Article by Tim King
America’s Christmas-celebrating subculture is obsessed with the idea of being Santa Claus. Once your parents clue you in to the fact that Santa isn’t real or, conversely, you wake up to pee on Christmas eve and catch Dad, blasted on eggnog and in naught but his underwear and a Santa hat, putting presents under the tree, there’s not much left to the mystery besides what it would be like to actually be him. That’s really the only reason I can fathom for why a movie studio paid $22 million dollars to make Tim Allen into Santa, and why America paid $144 million to see it (also, don’t look up those figures for the sequels, it will just make you sadder).
When it comes down to it though, the criteria for being Santa are pretty stringent. Being fat is easy, but how about being rosy-cheeked without being drunk? Right there, half of everyone is disqualified. Then there are, according to tradition, the gender and racial constraints, and we’ve still got the beard requirements to go through before we even get close to the fact that you have to be literally the nicest, most selfless owner of (elf) slaves who ever lived. And come on, fat white guys, how many of you are actually going to pull off that fire-engine red ensemble?
Still, people try, and I am just one of many foolish enough to join the ranks of the rent-a-Santas. This all happened several years ago, but before we get to that, we should talk about what it means to be Santa.
Playing Santa during the holidays is insanely hard, but we don’t treat it as such. Like a college football mascot, the job requirements for being a temporary Santa are basically “show up; wear the suit; try to be sober when you do it”. But it’s really so much more than that. Being Santa, whether you’re Tim Allen or some dude sitting beneath a cardboard “North Pole” sign at a shopping mall, is about safeguarding the dreams of children. Whatever flaws you have, whatever malfunction is hiding underneath your beard, you have to show up and make sure those kids believe in Santa. You have to sit there and take pictures with all of them, and listen to every wish they have, from the four-year-old who wants an iPad to the six-year-old who just wants Mom to be happy because she’s been so sad since Dad went away, and smile. That, my friends, is heavy.
That’s why I have no right being Santa Claus. I’m disappointed that, for being as thoughtful as I occasionally am, I allowed impulse to make the decision for me. You see, when I agreed to be Santa, I was granted access to a buffet banquet at a five-star hotel, which is an obscene luxury in my world. My impression of the whole ordeal was that I would show up, do the whole “jolly” thing and get it over with, get back into street clothes, and then eat whatever buffet treats I could abscond with, by myself, in some staging room somewhere. It didn’t quite work out like that.
I arrived at the hotel before 5pm, and I was told by the organizer of this event that Santa wouldn’t be coming to town until 8:30pm, so I should just try to enjoy the party. With bottomless red wine in the mix, I did exactly that. I ate, I drank, I mingled. The hours peeled away, and suddenly it was past 9pm and I was rosy-cheeked with Merlot and loudly protesting to a former coworker that I could never in a million years be as bad a Santa as Dan Aykroyd or Billy-Bob Thornton.
Finally, on the wrong side of 9:30, it was show time. I staggered out of the ballroom and towards the staging room. As I walked I fretted over my purple tongue and killer wine breath. When I entered the room, I found two young foreign women who’d had the misfortune to be costumed up like Mrs. Clauses you might find in the Red Light District in Amsterdam, clad in short red dresses and perky Santa hats that gave them a discomforting, paradoxical sexuality that only comes from making children’s things sexy, like having a D-cup Minnie Mouse in a tube top. These women, I was told, were my “helpers,” a title that always sounds like a euphemism. My “helpers” were not very impressed by me, politely not engaging in my panic or my small talk. They eventually tired of my stammering and pointed across the room to my suit, which I figured would be some tacky piece of shit made from fabric that didn’t breathe, but I had hoped it would be better given the money involved in this event. My Santa jacket had no fasteners, which meant that I had to use my belt to keep it closed. The hat was so small that it sat tightly just on the crown of my head, poking upwards like the tip of a condom. The pants were made of a felt-like fabric that billowed like they’d been purchased at an MC Hammer estate sale. The faux beard looked like hell up close but actually looked okay from afar, so I guess it wasn’t all bad.
Suited up and gift sack in hand, I left the staging room for the ballroom to find my “helpers,” who had unceremoniously left while I was playing dress-up. I poked my head through the double doors to see if they had already gone in, but they were nowhere to be found. Not wanting to spoil my big entrance, I closed the door and stayed in the foyer—where no less than twenty-five Chinese kids between the ages of six and twelve had gathered around me while I was distracted. There was a brief moment of shock between us: me wide-eyed with terror that I was not going to weasel my way out of this, them wide-eyed with excitement because I was Santa, and all they really knew about Santa was that Santa has presents. Then the shouting started.
GIVE ME GIFT!
They shouted again and again. I tried to reason with them. I bellowed a few jolly “ho!”s and assured them that there were no presents now, but this bag I had was a magic bag and would be filled with presents soon. That kind of got lost in translation, so they edged in closer and I started trying to capture children in my Santa sack, because I was half in the bag myself and thought it would be funny if they were too.
Shortly after my fourth attempted sacking, the organizer realized what kind of ridiculousness I was getting myself into, brought me backstage and reunited me with Helper 1 and Helper 2. The game plan was simple: I walk on stage, they follow, I yell some nonsense about Christmases and how “merry” they are; then kids come up, sit on my lap, and after jabbering more English holiday platitudes I give them a stocking filled with dopey tchotchkes and send them on their way.
Like every other plan we had laid out that night, it didn’t exactly go like that. We were no less than an hour behind schedule, and similar to how I had gotten a little too wine drunk, the extra time allowed these kids to get more tired, which they staved off by speedballing with Coca-Cola and cheesecake squares. I walked across and sounded a chorus of “ho ho ho!”s. They clustered around the foot of the stage, shaking with excitement, like the Beatles just landed at JFK.
Then the stockings came out.
They flooded over the edge of the stage, a torrent of petite party dresses, little polo shirts, and baby teeth. Hindsight is 20/20, and the sensible thing to have done was to refuse access to any tchotchkes until order was restored. Instead, I freaked out and started dishing off stockings to whichever hands were closest. The throng of children swarmed around me, finding any and every angle from which to beg for a stocking. Then, fearful that their kids would go without a felt sock and a Christmas tree eraser this holiday season, some tiger moms got involved. They crashed through the surging ball of youth, bowling over those in their way and tearing stockings from tiny, wanting hands. As the madness boiled over, I suddenly noticed a little girl, no older than four, standing perfectly still as the others writhed around her. Her arms were at her side, a sure sign that she had given up. Her gaze locked with mine, and I saw tears, glinting under the stage lights, streaming down from the corners of her eyes. The kind of tears that only come when a person has broken so completely there’s no longer any point in sobbing.
Alcoholics like to refer to moments like this as a “moment of clarity.” I dropped the stocking from my hand and refused to pick up another. As if on cue, other event staff also found their minds, pulled a couple of grown-ass people who should have known better out of the horde, and called for order again. This time it worked. We thinned the herd by removing the parents, and corralled the remaining children into a line. One by one, they walked up, I said “Merry Christmas” without any jovial affectation, gave them a stocking, and sent them on their way.
I skulked back to the staging room, where I was rewarded for my “help” with a baggie of instant coffee. It’s just as well that they paid me with a stimulant, because from that night and every night before I die, I will be sleepless as my mind’s eye conjures up the image of that one little girl, the little girl meeting Santa for the first time that was met with an incomprehensible horror, the little girl I failed. Those tears can only have meant one thing—to her, Santa is dead. And I’m the one who buried him.
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease and still not recovered from all that red meat. He can be reached at at firstname.lastname@example.org