Santa Round-Up Part Four: Finding The Real Thing In A Dying Mall

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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 #4: Wednesday December 17, 2008. 6 pm, Almeda Mall

Almeda Mall had its heyday sometime in the late eighties. Opened in 1966, it was the consumers' jewel of South Houston, just off I-45. The mall had two restaurants inside, Macy's, Foley's, and a movie theater where I saw Top Gun at least four times with my mother. There was a huge fountain in the middle, next to the food court.

The clientele back then was mainly Caucasian; now the faces are mostly working-class Hispanics and African-Americans. This area was one of those that saw a massive white flight a little over a decade ago, to suburbs like Pearland and Clear Lake.

Almeda is now one of those malls that are dying a slow and extremely visible death. Hell, you know a place is bad off when the website is gone. Now it almost has a mine-shaft vibe, what with the dim-lighting and vacant stores. There was a rumor years ago that one of the food-court vendors was reusing plastic utensils. But that was never substantiated, seeing that nobody ever goes to Almeda Mall anymore.

All this made my trip to see Santa here all that more bittersweet. This is where I first met my first Santa over twenty years ago. They set him up next to the fountain back then and had poinsettias and candles floating in the water. That fountain was gutted at least a decade ago and is now just a shell. And that's where I will meet Santa Norman.

Santa Norman so far possesses the most truly Santa-esque qualities I have seen. He's a genuinely warm man, with a dulcet voice to match.

The others I have met were funny rag-tag guys. The kind of guys that probably sawed off the top of parking meters back in their wild years. While they have been wily, Santa Norman may actually be the real Santa Claus. His being a St. Nick is devoid of any tongue-in-cheek irony. This scares me and enthralls me at the same time. He shows up from his break carrying a lunch kit, with a group of children following him as he makes his way to his display.

Norman spent his working years as a bus driver out in Pasadena, so he knows about screaming kids and tears. And the eight children (four boys, four girls) of his own and thirteen grandkids that they gave him only add to his calm demeanor. He seems at ease in juvenile chaos, when a younger Santa may decide just to rip off the red suit and light up a smoke right in the chair. This is year three as the big guy.

This time last year he wasn't so sure he was coming back. Norman found out he had lung cancer a few weeks before the holiday season, but he trudged through with the help of family and his faith in God. After the season was over with, the chemotherapy started and he lost all his hair, including the white beard. His hair on top is patchy and soft from the experience. He beat the cancer and is clean, albeit after they had to remove part of one of his lungs when all was said and done.

"I was worried it wasn't going come back, the beard, but I guess Jesus loves Santa" he tells me as he gets handed a newborn, not but a week old. It's hard to fathom that a week ago as I was planning this series of visits to Santas all over Houston, this small baby was sitting contented in her mother's womb. After the little girl gets her picture taken with her big sis, Norman hands me a small pamphlet from a desk nearby.

It's the first-hand account of a woman who recently took her kids to see Santa. Her youngest daughter told him that it wasn't just Christmas; it was also Jesus' birthday. Santa agreed with her with a smile and a hug. This inspired the mother to write a few pages about the commercialization of the holiday, and how the main reason for the season was lost under a hail of credit cards and trampled underfoot like a Wal-Mart employee. I find it hard to disagree with the sentiment.

Norman and I spend about ten minutes talking about religion while his teenage photo crew sets up a light. I find myself agreeing with everything he says. I guess my non-denominational Christian upbringing never really went away. He tells me of the blasphemy of using "XMAS" instead of the full "Christmas".

"They took Christ out of Christmas. They just want to sell you things now" he says to me as a tear wells up in his eye. Norman went through Hell this year and he sees the world turning its back on the God that saved his very life.

It's refreshing that in such bleak surroundings I find a man who's still fighting a largely unpopular and forgotten cause. We take our photo and I try not to use any curse words the rest of the night, because I'm still pretty sure I met the real thing.

-- Craig Hlavaty

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