On Seeing Santa

 "Have you been a good boy this year?" 
"No. I haven't.  Sometimes I hit Maisy. And sometimes I am mean to her."
But honey, you've been a good boy. You've apologized when you've been mean to your sister, and she has forgiven you. It's ok. You have been a good boy this year.  When he asks, you can say yes."
"No Mom. I have been mean to my sister. I have not been a good boy."
   We were prepping for our visit to Santa, and I found myself in the middle of several ethical and theoretical dilemmas.  My dear, introspective five year old could not bring himself to say that he had been a good boy (whatever that means anyway).  This discussion had followed immediately on the heals of a strange conversation about why we could NOT bring Santa some pumpkin bread as a gift.  Why not?  Their teachers got pumpkin bread. We gave it to our friends. Why in the world wouldn't we bring some for Santa?
   The whole reason we were going anyway, is because my two and a half year old had gotten it into her head that Santa would be coming to visit. And we would give HIM presents, and a big hug. In that order.  For days she said, "I am so excited for Santa to come, so I can give him presents and a big hug."  No amount of explaining - including her brother informing her that "Santa isn't real, Maisy, it's the grown ups who bring presents", which she summarily dismissed - would deter her from her anticipation at the Man's visit.
   So I decided we'd better go to the mall and see Santa.  
   Second question, "What do you want for Christmas?"
Maisy announced that she was going to ask for a teddy bear and a baby doll. Owen, after much internal wrestling, had decided to ask for new legos.  Maisy was giddy with anticipation. Owen had just remembered that he'd seen Santa last year, and he wasn't all that.  Actually, he was a little scary.  At the last minute, Owen backed out, saying he'd rather stay home, but he gave careful instructions to his sister to pass on his Christmas request when she saw the Man in Red.
   We got to the mall and hurried to the Santa area.  Maisy was confused as to what Santa was doing in a shopping mall, and why we weren't at his home.  I had no answer for her. I'd given up defending and explaining this bizarre and slightly disturbing ritual of putting our kids on a sweaty stranger's lap, all the adults lying and pretending and all the kids suspicious and confused. 
   We arrived at the line, easily twenty people deep, children crying or swinging from the velvet ropes, parents looking haggard.  Many of the children wore dresses and tights, buttoned up shirts and fancy shoes.  My daughter looked up at me and asked, "Where's Santa?"  So I asked and the woman behind the camera told me he would be back at 2:15.  It was 2:10.  That seemed ok.  Then the woman in front of me turned around and said she'd been waiting for a half hour, and they told her he'd be back at 2:00. Her nine year old son stood patiently next to her.  
   Finally at 2:25 HE came strolling through the mall, a ripple of relief went through the line, and my daughter squealed and clapped her hands.  He climbed around the ropes, smothered his hands in Purell and pulled on his white gloves.  He spritzed breath freshener into his mouth, adjusted his hat, and settled into his chair.
   As the line inched forward I learned that the boy in front of us still believed in Santa; his big brother had lost interest. Despite the fact that her husband had been out of work for a year and a half, the mom was willing to shell out the $17 for the cheapest photo package (two 3x5s) to keep the magic alive for him for one more year, because even though she brought it just in case, the giant sign in front of us said she would not be permitted to her to use her own camera.
   At one point I noticed another "Santa".  Coming down the escalator, eyes upon the Santa scene below, was an old, plump man with a full white beard and a full head of grey-white hair in jeans and a black sweater.  He watched all the way to the bottom of the escalator, then rounded the corner and tucked himself underneath the escalator where he stood gazing at the Santa scene for several more minutes. I imagined he was an interviewee who didn't get the job sizing up his competition, or a prospective Santa, working on the beard and the gut this year so that next year he might audition for the role himself. Lurking to pick up some pointers.  Or maybe hoping some kid might notice him and think he was the real thing checking up on the fake. Or maybe he was.
   I looked back at the one who had gotten the job, as he slid a child off his lap, removed his thick fur hat and mopped his bald head with it before putting it back on.  What if Santa had a heart attack or stroke? I wondered. This seemed like a kind of grueling ordeal for someone of his age.
   After fielding several more Santa questions - "Where are his reindeer and sleigh?" (on the mall roof, if you could peek out that skylight, you'd see them) - Maisy's turn came.  She marched up to the Man, chin reaching just above his knee as he perched on his giant green throne, and said to him, "Hi Santa."  
He was very sweet with her. Engaged her in conversation. Asked her baby doll's name, and what she wanted for Christmas.  He never asked her if she'd been a good girl.  That question must be out.  (Owen would've been safe). Finally I picked her up and set her on his bright red knee, and backed up so they could snap a picture. 
   I could see it all over her face. It wasn't what she thought it would be. Mechanical deer bobbing its head next to her and furry snow all over the mall floor.  She clammed up, finally giving us a obligatory half-smile in response to my and the picture lady's screeching ("Smile honey! Like a princess!  Say CHEESE!"), and Santa gently set her down on the floor.  He reached over and folded a crown of paper antlers and placed them on her head.  She waved and said, "Bye Santa," and then took my hand and we walked away.  A few steps later she stopped and gasped. "Oh! I forgot to give him a hug!"  I looked back at the scene - line wrapping around the piles of snow and red velvet rope, the picture lady screeching at the child screaming in the bright red man's arms. "It's ok, honey.  You sat on his lap.  That's enough."

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