The fall of 1974 wasn’t the best time for me, at least at first. The country was in deep recession, and in the past several months I’d been bouncing from one odd job to another: maintenance mechanic, newspaper truck driver, construction crew laborer, upholsterer’s apprentice, you name it. Then I took a job as a bartender in Tuckahoe, New York, in a mansion that had recently been converted into a dinner theater. The huge building had once been the home of Dutch Schultz, the 1930s gangster, and rumors flew among us about possible hidden passageways to ill-gotten loot. I should have been content with this gig, but in my second week I received word that I was a finalist for another job I’d applied for: a department store Santa. Why not? I thought, and went to the interview, where apparently some scrap of potential jolly peeked out of me, and I was offered one of the plum assignments: my own throne in the Saks Fifth Avenue department store in White Plains, New York. With only a little hesitation, I accepted. I was marking time anyway—in January I’d enter midyear into the graduate creative writing program at City College, where I’d eventually study with Frederick Tuten and Donald Barthelme—and I reasoned that I could always find work as a bartender. But how many opportunities would I have to play a Santa? Maybe I could get a story out of it.
Ten years later, in the fall of 1984 and on the eve of the release of my second book, The Art of the Knock: Stories, the editors at the Washington Post Sunday Magazine (who had recently published one of my short stories in their summer fiction issue) contacted me and asked if I had any holiday memories for an essay they might feature in the Christmas issue. Oh, I have a few, I’d replied.
I sat nervously before a mirror in the employees’ dressing room of a large suburban department store: 23 years old and without a wrinkle, I was about to begin my first day as Santa Claus. It was the day after Thanksgiving, the beginning of the holiday shopping season. The week before I had been a mere bartender.
I started to dress by strapping a pillow around my waist with a length of rope which, when knotted, rubbed hard against my back. Then I pulled the baggy red pants up and around the pillow, and I tied the waist cord. Next came the jacket, also bulky. Finally, I fastened the wide black belt around my belly and put on the black boot fronts that fit over my shoes. Already I felt quite warm beneath the thick layers. I remembered when I had first dressed as Santa: in the employment agency I had stood sweating in the suit before the woman who interviewed me. She had cautiously asked me if I had ever flown in a helicopter before. “No,” I had said, somewhat surprised. “Well,” she had then asked, “would you mind flying in one?”
I stood before the mirror: My body looked fat, but I still had a thin, undernourished face. Perhaps I shouldn’t have quit my bartender’s job. But I could always be a bartender, and soon I would be entering graduate school in creative writing. When could I ever again be a Santa? I sat down and opened the small make-up kit. First I applied a soft white crayon to my eyebrows until my dark hairs were covered and felt thickly crusted. Then, with a dark pencil, I drew thin age lines on my forehead and by the sides of my eyes. I looked like an actor, not a Santa. I put on the white, wavy beard and mustache, with sticky strips against my jaw line, and I curled the connecting wires behind my ears. Finally, wearing white gloves, I put on the red stocking cap with its attached fringe of thick white hair.
All that showed of me was nose and eyes and mouth, little enough to look convincing, but not safe enough from any small hand tempted to tug at my beard. I felt costume-party silly, unprepared for my flight from the North Pole in a helicopter to hundreds of waiting children. I smiled at the thought of it all. This was the beginning, perhaps, of being jolly.
I was led through back halls and down the freight elevator to the rear of the department store by security guards, on the watch for stray children. A car pulled up at the freight entrance, driven by another security guard, and as I entered he asked me to slump down in the seat. When we were out of the neighborhood and on the highway, I sat up. The driver kept talking to me, about the recession, about what good weather we had for my flight, but I had difficulty responding. I was trying to prepare for my role, to imagine what it must be like to be surrounded by elves at the North Pole. I looked out the window. Passing cars slowed when they saw me, and the passengers, mostly adults, waved and pointed. As I waved back, I felt like a fraud.
The helicopter waited for us at the airport, but I went first to the men’s room to check my costume one last time: What if some of my dark hair was showing, what if my own mustache showed beneath the white one? A man who had come in after me kept chuckling behind his stall.
I walked out to the thrumming helicopter and immediately felt my floppy cap and wig begin to fly off my head. I held it all down and ran to the cockpit. “How do I look?” I shouted to the pilot. “Fine,” he shouted back as we lifted into the sky.
The pilot’s eyes reeked of amusement, but the engine noise proved too loud for us to speak. I grew more nervous. Who would believe I was Santa Claus? “We’re almost there,” the pilot finally shouted, and he pointed to a tiny department store in the distance. As we drew closer I could see hundreds of children and their parents waiting on the top level of the store’s parking garage, where we would land. I’m going to circle once, give them a little show, the pilot shouted to me, and we banked in a curve above the tiny heads. I could see some of the children pointing up at me, and I waved. Hundreds of hands waved back; my own tentative gesture had raised them! I was Santa, and I was coming from the North Pole.
The closer we came to the ground, the larger the crowd looked. I felt the jolt of contact and in the wide circle all around us people held their hats from the wind. I pushed open the door and jumped out. Immediately the children rushed toward me and I held my hat and wig, terrified that I would traumatize them if they saw Santa’s beard fly into the churning air. As the roar of the blades overhead died down, I could hear more and more shouts of “Santa! Santa!” I stood surrounded by children trying to shake my white-gloved hands. Two of the security guards who had earlier whisked me from the dressing room were suddenly beside me, and they formed a path through the delighted crowd, toward a waiting convertible. Sitting on the back seat was the young daughter of the manager of the department store, and she stared at me as if she had just awakened to find her dream had come true. I sat down beside her. She clutched my hands, unable to speak. I could see that she felt my spectacular arrival was all for her. This child may remember this moment all her life, I thought, and I’m her Santa.
We drove down the parking lot ramp led by a police escort on motorcycles, and on both sides of our short route were children and parents, waving. I had been told during my interview not to shout out “Ho ho ho!” because sometimes it frightened small children. But what else would Santa Say? “Merry Christmas!” I tried. No one seemed alarmed, so I repeated it. We drove down to the front of the department store, where even more people were waiting.
As I stepped out of the car, smiling parents held their small children up for a good view. Boys and girls touched me as if they couldn’t believe Santa was really there.
“Where are your reindeer, Santa?” they asked. “Oh,” I improvised, “the reindeer are in training for Christmas night. I didn’t want to wear them outl” They believed me, and I felt more confident. “Merry Christmas!” I shouted out, and I shook hands until my white gloves were dark with grime.
THE DAYS AFTER that dramatic debut settled into a letdown. Although I sat on a lovely throne on a corner dais, with a huge stuffed giraffe on one side and a stuffed elephant on the other, few children came by to sit on my lap. The country was in a recession, and the aisles were nearly empty. Also, the nearby toy department, was not the sort that children would beg to visit. It was filled with expensive wooden cars from Scandinavian countries and exotic porcelain dolls and nothing that was advertised on television.
Once again I felt like a thinly disguised impersonator, especially when an occasional child walked by, suspicious at the sight of such an unpopular Santa. And at my feet sat a bag I rarely needed to open. It held small candies, parting gifts for any young visitor.
In the men’s department next to me, middle-aged salesmen, in the absence of customers, paced around the circular racks of clothes. Across from me, in the luggage department, a young sales clerk fiddled with the floor arrangements of carry-on baggage and watched me sitting on my throne. After a few days he came up to me and confided that recently some of the Vuitton handbags in his department had been stolen, and would I mind watching across the aisle for any suspicious customers? “No one would suspect that Santa was spying on them,” he said. I told him I would help, but I’d lied. Santa had something better to do, I felt, though as I looked about the nearly empty store, I didn’t know what that might be.
During the lonely stretches on my throne I began to read Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology of tribal poetry, Technicians of the Sacred. Perhaps by reading a Maori creation tale or Eskimo magic songs I could better connect with my mythic possibilities as a Santa. But my studies were cut short by the publicity director of the department store, who began shipping in busloads of children from the local elementary schools. Suddenly hundreds of children waited before me, in a line extending down the main aisle and around the corner. I began living the full, healthy life of a Santa, listening to the anxious wishes of small children sitting on my lap.
There were three basic types of children who came to visit. The very small ones, who were too young to understand who Santa was, looked at me with distrust, needing a push from a parent or teacher to approach me. Once on my lap they would have little to say, and sometimes they’d scream in terror at the sight of this outlandishly dressed, ancient man.
Others immediately established themselves on my lap: children who looked upon me as the true Santa, though of course when pressed I would say that I was merely a Santa’s helper. It was a pleasure to hold these children and watch their faces, nervous and happy all at once. These small believers always passionately recited a litany of wishes, all sorts of toys I had never heard of but which I pretended I knew quite well. “Good choice,” I’d say. “I’ll see what I can do.”
I had been told during my interview never to promise a present, for if the boy or girl didn’t receive it on Christmas day, the child would think Santa was a liar, and the veil of belief would begin to unravel. Yet I remembered how I had felt as a child on Santa’s lap, awed by the power he held over my wishes. When he asked me that terrifying question, “Have you been a good boy?” I had lied, choosing a toy fire truck and other gifts over honesty. Afterward, recalling all the subtle tortures I’d applied throughout the year to my younger brother, I was afraid that my lie had ruined my chances for presents. But on Christmas morning, as I sat on a floor littered with wrapping paper, having discovered that I’d received everything I’d asked for, I felt a secret contempt for Santa. He was simply an easy touch. And that contempt made the discovery a few years later that Santa didn’t exist much easier to bear.
Finally, there were older children who were still young enough to sit on my lap, but who were too old to believe in Santa. They would smile at me smugly, as if we shared a secret. and there was boredom in their voices when they recited their wish list, for they knew that my power over what they might receive was a fiction. I grew wary of these children, for they were the ones capable of pulling Santa’s beard. Sometimes I would lightly lock my arms around such a child, at the same time swaying in order to disguise the gentle restraint.
THOUGH THE thousands of children who passed my way eventually would join in a common blur, a few remain in my memory. One day a small boy approached me anxiously, with an important question to ask: Did I know the Abominable Snowman? He had seen the creature raging through snow-filled landscapes on TV the night before. He must have imagined this was somewhere near the North Pole, for he was afraid my life was in danger.
Wanting to laugh but understanding the need to reassure the boy, I said, “Sure I know him. We’re good friends. We play cards together on weekends.” He left my lap contented.
ONE GIRL VISITED me three days in a row, I can still remember her name: Jennifer. The first day, during a slow period, she came and sat by my throne and, instead of telling me what she wanted for Christmas, she innocently asked me difficult questions: What were all the names of my reindeer? How long had I been married to Mrs. Claus? How many elves had helped me? I made up as much as I believed I could get away with. On the second day she brought me a crayon drawing titled “Jennifer Loves You” above the awkwardly rendered figures of a little girl and a Santa. I thought she might be buttering me up for some incredibly extravagant present, perhaps a pony. But I was wrong. On the third day she sat on my lap, looked at me quite seriously, and told me what she wanted: There was a mean boy in her class who pulled on her hair and pinched her all the time, and would I fly past his house on Christmas night? She even carefully spelled his last name for me. “Well, Jennifer,” I said, “I’ll have to look at my list and see if he really is such a bad boy. But sometimes even bad boys get a few presents.” Jennifer looked more than disappointed: she looked betrayed. She walked away from my throne and I never saw her again.
I remember in particular one girl who told me, quite simply, “Just give me what you think I deserve, Santa.” I reluctantly handed her the small candy that signaled the end of our interview. Thousands of children in the past few weeks had sat on my lap and confessed their hopes for gifts, and I had grown increasingly depressed: These children wanted so desperately. I could remember my own greedy desires as a child, how one Christmas night I had awakened at 4 a.m. and slipped downstairs to the Christmas tree. Thrilled by the sight of all my presents, I had quietly, delicately loosened the tape from the wrapping paper on the corners, so I could peek at the boxes within and see in advance what I would receive. Then I sneaked back up to bed, though still alert with anticipation. But as a Santa, the repetition of so many hopeful faces before me somehow dulled my sympathy. I didn’t feel jolly. Slowly I began to suspect that Santa is a rite of passage for the children of a consumer society. He lends a sacred sheen to the activity of receiving and giving gifts, though the overwhelming emphasis of the children who visited me was on receiving.
“I want everything on TV except the girls’ stuff” was a typical request, I wanted to temper this somehow, and so I started asking the children on my lap, “When you play with your presents, will you share them with your brothers and sisters, or your friends?” It was not a question that was expected, and I received startled stares: I had changed the code of behavior for the ritual. Yet I was Santa, and so the child on my lap was willing to go along and reply, dubiously, “Uh huh, I’ll share.” Suspecting that I was being led on, I felt further aware of the range and limits of a Santa’s influence.
In a sense, as a Santa I was a character in a story I hadn’t created. But fictional characters often have great freedom of movement, and I found I could manipulate this knowledge with the adults in the store. During their breaks, some of the saleswomen in the departments near my throne had fallen into the habit of asking me for some candy from my bag. “Of course,” I always replied. But after a while they began taking great handfuls, and one day I actually ran out of candy for the children. So the next day, when a sales clerk requested a snack for her morning break, I was prepared with a deliberately unwelcome answer. “Sure, but there’s a new rule: If you want candy you have to sit on Santa’s lap first.” She giggled, but left without her candy. As I’d predicted, I received no requests after that. Santa isn’t allowed to flirt.
I HAD A MORE serious encounter with one of the salesmen. Though I only saw him in the employees’ elevator as I returned to my throne from my lunch break, he seemed to have a strong dislike for me. “Where did we get you from?” he said. “You don’t look like a Santa. What are you, 18, 19 years old?”
“I’m 23,” I replied calmly.
“Well, you don’t look it.” Two saleswomen beside him giggled, and he smiled broadly. It was fun to tease Santa.
He continued this sort of hostility the next two times we met, and I began to dread taking the elevator. One afternoon we rode down to the first floor alone, and he started on me again. Without saying a word, I extended my finger in a classic obscene gesture. His face seemed to crumple and he fell back against the wall of the elevator. He was a large man, and I’m sure if I had been in my street clothes he would have punched me. But I was Santa, though now a mean and evil one, and this violation of the holiday image unsettled him. When the door slid open at the first floor, he hurried out of the elevator. He never bothered me again, but I worried about becoming a jaded Santa.
On Saturdays I worked only for a few hours, and I never sat on my throne. Instead, I appeared at special events, usually a holiday lunch for 50 or so children, set up on a long, makeshift table placed just off the main aisle. I looked forward to these events because I could spend more than just a minute with each individual child. But during these times I was also a three-dimensional Santa, for the children were now able to see me from all sides, and I felt self-conscious about my appearance. As I moved awkwardly from child to child, hoping that nothing of the real me was showing, I gave away small gifts. Always in small baskets covered with a brittle, colored plastic wrap, the presents admittedly were inadequate: a doll smaller than the palm of a hand, its assembly-line features painted slightly off-center; a tiny car with wheels that barely turned. The children were polite but rarely grateful. Sometimes I heard a muttered, “Call this a present?” I wanted to engender joy in the children around me, but at such times I felt sadly remote from the holiday spirit.
Yet it was during the final Saturday event before Christmas that at last I became, though only for a few minutes, a transcendent Santa. It was another holiday lunch, though the organizers had decided to hold it in the employees’ lunchroom, away from the eyes of the regular customers, because they were hosting a group of children with Down Syndrome. I disliked the very idea of this sequestration, but in the end had complied with the switch.
I stood by a shopping cart of presents as the children were led in. Still unhappy with the store’s decision to hide these children, I felt grateful that the guilt on my face remained hidden by my beard. One of the attendants by the door turned on a phonograph, and “Jingle Bells” began to play.
At that moment, one of the children, a small boy, entered and saw me. His eyes widened, his thin line of a mouth twisted into joy, and he ran toward me. He grabbed my hands and began to dance, furiously, and we turned in a circle together. Two of the attendants approached to pull him away, but I told them quickly, “No, it’s all right.” His face seemed filled with all that happiness could grant. We danced in a clumping fashion until my fingers hurt from clutching our hands so tightly, and as we reeled about, I finally felt like a Santa, the source of a moment of pure belief. Led by the adults, the rest of the children began to clap to the music, and though this boy would have to be torn loose from me once the song was over, something of the season held us together as we spun around and around in our dizzy holiday dance.
The Washington Post magazine cover and interior illustration are by Susan Davis. My many thanks to the artist for having made my little essay look good.
Photograph of Philip Graham’s first day as Santa courtesy of Alma Gottlieb.
Representation of the Abominable Snowman is not an actual photograph.
“Jingle Bells” record is an actual photograph.