The first time I took my daughter to see Santa Claus she was about 20 months old. She hadn’t yet been diagnosed with autism, but she had been diagnosed as a major fussbudget pain-in-my-hump. I knew that she wouldn’t be able to handle big crowds or long lines, so I set out to find the most abandoned mall with the lousiest selection of off-brand stores and the fewest patrons.
I was living in California at the time and was looking for the equivalent of Brementowne Mall, if anyone remembers that gem from Tinley Park circa 1973. (You know, one of those dead malls that are anchored by a Walgreens and a Jo-Ann Fabrics with battery kiosks and sock outlets in between.) That way, if my daughter decided to have an epic meltdown, there would be no one around to witness it except for a couple of stray half-deaf mall walkers.
I naturally assumed that going this route would mean that I’d be sacrificing on the quality of the Santa, and that he’d probably be played by the high school dropout who worked at the Orange Julius. I assumed wrong. The Santa at the Vallco Fashion Park was the best-looking one that I’d ever seen. The guy looked like Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street: a natural, snow-white beard, twinkling eyes, and a for-real red velvet suit.
If this mall’s Santa looked like this, I wondered what he looked like at upscale malls. Once I started paying attention I concluded that, in the 30 years that had elapsed since I’d last had a vested interest in Santa, the mall versions of him had gotten incredibly authentic looking. One was better than the next, as if they’d all groomed themselves the whole year through for their annual coming-out party.
The Santas of my youth were all fake-bearded, rattily outfitted, and mostly drunk. But maybe that’s just me, since my exposure to Santa was pretty much limited to the Christmas parties at my grandfather’s Italian social club. That would be the children’s Christmas party; I’m sure that there was an adult version that ended with my well-lit grandfather grabbing the mike, making like "il divo", and belting out “Mamma son tanto felice ... ” Come to think of it, that’s how the children’s party ended, too.
But not before we were treated to the annual showing of the one cartoon reel that the club owned, a 1940s version of John Henry that we watched projected onto a wall. John Henry was a former slave who was so strong that he beat out a steam-powered hammer in a spike-driving competition. You wouldn’t catch John Henry looking into the camera, pleading us to clap louder to give him the strength to go on. Or telling us how awesome it is to share or asking us to count the railroad ties. The man had been a slave. He didn’t give a rip if we knew our numbers and letters. At the end, he keeled over dead. Merry Christmas, kids!
After we’d been fluffed by John Henry’s annual chest grabber, it was time to meet jolly old St. Nick. With a beard hooked on over his ears, he barely tried to conceal the fact that he was just some goombah who had drawn the short straw that year. He’d hand over the pre-packaged mesh stocking filled with stale hard candy and send us on our way.
Aside from scarring kids for life, I think those guidos had the right idea. At least at the end of the party, they could shed the costume and go back to smoking, drinking, and gambling. What do the Santas of today do the other 320 days of the year?
My daughter’s BFF saw one of these authenti-clauses seated several rows in front of her on an airplane recently, and proceeded to yell out her Christmas list at him for all to hear. “I want a Pikachu, Munna, Jigglypuff, Wigglytuff, Tentacruel, Cyndaquil, Chikorita … ” Totally cute in November, but it’s got to get kind of old when you’re trying to enjoy those Fourth of July fireworks.