This article was written by C.E. Chambers and published by The Journal Newspapers on December 7, 1999 (Vol. 22, No. 320) in the Northgate Journal, Seattle, Washington edition.
It’s a good thing I was talking to the Santa Claus from the Lake Forest Park Mall by phone or he would have seen my mouth drop open. I had asked him what his response would be to a child who inquired, “How do I become an elf.”
“Why, I’ve never been asked that question,” he rejoindered, obviously surprised. “In fact, that’s not something a child would ask. That’s something an adult would think of.” Whoa! Slap me with a sugar-plum!
He was right. That question had been gleaned from an adult-generated list that included other inane offerings that I had been wise enough to ignore. Santa’s response to my query became only one of many thought-provoking, almost prescient answers received from conversations with other Kris Kringles. In fact, the perennial pied piper of reindeer, elves, and wide-eyed kids is probably hiding an IQ the size of a Microsoft megabyte under his beard.
But what do we expect from a seasonal globe-trotter who’s somewhere between 659 and 1,700-year-old? Just because he lives in the North Pole and spends his spare time grooming reindeer doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned a doctorate in Psychology — the hard way.
The average Santa selflessly serves as friend, father, and counselor every Christmas season to myriads of expectant, and sometimes unruly, runny-nosed children who ask him things that would stump the average think-tank expert. And, if truth be told, the Santas I interviewed approximated that 20% of their knee-warmers are way past the Sesame Street stage. Adults of all ages unabashedly gravitate to Old St. Nick — who isn’t at all surprised to see them. The bearded workaholic thrives on being a spokesperson for the celebration that enthralls all ages and countless cultures. Santa isn’t in this for his health; his heart is bigger than his tummy.
A little girl once thought she had accomplished the impossible and tripped up the Santa Claus from the Lake Forest Park Mall. He asked her a question, not knowing that she had just visited another Kris Kringle at another location. “Hey, I was already asked that today,” she said, eyeing him with great suspicion.
“You talked to my brother,” he responded easily. “I like to check up on him once in a while and see if he gets things right.”
That’s only one of the mysteries that children are innately capable of understanding. Santa is an extremely busy man and sometimes incorporates help from brothers, uncles, and cousins. Some are so popular that their followers, like swallows flocking to Capistrano, return year after year asking, for example, for Santa James, Santa Robert, or Santa John.
Does the exalted bearded-one ever get so short-handed that he calls upon the services of his wife? “Oh, yes,” answers the Santa from the Everett Mall. “Mrs. Claus has been known to help me in a pinch. But she’s usually even busier than I am, what with overseeing the elves and the reindeer and spends much of her time keeping them in line. “In fact,” he adds conspiratorially, “you could compare us to a government. I’m like the President and she’s the Chief of Staff and does the delegating.”
At one point in our conversation he suddenly broke off, saying, “Mrs. Claus is correcting me.” Sound typical for a millennium-long marriage? I asked “What does Mrs. Claus look like?”
“Short and feisty,” was his answer.
Sometimes Santa’s visitors are pretty feisty, too. The bearded-one from the Everett Mall relates this story: “Once year, a man weighing 600 pounds came to see me. He asked me to sit on his lap, which I did. Then he asked for a boat for Christmas. The next year he returned and announced ‘I’m sitting on your lap this time. I found a miniature boat in my stocking last year!’ “
Ah, the truth finally comes out! But Santa is unruffled. “Of course, people don’t always receive what they want,” he explains. “I always answer requests — sometimes I say ‘no.”
One little boy, who was from Florida, visited the Santa at the Everett Mall and received his wish. “I don’t want a present,” he declared. “I just want to see some snow.”
“Now it just so happens,” Santa explains, “that I have arthritis — not surprising for my age, is it? — and I can predict cold weather pretty accurately. My joints had started acting up so I told him that he would get his wish. Snow started falling two days later.”
The Santa from the Alderwood Mall is just as unflappable. “When kids ask where Rudolph is, I tell them to look up real quick ‘cos they might catch him trying to peek through the skylight. Rudolph’s awfully nosy, you know.” Regarding Mrs. Claus, he confirmed that she is as busy as he is. In fact, “if she wasn’t keeping an eye on the elves, they’d be playing with the children’s toys!”
Not all the questions or requests are whimsical. A child may share, “You know, this is going to be my last Christmas. I have cancer.” And, all too frequently, a little one sitting on that sheltering knee requests that Santa bring back a divorced or jailed parent or a loved one who has passed away. It’s not unusual for a visitor to St. Nicholas to ask for prayer. And, as one Santa told me, some youngsters are requesting weapons, rather than candy canes, in their stockings.
No matter the subject — humorous or heartbreaking — St. Nicholas is prepared. As the Alderwood Mall Santa says, “I take the child’s lead. When a child gets serious, I get serious.” He echoes others when he says that a Santa’s main mission is unconditional love. Children sometimes say ‘I believe in Santa Claus but I don’t believe in Christmas.’ A Santa always responds, ‘That’s okay — I believe in you.’ “
He continues, “There’s a different spirit this time of year; I can say things to people that they wouldn’t be able to handle at any other time. Sometimes gang members sit on my lap. Others walk by, give me the high-sign and remark, ‘Cool socks,’ or, ‘Hey, that’s a neat beard, man.’ “
The Father Christmas from the Alderwood Mall, like the others, “feel it, acts it, and lives it all year-round.” He doesn’t always wear the obligatory red coat, but his billowy, cloud-like beard is the real thing and his white shirt and suspenders cause heads to turn. Once he was walking through a store when he saw a young girl sitting in a shopping cart. She scrutinized him for a minute.
“Nah,” she decided.
“Yeah,” he declared softly. Her eyes became as big as saucers as he handed her one of the many tiny ornaments he carries in his pockets when people least expect to see him.
But that’s the whole key to understanding Santa Claus: He speaks the language of the heart.