In the late 1980s, Lynn, a friend of the family, approached my wife, Louise, with an urgent request. She explained that she had signed a contract to run the Santa Claus photo concessions at ten different Los Angeles-area malls. After weeks of searching, she had found nine managers but was desperate to have Louise take charge of the photo booth located a few miles north of our home in Irvine.
“If I do manage the Santa concession,” Louise responded, “where am I supposed to find a bunch of qualified Kris Kringles?”
“It is tough,” Lynn replied. “The men who are available and willing to work as a mall Santa are typically shifty, tipsy, grimy, stinky, queasy, seedy, and horribly unreliable. Sort of like the other seven dwarfs.”
“So there’s going to be a long line of children,” Louise said, “who can’t wait to talk with Jolly Old Saint Nick. They’ll practically be jumping out of their skin. Meanwhile, I’ll be on pins and needles wondering if the next Saint Nick will actually show up for his shift? And even if he does show up, I’ll be worrying about whether he’s sober or not?”
“Basically,” Lynn said. “Most of the Santas you hire will be quite unreliable. But you got the jolly part wrong. If you’re not careful, Santas can actually be too jolly. It’s against company policy for our Santas to shout ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ It’s considered infantile, hackneyed, and overdone.”
With this daunting introduction, Louise accepted the invitation. It was an invitation into the bizarre world of managing men who are willing to take the taxing and low-paying job of dealing with children and getting them to take a good photo—a task they perform while dressed in a sweltering velvet costume and donning a fake beard tainted by years of filtering the foul-smelling breath of pizza-eating alcoholics.
Sure enough, the SoCal candidates who showed up for the Santa job interview weren’t exactly taking a break from their promising careers in acting, modeling, or broadcast journalism. They looked more like extras from a vagrant movie.
Louise had been told to select younger men where possible because wrangling kids for a four-hour shift can be quite arduous. With this in mind, she immediately hired the two college students who applied for the job. She chose the remaining Santas from a pool of aspirants who weren’t the least bit merry, were alarmingly jittery, and seemed far more interested in not just the day they would get their first paycheck, but the day and time they would be paid. “Is our first payday next Thursday at six, or more like six thirty?” Hmmm.
So my business partner David Maxfield (always the good sport) and I volunteered to attend the official Santa training course in case Louise needed a certified Santa to fill in at the last minute. You can’t be too careful. If you let an unlicensed Santa into the mall, who knows how many triple “Ho!”s he’ll fire off before he’s trivialized the entire holiday season?
When opening day arrived, Louise received a phone call from Sammy, her designated lead Santa. He was a handsome, affable, junior-college kid—and for those reasons had been scheduled to take the all-important opening shift. As it turned out, Sammy was also fond of “fake baking” and figured that this Santa job would give him a chance to “show off his cool tan to lots of cute girls at the mall.” (His exact words.) Unfortunately, Sammy had fallen asleep in the tanning booth and rendered his skin holiday red and terribly painful. So Sammy Santa, Louise’s go-to guy, never put on the beard.
When the emergency call came in, I happened to be available. As luck would have it, the opening-day-sweltering-in-the-Santa-suit duty was given to yours truly. I made my grand entrance into the mall by strolling around the food court, jingling a string of sleigh bells, and shouting, “Merry Christmas!” “Feliz Navidad!” and “Guten Gibbenshtuff!” (I made up that last greeting.)
As predicted, David and I filled in quite often that season. Also as predicted, the job was exhausting. This was especially true when we worked with kids who freaked out at the mere sight of the bearded stranger. This didn’t stop parents from literally throwing their screaming, scratching, and kicking child (not unlike a bobcat being tossed from a bag) onto good old Santa’s lap. So David and I wrote and handed out a page of instructions to waiting parents on how to prepare a frightened child for a visit with Saint Nick. We drew our recommendations from the latest systematic desensitization research, which had been largely completed with subjects who had a paralyzing fear of boa constrictors. To our delight, the fear-reduction techniques we suggested worked quite nicely across species.
As the season of wrangling kids and babysitting Santas mercifully came to a close, Louise and I were so completely spent that we never got around to decorating our own home. Our kids still refer to 1988 as “the year without a Christmas tree.” David and I did our best to portray a sincere and caring St. Nick, and the teenage girls who served as helpers had been steadfast, efficient, and delightful. But after working a month with listless, leering, stinking, complaining, belching, and missing Santas—come December 24th, none of us felt the least bit jolly.
And then I overheard Katrina, one of the teenage helpers, say something remarkable as Louise passed out the final paychecks. Katrina quietly instructed her mother to send her money to a children’s charity. I was shocked. This young woman who had worked hard for her money was now giving away her entire paycheck. I learned from Katrina’s mother that her daughter had spent every penny she had earned that season sponsoring two orphan girls who lived in Guatemala. Katrina never said a word about her generosity.
Inspired by Katrina, my thoughts drifted from the killjoy Santas to the darling children who came through the line. Their unbridled excitement filled the holiday season with an electric and palpable joy. Most couldn’t wait to share their lists filled with exciting action figures and beautiful princesses. But some had a more serious agenda. They asked Santa to reunite their families. And a few children, following in Katrina’s footsteps, requested a present for their brother or sister, but not a single thing for themselves. Even when encouraged to come up with something for themselves, they typically responded, “No, nothing for me. Just a bike for my sister.” Disguised as the Jolly Old Elf, I struggled to swallow the lump in my throat that surfaced from such innocent and selfless requests.
All of this magic took place under the watch of a bunch of costumed scoundrels who could scarcely hold a job and who weren’t allowed to shout a single “Ho!” Despite our fair share of frustrations and all the humbugs we grumbled under our breath, during the Christmas of 1988, the holiday found a way to create its own magic. And what I’ve noticed every year since is that no matter the challenges and chaos of life, somehow it always does—with or without a Christmas tree.