It’s November, but Mike is already getting the red velveteen suit from the closet. Because Christmas is getting closer, and Saint Nicholas has work to do. Namely, his dry cleaning.
The first time they ever asked Mike to play Santa he was hurt by the suggestion. Sure, he’s a bigger guy, but he didn’t see himself as having a “bowlful of jelly” tummy. Still, when someone asks you to play Father Christmas they aren’t exactly asking you to pose for a Calvin Klein underwear ad.
“Yeah, I’ve always been overweight, but I was a little offended,” said Mike.
He played Santa anyway, and he had big fun. It came easy to him because he’s a nice guy with a cheerful face. He looks like the real deal. Over the years he’s grown into his role.
“My first professional gig was at PetSmart, in a cheap Party City suit, posing with animals. The ferrets were a hoot. But fifteen minutes before I was done, I saw this woman in line holding plastic boxes… Snakes, it had to be snakes.”
After that, the Santa gigs kept rolling in. Soon it had become more than just a job. Mike realized he was tending to the wonder and imaginations of children.
Many people might not see the role of Santa as that important, but just think about it: where would your childhood have been without the Big Guy? It would have been in the pits, that’s where.
The magic of youth is easily extinguished by a stiff breeze. It is only kept alive by men and women who guard it with their lives. Every time a Santa puts on his suit, he is defending innocence. And every year he hears the same things all practicing Saints hear.
“My dog died.”
“My mom has cancer, I’m scared.”
“Can you bring back my dad from Heaven?”
“Will foster parents ever want to adopt me?”
And Mike always responds by wearing the rosy face of a veritable fairytale hero. He touches their hair and tells them “Santa loves you.” And when appropriate, he tells them, “Santa is praying for you.”
Last year, a coworker asked if Mike would do a home visit for his infant daughter. Mike agreed, and on one chilly day he showed up in full red-and-white regalia for the visit.
“They couldn’t take her off her medical equipment,” said Mike.
The child was only a few minutes old. She had a tracheotomy and was attached to oxygen. Mike looked at the baby, so pink and small. She couldn’t make a sound, her anatomy wasn’t strong enough. But Mike could see her tiny facial expressions and convulsions whenever she tried to cry.
“It was hard,” he said.
But then, this is simply the kind of thing Santas do.
You might not notice these men unless it’s December, but believe me, they’re out there. And right now they’re gearing up for a tricky holiday season now that COVID has come to town.
Mike belongs to a huge fraternity of Santas with members from Oregon to Virginia. From Australia to Israel. All shapes. All colors. All creeds. And all with the same hellacious dry cleaning bill.
The group’s main discussion this year is, of course, how to keep Christmas special during a pandemic. Because this year lots of shopping malls, department stores, and amusement parks are rethinking the role of Santa. And by “rethinking” I mean “cancelling.”
Some stores already don’t foresee any scenarios where kids will be sitting on Santa’s lap. Parades are being canned. Parties are being scrubbed. And we’re not even within spitting distance of Thanksgiving yet.
Not to mention that about 20 million people are unemployed after COVID, and one out of every four adults admits to having trouble paying bills since the pandemic. It’s shaping up to be a hard candy Christmas for a lot of children.
But this has not thwarted the regimen of men in crimson and arctic-white. This is not the first pandemic Saint Nicholas has endured, and it won’t be his last. No matter how hard things become, you cannot kill a 1,749-year-old Jolly Elf.
Thousands of Santas across the globe are re-imagining new, creative ways to bring Christmas to kids this year.
“I’ll be at a local mall,” said Mike. “I’ll be riding around in a train and stopping at various locations. Kids will be six feet away, but we’ll be able to do pictures.”
Other Santas will be doing personal appearances on front lawns, porches, and in parking lots. Even more will be doing video calls. A company named Jingle Ring is catering to military families with virtual Santa sessions for deployed parents. The idea is simple: on a family’s monitor screen will be kids, active-duty parents, and Mister Kringle himself.
As I write this, troops of Santas are gathering twice per week to train on high-tech video equipment for the upcoming onslaught of Christmas video calls. If you can just imagine the milk and cookies being consumed at these things.
“It’s fascinating,” says Mike, “to see a hundred or so Santas and Mrs. Clauses working so hard. I’ve been very inspired by these guys who really see being Santa as their mission in life.”
Because, of course, it is their mission. For within all this world there is nothing so real and abiding as Santa Claus. Thank God, he lives, and lives forever. A thousand years from now; ten times ten thousand years from now. He lives despite war, famine, sadness, and in the throes of a sweeping pandemic. May he continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
God bless you, Santa. And God bless your dry cleaner.