When I was a kid, the appearance of Santa was simple. He arrived every year via the Christmas parade on the first Saturday in December and went straight to the town’s only mall. I thought the mall owned Santa.
Today, Santa shows up on Thanksgiving weekend, and you can’t turn around and spit without hitting one. They’re everywhere.
And it’s not just Santa you have to watch out for now. This demonic Elf-on-a –Shelf creature now patrols your house at night peeping at you from behind curtains and doors. Elfie should be on the North Pole’s sex offender registry.
I distinctly remember all those years ago, the first skirmish over the ownership of Santa. One year we went across town from the mall, and for the first time, gasp… Roses’ department store had a Santa! We had just left the mall! How could he be in two places at once? The “real” Santa lived at the mall, damn it!
Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the imposter at Roses had tufts of red hair peeking out from beneath his giant head of fake white curls and he appeared to be about twenty years old beneath the cotton candy beard. My mom explained to me that this clearly sub-standard Santa actually worked for the “real” Santa at the mall and reported back to him.
This brings me to the fact that back in the day, the hair and beard were obviously fake. No one even tried very hard to fool us kids. Santa had mounds of this stuff that was the texture of fiberglass wall insulation. If you accidently touched it, you could cut yourself.
You also got one tiny, instant Polaroid picture for $5. Today, Santa has a real beard and “portrait packages” start at $19.99 and top out at sixty bucks. The mall has jacked the price so high on the traditional portrait with Santa, that single parents have to take on a second job to pay for it. I used to think the mall was our friend and the visit with Santa part of their civic duty. It never occurred to me that it was just another opportunity to price gouge harried, anxious parents.
And there must be quite a cottage industry for portly men-of-a-certain-age who have full heads of hair and snowy white beards. I imagine them all living together in a compound somewhere like circus folk, attending child development classes during the off season.
Once everyone could have a Santa, the standards became dangerously low. Sure, you could always pay for the high end, up-market Mall Santa, but who knew what you would get elsewhere? The Big Man now appears at craft festivals, holiday light shows and will even eat breakfast with your kid at Panera. Nothing is sacred anymore.
One year, when my daughter was about 5, I encountered a Santa so sub-standard and so disturbing, that I whisked my kid out the door before she could see him. Clearly, he was a relative of the small business owner. He had real hair and a real beard all right, but the beard was yellow, and his fingertips were heavily stained the same color from decades of nicotine use. As if his obvious addiction to tobacco was not traumatic enough… the man had… wait for it… yes… an oxygen tank! The small cylinder sat by his chair with the clear plastic tubing snaking its way up to rest just below his nose and his frail, shriveled body listed to one side as every intake of breath sounded like a death rattle. Santa is magic. Santa is immortal. How in the hell did he wind up on an oxygen tank?
I actually gasped out loud. Thankfully, my daughter was out of sight with my mom at the very moment that I spotted the Crypt-Keeper Santa. I immediately whirled around, snatched up my child and dashed out of there. I narrowly avoided her being traumatized by discovering what it would be like to visit Santa in a nursing home.
I personally handle all this modern Santa drama by explaining that none of these men are Santa. They don’t work for Santa. They don’t even know how to reach Santa. They are just people paid by that business to drive in store traffic by giving parents the opportunity to get their kid’s picture made with the jolly old guy. The “real” Santa is magic. He lives in a magic place and no one ever sees him. And he is not on an oxygen tank.
Another Christmas has come and gone and Magic Santa has departed, along with his demented Elf, leaving behind a house strewn with new toys. Thank you, “real” Santa! See you next year!