This and every Christmas season the most important person is the baby Jesus, with a bearded, white-haired toy factory owner coming in a close second. Every year we flock to the malls to sit in our kids down on Santa's lap. Sometimes they run off screaming, while others take to the old guy just like they would an elderly relative.
Willowbrook Mall December 22, 2008, 8 pm
I don't know how I ended up all the way out almost halfway to College Station. I was driving around the west Beltway, trolling for malls, and made a wrong turn. I saw a huge half-lit Macy's sign and set my sights on Willowbrook Mall.
I'm afraid that after six of these visits, I will lose sense of non-holiday reality. I can now almost instinctually know which entrance will get me quickest to Santa. I imagine myself sometime in February having a flashback at Wal-Mart. I might approach an older white-bearded man and casually ask him about his life. That may be followed by a casual beat down in the automotive section.
"Come on Mister! I just want to know when you started growing your beard!" I will sob softly into my notebook.
Santa Dan is not happy tonight. It's an hour till close and there is a good five hundred customers waiting on him. He looks tense and sallow, like he's been sitting for too long. And he in fact has. Dan tells me that he has been sitting for three hours straight and his last break was cut short because of demand. The worst part is that Santas do not turn away customers. Whoever is in line at nine, will be served. (I still haven't found the proper nomenclature for the Santa business so far.)
Right in between the Foot Locker and the pet store is where Santa Dan has been since early November. He came here to work when some of us were still choking down left over Halloween candy and wiping egg yolk off our windows. Santas come to towns earlier and earlier each year. It seems that his mere presence sends sales up. Shoppers see him and an imaginary game clock appears in their heads, counting down to the big day.
I learn Santa Dan has a small farm in rural Missouri where he spends time with his nine grandchildren. After ten years of being Santa, he seems to be winding it up. He's been working seventy-four hour weeks, in shifts of almost twelve hours at a time. Dan is way more tight-lipped than the other Santas. It could be due to fatigue or disinterest. A little of both I'm sure. If you were a short-order cook, would you want a guy with a notepad asking you about your life?
The mall is playing an awful techno Christmas mix over the speakers, which adds to the hysteria. I never spent Christmas at rave party, and now I know why. A simple shopping spree all of a sudden becomes a scene from "Run Lola Run". Dodging strollers and slow moving oldsters for that elusive shiny thing to put under the tree.
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One father tells me that he and his small family have been waiting an hour and half. No sitting down. No drinks, minimal bathroom breaks, irritable toddlers. His fourth, month-old daughter wouldn't look at the camera, no matter how much her parents jingled keys or cooed at her. She seemed to stare off into space, bobbling her little head in silent defiance.
The mixture of elation and relief that hits the parent's eyes as they make their way up to Santa rivals that of their children. It's all to wait in line for a memory that will go down in family history along with proms, graduations, big football games, and first mug shots. These pictures don't mean much now, but in twenty years they will be worth the world.
I can't wait till March and April. I wonder what all those Easter Bunnys are hiding underneath that huge plastic fur head of theirs.
-- Craig Hlavaty