Santa Claus Round-Up: Keep Both Hands In View

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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.

Santa Round-Up: Memorial City Mall---December 9, 2008, 7pm

"Come on, sit on my lap," Santa Gary says while I stutter something about appropriateness.

"Man, I'm not a five-year old. I'm kind of thick. How about I just kneel next to your chair," I'm negotiating with the guy now.

Santa never asks you for something. It's the other way around. Does Santa have a Santa? He won't answer any of my serious reportish questions unless I embarrass myself first. Fine, it's a deal. I relent and the young lady working the camera takes a quick snap of us, with my nervous smile shining brightly. I hadn't done that in at least a decade and a half, tops.

I get up and begin to reassess my adult reality so Santa can take care of the line that formed behind me. A two-month old girl is being cradled in line by her mother, who asks the young photographer about the chances of getting the little thing to smile on cue for the big guy. No dice, unless she's dirtying her diaper. You may get the odd grin.

Sepia Event Photography is the Hockley-based company in charge of this location, as they are for at least half a dozen other ones around Houston and the suburbs. The area manager, Harry Stafford fills me in on their operation, using an almost military vernacular. He's jovial about his job, yet tactical and firm. Talking to him I almost imagine we are in Tikrit going over troop movements, exchanging Santa for an Abrams tank. Hell, where do I sign up?

"We offer what we call "white-glove service", which means we consider customer satisfaction a high priority. If you are not satisfied with Santa or any of the staff, we do whatever we can to help," Harry says as we dodge strollers coming out of the corral of kids.

I heard about the white-glove policy last night. It doesn't apply to just customer service or Sepia. There is an industry-wide agreement that both of Santa's hands must be visible in all pictures. It serves as a precaution against lawsuits or parental doubt. This is also compounded with the stringent background checks for all Santas.

"We call these 'giggle kits'," Harry says holding a bag of what looks like cat and dog toys. There's a feather duster, toy horns, noisemakers. Each location gets one of these kits to coax a smile or laugh at of stone-faced children. They also help in the hysterical crying I have been witness to. Just then, Santa Gary calls me over to chat.

"You know, being a Santa was on my bucket-list," Gary tells me as he straightens out his beard. He wanted to do this just once before he died. The next task on his list is to ride with the "Hurricane Hunters", the pilots who fly into the storms to see what category they rate. A few weeks back he got the chance to ride in a police helicopter over Houston.

Last Christmas he told his wife that he was growing out his beard for a year to play Santa. He's currently taking time off from his flooring company to don the suit. The beard is making its exit on Christmas day, and not soon enough for his better half.

Santa Gary says of all the things kids are asking for this year, among the usual Nintendo Wii systems and perennial Barbie dolls, is something a little less tangible.

"Some of the children just ask for their parents to be happy. Not that they are separated and want reconciliation, but they just want to see them contented, less stressed," he explains over sips of bottled water.

When I was little I just wanted Ghostbusters toys and a word-processor, my parents' well-being be damned. Maybe kids these days aren't so bad.

-- Craig Hlavaty

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