He comes by sleigh. He comes by float. Once I even saw him arrive by parasail over a Caribbean beach. But whatever Santa’s conveyance or climate, he symbolizes the folk traditions of the holiday season in a big way. Big as in belly, big as in bag of toys, big as in hearted.
Still, he’s mostly for the little people. And I was feeling that keenly this season on trips to the mall to shop for the holidays. Despite the fact that I no longer have a child young enough to plop onto Santa’s lap, I found myself mesmerized and – I admit it – entertained by the events at the North Pole imported to center court. I stood off to the side with fathers and grandparents and uncles, all of whom sparkled as they watched little Billy and Susie make their way to Santa’s side.
Round and merry as ever, Santa sat on a sledlike throne, welcoming masses of children: girls in red velvet, boys in baseball caps, newborns in blankets. Without hesitation, mothers handed over their infants, and preschool kids climbed onto the mountainous stranger dressed in red. There, they whispered their private requests for Christmas morning, and somewhere deep in their thoughts were plans to put out the cookies and milk and the hope that a man that pudgy could fit down the chimney.
As quickly as the line moved, it swiftly replenished, and I marveled at the high and patient spirit of the event. Even when children were bratty or shy, even when parents were pushy or prickly, it was clear that this tradition had remained preserved in all its glorious security in a world that has become increasingly unsafe.
“Smile!” parents chanted. “Say Rudolph!” Santa encouraged. “Did you tell him what to bring me?” one grandmother asked as her grandson stepped out of the fabricated North Pole arena.
Next to me, a woman leaned over a stroller and cajoled her sniffling daughter: “Honey, how is Santa going to know what to bring you if you don’t sit on his lap?” The girl frowned and turned her head away. “OK,” the mother sighed. “We’ll send him a letter.”
One little boy smiled for six flashes of the camera. The photo-op wasn’t working out, and Mom, pressing for a happy shot, pushed the child one too many times. “I can’t smile anymore,” he whined stretching the corners of his mouth willfully downward. “I don’t have any left.”
After him, a small girl with golden ringlets curled up next to Santa. Their conversation was out of earshot, but I know he asked her what she wanted for Christmas. She looked at him eagerly and raised her eyes brightly upward, as if into a dream. In that moment, I saw the magic of Christmas happen right there on her face. She believed.
And I was thrust back in time. I don’t remember going to see Santa (though I know I did because I have an old Polaroid of my sister and me flanking him) but I remember having golden locks and wide eyes and believing. The expectation! The wonder!
Then a less comforting thought sneaked into my head: Could it be possible that I never took my own daughter to see Santa? Didn’t we make a list? Didn’t we stand in line? Isn’t there a Polaroid with her squished up under his ample arm? My stomach churned. As an adult, I had dismissed Santa Claus and robbed my own child of the enchantment.
I pressed the buttons of my cell phone to call my 22-year-old daughter in Boston. “Honey,” I said to her voice mail, “I’m here with Santa and I can’t remember taking you to see him when you were a little girl and I know it’s late but if you still want to go, I’ll take you this week.”
I was pulled out of my remorseful reverie by a mother holding up her baby to see Santa’s mechanical reindeer standing in the display’s puffy cotton-ball snow. “Look at Santa’s buck!” she said, reminding me that I was in Maine and that there was shopping to be done.
I looked back to Santa. This time he had a Buddha-esque baby on his lap. She refused to smile but Santa kept at her: “C’mon sweetie,” he said wiggling the girl. “You’re not smiling but everyone else is. How about a little smile for Santa?” She gave half a smile and the camera flashed.
I watched jealously, guiltily.
Next up was a threesome of sisters, the oldest of whom, at 18, was twice the age of her closest sibling. She wore her revulsion as loudly as the smaller girls wore their patent leather shoes. “What’s your favorite thing about Christmas?” Santa asked, and the two younger girls called out, “Everything!” The 18-year-old rolled her eyes.
A beaming elderly couple stood watching the girls from a distance. “Is that your family?” I asked. “Oh no,” the man said. “Our children are all grown. We just like watching the little ones.” “Yes,” his wife said, “aren’t they just precious?” “They are, indeed,” I said, returning my attention to center court. I thought I heard the old woman whisper “Merry Christmas,” but when I turned to acknowledge her, she and her husband had spun out of sight. I was left with Santa, and smiling kids, and fake bucks and a heavy heart.
On my way home, I noticed a message flag on my cell phone. All the noise at the mall and in my head had outvolumed my ringer and someone had tried to call. I retrieved the message. “Mom,” I heard my daughter say. “Let’s go see Santa next week.”