa Claus.
There was just one thing missing.
As 2018 – a disaster of a year by all measurements – slinks off the calendar, tens of thousands of rental Santa Clauses have now returned to their regular lives. Me among them. Yes, I spent two hours as Santa at Record Archive one Saturday.
Like any adult, I would have preferred to play Krampus, the Central European goat demon who punishes bad children. And, in some versions of the story, eats them. But Dick Storms wanted to be Krampus, and he’s co-owner of Record Archive, so he got to be Krampus. Very few of us are ever in position to choose our own mythologies.
Santa’s throne was in the Archive’s Backroom Lounge. I sat in front of a Christmas tree as a college vocal group meandered through the huge store, singing a cappella versions of Christmas carols. The two young daughters of the Archive’s other co-owner, Alayna Alderman, were dressed as elves and luring other kids into sitting still for a few moments to get candy canes painted on their faces. The whole scene was short just a few Christmas images – say, orphans eating bowls of gruel – from having snow spontaneously fall from the ceiling.
I looked like a convincing Santa. It was my long beard, which is real, that got me the gig. Otherwise, Santa costumes are over-engineered to compensate for any operator shortcomings, the better to preserve the fantasy. Rented suits come with a slight odor of disinfectant, for which I am grateful. Or perhaps it is mothballs. Opting out of the fake beard may have been a mistake, because it hooks onto the white wig, keeping both in place. Without that strap, over the course of two hours I could feel my wig slowly slipping down the back of my head, taking my pointy cap with it. One of my co-workers came to the rescue when the white ball at the tip of the cap got stuck in the throne.
Santa’s suit is a heavy fabric, calling for suspenders to hold up his pants. He also straps on prodigious padding, much bigger than the vests worn by members of a SWAT team. Sitting under the hot Christmas lights for two hours, a holiday icon can cook to medium-well done. It’s a ridiculous get-up. Santa does not dress like a deliveryman who arrives at a house expecting to be greeted by a middle-aged woman wearing lingerie and smoking a cigarette.
The Backroom Lounge quickly filled with celebration. The vocal group did “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” or one of those relentless chestnuts, as customers sat at the bar examining the Taylor Swift albums in colored vinyl they’d just purchased for teenage daughters. If you haven’t been in a record store for a couple of years, it is true, everyone’s buying vinyl again.
And the kids came to Santa. Some were just months old, this was their first Santa. I had to make it a good one or their Christmases would be subliminally poisoned for the rest of their lives. The parents propped up the kid on my lap and took pictures. I didn’t drop one, and only one or two cried. Some were shy, and had to be coaxed by their parents. Some bounded up the two steps to my throne, hope-filled eyes shining like Ralphie in A Christmas Story asking Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun. Some had lists. Some kids seemed to freeze under the pressure and couldn’t name anything they wanted. Most limited it to one or two requests. I understood some of it. Lipstick and glitter eyeliner, OK. Some of the stuff, I had no idea what they were asking for. Toys driven by movie marketing, computer games with components generated from last year’s fighter aircraft. Doesn’t anyone want wagons anymore? My standard answer quickly became, “Of course, we have one of those in the warehouse.” I handed the kid a candy cane and called for the next one.
Midway through my shift, Alayna slipped me a plastic cup. Red wine. I was grateful. I don’t think any Santa gives a damn if he can’t pass a pee test.
As the shift wore on, the parents became emboldened and started to come up to my throne as well, to get their photo taken as they sat on Santa’s lap. I’m sure that 250-pound biker was showing his Santa photo all around town. And the candy cane I gave him.
Then I spotted Krampus making his way through the crowd, toward my throne, bleating like a goat. My shift was almost done. Just another 10 minutes, while Krampus and I posed together for photos. Then I walked to the break room. Pulled off my Santa suit and accessories, threw them in my Santa bag. And went back out, now unrecognized, to sit at the end of the bar and finish my plastic cup of wine.
Sedaris. I’d said he’d left out one thing, didn’t I?
I sat at the end of the bar, thinking about that one thing. It was one of the last kids who came to see Santa. I’d guess she was 8 or 9 years old.
I asked, “What do you want for Christmas?”
She looked shyly at the floor. “I want my family to be together.”
I stammered, as if I hadn’t heard correctly. “You want, uh…”
She looked right at me. “I want my family to be together.”
I assumed her parents had split up, were perhaps divorced. I wasn’t prepared for this.
“Your family loves you,” I said. “Sometimes it takes time for this stuff to work out. You’ll see. It’ll be OK.” I said a couple of other things as well. None of it was adequate. But she nodded. I handed her a candy cane, and watched her walk away.
Now, sitting at the bar, thinking of what should have been said, Santa’s eyes got a little weepy. He didn’t have anything in the warehouse for that kid.
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