Santa-ism

By Brad Reed

(December, 2007)

Some of you know that for the past several years I have had the pleasure of being Santa for the young children of my home town, Botkins. At the Historical Society Museum, elementary and preschool children decorate trees with handmade ornaments, and then on the first Sunday in December, they — mostly the younger ones — come in with their parents and grandparents to see the ornaments and talk to Santa and get the iconic photo without standing in long lines at the mall. I understand that to many of the parents, I’m a prop. But I’m not Santa because of the parents.

Notice I said “being Santa,” not “playing Santa.” One does not play Santa — one becomes Santa. This is one of the rules of Santa-ism that I have figured out over my years in the red suit. I’d like to share a few of these Rules of Santa-ism with you today.

A transformation happens when you pull on the baggy red pants and the big red jacket trimmed with white. You become the embodiment — the incarnation, if you will — of all the myth and tradition and beliefs associated with Santa Claus. And that leads to the first Answer to Hard Questions: “Are you the real Santa?”

Rule #1: BE Santa. A transformation happens when you pull on the baggy red pants and the big red jacket trimmed with white. You become the embodiment — the incarnation, if you will — of all the myth and tradition and beliefs associated with Santa Claus. And that leads to the first Answer to Hard Questions: “Are you the real Santa?” The answer is, ALL Santas are the real Santa. To be clear, though, kids almost never ask this question. They see Santa in every mall, every store, on every street corner, everywhere. They understand it’s just better not to ask.

Rule #2: Santa never appears unless in full uniform. Appearing in public, which to Santa means “anywhere that children might see you” requires the full uniform: red suit, boots, beard and hat. Anything less betrays that you are NOT Santa, and are just wearing Santa’s stuff, and that causes confusion and doubt. Santa does not cause confusion and doubt.

Rule #3: Santa waves at everybody. Santa’s main form of communication is the wave. This is partly because the itchy, synthetic beard typically worn obscures so much of the face that a smile is not really effective. It is also an acknowledgment that Santa sees you and knows you as a good person. This too is true: children tend to stare in wonder, and offer very tentative waves. Most adults wave enthusiastically and smile, even when not in the presence of children. SOME adults do NOT wave, and pretend not to see Santa, which is ridiculous, because he is a big guy wearing a bright red suit standing on the sidewalk. You have to work really hard to not see Santa.

Rule #4: Santa always refers to himself in the third person. “Would you like to come talk to Santa?” The first person “I” or “me” places the individual above the mythology, and claims ownership of that which can only be shared. “Santa knows you’ve been a good boy” is a winking nod to the general goodness of children; “I know you’ve been a good boy” is a voyeuristic and somewhat creepy invasion of privacy.

Children get used to disappointments — it’s part of growing up to learn we don’t always get what we want. But how do you forgive a broken promise, especially when you are five years old?

Rule #5: Santa never promises. Santa approves. Santa nods. Santa chuckles. Santa expresses surprise at the items on the list, but Santa never promises. Children get used to disappointments — it’s part of growing up to learn we don’t always get what we want. But how do you forgive a broken promise, especially when you are five years old?

Rule #6: Some kids are afraid of Santa. Having been Santa for essentially the same population of children for a number of years, I have been able to conduct something of a longitudinal study. And the results of this study show that there is no way to predict a child’s reaction to Santa. Infants are terrified, uninterested, or fascinated. Toddlers are terrified, uninterested, or fascinated. Pre-schoolers are terrified, uninterested, or fascinated. I have seen some children who react the same way every year, and some who one year are fine, and the next hysterically screaming. Human children (and adults) have a range of behaviors both instinctive and learned. Fear and awe are very similar emotions. What Santa knows is, forcing a fearful child into Santa’s lap is NOT a good idea, either for the child or for Santa.

Rule #7: Santa is magical. Not all of Santa’s secrets can be explained or should be explained. It is enough to believe, or at least allow the possibility, that Santa does have some unusual qualities. When Santa greets the shy child with “Hello, Kyle! How nice of you to come see me!” Kyle’s eyes open wide — ”Santa knows my name!” It is not necessary to point out to Kyle that his name is embroidered on his jacket, and that for the last five minutes his Mom has been saying over and over, “Which ornament is yours, Kyle?” What Kyle knows is that Santa knows his name. Santa’s magic is always for the benefit of the children. As explained in Rule #6, sometimes children will freeze up and forget what they were going to ask from Santa. Some parents don’t help, saying things like, “If you don’t tell Santa, you won’t get what you want!” Santa rescues the children thusly: A number of years ago this particular Santa stopped giving away candy canes and chocolates, which tended to attract the cynical and candy-grubbing older kids, in favor of jingle bell ornaments. When a child freezes up, Santa hands her a bell and says gently, but loudly enough for the parents to hear, “Later you’ll think of what you wanted to tell Santa. You ring this bell, and Santa will hear you.” Whew!

Rule #8: Santa can be surprised. As by the seven-year-old whose Christmas list was socks and apple juice. As by the shy, apple-cheeked eight-year-old whose response to Santa’s question “What would you like this year?” was “I want everyone to have a Merry Christmas.” And when asked “What would make Christmas special for you?” answered “Flying around the world delivering toys to everybody.” And Santa was most surprised a couple of Christmases back. A girl, maybe 11–12, older than most of the children who come to see Santa, came in — by herself, which is also unusual. Santa recognized her as a girl who had had a tough Autumn — a new school, parents were divorcing, she had gotten into some minor trouble. She stood there, at some distance, waiting for an invitation to sit and talk to Santa. She didn’t ask for anything, but Santa recognized a look in her eyes. “You’re a good girl. It will be OK.” And with that, she smiled faintly and walked away. She had gotten what she came for, and she never came to see Santa again.

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