Backstage at the mall we sit in a room that is both storage for hundreds of poinsettias and Santa’s changing room; I am sitting across the table from Wally Norby, the man known as Santa Claus. Wally has been in his Santa suit since eight this morning and he looks weary. Gone is the pleasant demeanor he has exuded all afternoon, and the twinkle in his eye has dissolved into an ex-marine’s baleful glare, which he now directs at me. For a second I have an inkling of what the screaming kids are afraid of. There is the white beard (genuine), the low-on-the-nose half-glasses, stocking cap, big belt, and red suit (who but the pope and the devil can get away with a red suit?). I realize that despite the costumed chicanery, I am sitting face to face with the pagan god of Christmas—both omnipotent and omniscient. He is the one who “sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good,” which makes the ostensibly cheerful chorus of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” sound a lot more like a day of reckoning than anything else.
But today, neither concerned about my relative goodness nor my Christmas booty, I am more than a little anxious about the fact that I have agreed to be Santa for the next two hours—and kids are already lining up outside the door. I am trying to get some tips on how to be Santa from the 76-year-old man who has been in the business for 14 years. Wally is old Sinter Klaas in the flesh, and people come to see him yearly from as far away as Billings and Spokane. Once he was mobbed by crowds of children in the Honolulu airport when an overeager pilot radioed in that he had spotted Santa flying south, picked him up and was bringing him in. “I was the only Santa on the island. I told that pilot he had made a mistake in doing that and he agreed.” Instead of talking to Father Christmas, I feel like I am getting my butt chewed out by my football coach.
Wally fixes me with that stare and starts: “If you think that this is going to be a fun job, you are dead wrong. There is nothing easy about this so you’d better get that out of your head at once. What are you going to tell the little girl who asks you to bring back her mommy, or tells you that her daddy beats her? You’re going to find out things about these kids’ lives that you didn’t want to know. Kids tell Santa everything that they won’t tell their parents. They trust him and they believe in him and they have faith that he can fix whatever is wrong. You have an enormous responsibility.”
All right then, what do you say if someone asks for her mommy back?
“The response is: ‘Sweetheart, I will do everything I can to make that come true but I can’t promise you anything,’ and then you switch it right away to ‘What kinds of toys do you like?’ and then don’t even let them answer that. The art of distraction is really the best thing that you can do.”
Wally watches me fiddle with the Santa suit, while he packs his away neatly. These borrowed robes don’t fit so well and I feel increasingly like a fraud. The pants are way too short and the belt could encircle my waist twice—when was the last time you saw Santa with a 34 waist? The length and curliness of the wig’s tresses, the not-found-in-nature platinum color seems much more heavy-metal-guitarist than children’s icon. The fake beard inspires me with even less confidence—fortunately it does hide everything but my eyes.
“Now I don’t want you to get into this thinking that this is an easy gig,” Wally goes on. “Some of them will be scared. With you particularly, they will be scared of you—they’ll be scared of that beard. That scares the dickens out of them. If they’re scared to look at you, then what you do is pick out a spot on their dress or their pants or their shoes, and say, ‘What beautiful shoes you have’ and go on from there; you have to distract them, you have to turn the attention from you to them. You’re going to find that it is tough, but distracting them is the key.”
Wally has much more advice to give, but what sticks in my mind is this: “There’s going to be a lot of people disappointed because I’m not there, but just ignore them.” Great. Santa greeted by an angry mob, beard plucked off, charlatan unmasked.
Then it is time to go and before I know it I am sitting on my throne with parents and kids ogling me from every direction. Although it’s probably normal for royalty and celebrities, when was the last time you walked across a room and had people just waving to you desperate to catch your eye and thrilled when you waved back? I can barely see through all the hair but there looks to be a long line.
I really don’t blame the kids (generally ages 2-4) who scream like banshees as soon as they get close. You can see their trepidation a long way off. They hide behind their parents’ legs, avert their eyes from my glance all the while keeping me under close observation. They’re no fools. As long as I sit and look wooden and they are close to their parents they feel safe, but put them on my lap and, brother, forget about it. Maybe it is the shock of finding a person and a voice under all the fakey trappings; perhaps they have been told to be wary of strangers; maybe it is the pressure of coming face to face with the real presence of Santa himself.
It shouldn’t be surprising. Parents seem to treat a visit to Santa as something they can squeeze in between shopping and eating—as long as the line isn’t too long, but for kids this is serious business. Can you imagine an adult nonchalantly passing up a chance to talk with Jesus, Abraham Lincoln or Socrates?
For whatever reason, if a kid is genuinely freaked by Santa, it doesn’t matter how the adults try to mollify the situation—the child will have none of it. The photographer’s words—“We can take a crying picture if you want, we’ve taken plenty of those”—and the looks from the parents who desperately want a happy child with Santa picture make me feel like I should just slither back under the rock I came from.
But they come on undaunted, and most of them are just ready to burst with excitement. They leap into your arms and if they can remember what they have been rehearsing, mantra-like, for the last few minutes it just spills out of them; they will tell you brand, make and model of the remote control car, or the Barbie dream house and its accessories. I guess like adults, kids’ desires run the gamut from the general “um, lots of presents” to the very particular, a purple flashlight. (“Well we have a lot of flashlights up at the workshop, what if you ended up with a black one?” And the reply, not spoiled but determined: “No, I have a yellow one and I want a purple one.”) One kid tells me he wants a robot, remote controlled, and yellow. OK, I think, that’s not so tough, just to keep the conversation rolling, I make the mistake of asking him the approximate size of the robot in question. He looks at me carefully enunciating his reply: “eighty feet tall.” I search his eyes for a hint of what this means, but they betray only gleeful satisfaction which may be because he has just spoken his most heartfelt wish to the one person who might understand and make it happen.
I had watched the kids emerge from their visit with Wally, walking slowly as if in a daze. They were elated to have seen their god, faced whatever fear they might have had and lived to tell about it. I can’t say what they looked like after leaving me, but the ones who sat up on my lap long after the picture was taken and the requisite formalities were over, just basking in the aura of Santa Claus, occasionally mumbling nonsense, gazing deep into my eyes or just giggling quietly, made this elaborate deception seem transcendent and unconditionally worth doing.