Whenever the man in the red and white furry suit and long cap is out in public he’s supposed to laugh, pat his big belly and let out a hearty ho ho for whomever crosses his path. He’s supposed to wish those who smile at him, whether it be an adult or a small child, a very Merry Christmas. We are to come away from our brief interaction with him feeling better than before we’d run into him, maybe even sucking on a candy cane he was generous enough to hand to us as a token of his goodwill. He is, after all, dressed as Santa Claus. Confuse him with either being a symbol or archetype of all things Christmas if you must. But doesn’t the person behind the fake white beard owe this perfectly cliched Christmas behavior to all of us who still believe in the tradition?
At an early age my parents encouraged my older sister and I to believe in the big red and white lie and we did. They even went so far as to tell my sister and I that the Santas we saw on the street corner or seated in a fake sleigh at the center of the mall were just stand-ins, local So Cal helpers to that old guy thousands of miles away up at the North Pole who was an expert packer – how does one fit a world’s worth of children’s toys in one sleigh? No, my mom and dad continuously repeated, the one they took us to see on Christmas Eve was the real Santa Claus. Not many people were aware that before his all night trip ’round the globe in his sleigh he temporarily parked it in a plastic igloo in front of Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California.
If I grew suspicious why I couldn’t hear Prancer and Dancer and the rest pawing the ground nearby, my father would just bend down to me and whisper, “His reindeer are on the other side of the igloo, Paula Girl. They’re filling their bellies, eating big pails of turkey and stuffing, getting ready for their busy night ahead.” Of course this made sense. And because I didn’t want to leave Santa out, right before bed I would set out a glass of milk and a plate full of sugar cookies I’d baked as a thank you for the unwrapped gifts he would leave me come Christmas morning. I’m grateful to my parents for having deceived me about Old Saint Nick. My childhood is all the better for it.
Yesterday, all these years later, when I got out of my car at the post office and noticed a man dressed as Santa Claus, things did not go as expected. He definitely looked the part. Instead of a sleigh he had an old antique car decorated with Christmas lights. Coming out of the black speakers on either side of the car (there were no doors) played “Jingle Bells.”
“Would it be okay if I took your picture?” I asked the Santa who I saw as I got closer had bloodshot eyes. I had plans of being festive by posting it on Facebook.
“Sure,” he replied, holding out a white gloved hand, “for five bucks.”
Maybe it was the kid in me that has yet to grow up that made me literally take a step back. Yes, one typically pays to see Santa. But what is the proper protocol if you come across him in a parking lot next to a Walgreen’s drug store?
“Nevermind,” I muttered and got back into my car.
But this is where the story takes a dark and very not-so-merry turn. This bad Santa was not taking my monetary refusal so well. As I started my car and pulled away from the parking spot, I watched as he pulled down his fake beard and mustache combo. An ugly five letter expletive geared towards women could easily be read from his now fully visible lips. Normally I would’ve just driven away, taking the high road. But at that moment I remembered what the idea of Santa stood for and it certainly wasn’t this bitter old man who thought he could get away with cursing at a woman who didn’t give him five dollars. So as immature as it may sound and without a second thought, through the side window of my car, I looked that Santa impostor straight in the eyes and I gave him the middle finger.