Back in my acting days, I played Santa Claus a lot. I played at private parties, guest appearances at stores and even in Chicago’s Christmas Parade down Michigan Avenue. That was the high point of my career. About a million screaming kids and moms and dads cheered for me, or rather, cheered for my red suit.
But sometimes, it was about more than happy smiles and crying babies and lists of toys. One season, I was hired by a chain of convenience stores to make personal appearances. I thought that the most challenging part would be just getting from store to store all over the huge area that is metropolitan Chicago. Trying to get through throngs of holiday shoppers and changing in and out of my Santa costume was tough. After all, Santa can’t be seen driving an economy car, he travels by sleigh. I didn’t want to burst anyone’s bubble.
As tough as that was, it was nothing compared to one Sunday at a little store in a small strip mall in one of the poorest parts of town. They really weren’t set up for a full fledged Santa experience like the big department stores on State St. All they had for me to sit on was a couple of plastic milk crates with a cushion of the Sunday newspaper. The nice clerk there did find a bit of green fabric to drape over the crate to make it look a little Christmasy, but not much else.
This was not only a poor neighborhood, it was a tough neighborhood, famous for crimes and shootings. I was a little apprehensive at first. After about 15 minutes of sitting on the crates, the door opened and 5 rowdy young men came in. They were joking with each other in the sort of mean way you would expect of young toughs. They went to the counter to buy some cigarettes when one noticed me, sitting by the freezer with the ice cream treats. “Hey! Santa Man!” He shouted. I braced myself. Would these guys give me a hard time? Would they pull off my beard? Steal my hat? Knock me off my perch? Time stopped for a couple of seconds. But a miracle of Christmas happened in those few seconds.
They all forgot that they were bad guys in a gang and instantly became little boys again. Big smiles, they all came over to me, telling Santa what they wanted for Christmas. They were all talking at once, so I couldn’t really make out everything they were saying, but it sounded like fancy cars, jewelry, pretty girls, everything you would see in a rap video. They were talking to each other as much as they were talking to me. I just sat there and shouted “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!” as any good Santa would. After a few minutes, they drifted back toward the door. Relieved, I used the line I had used hundreds of times to a departing Santa visitor, “Now remember to be good!”
They all stopped talking and turned to me, “uh-oh” I thought, I overplayed my hand. The shortest guy, the one who looked to be the leader spoke to me in a serious tone. “Hey, man, I’m good. I’m REALLY good.” They all broke into laughter at some private joke and walked out the door.
That was going to be the worst part of the gig, I thought. In a few minutes, I learned how wrong I was. In walked a grandma with a little boy and girl. I guessed the kids were about 4 to 6 years old. All 3 were dressed in their Sunday best. They were a little bit in awe of this giant white man in the red suit and beard sitting in their local store. With a little encouragement, the little girl climbed on my lap and mentioned a particular dolly that was popular that year. I assured her I would do the best I could, but I can’t guarantee anything. She seemed satisfied and hopped down from my lap.
Next, it was the little boy’s turn. He seemed quiet and withdrawn. I started my usual Santa schpiel. Have you been good? Do you love Christmas? Inevitably, I asked the big question. The one every kid waits to hear as he prepares his long list in his head. “What would you like for Christmas?”
“I just want my daddy to get up out of the wheelchair.” Once again, time stood still. A big lump appeared in my throat. I fought back tears. I had heard literally hundreds of Santa requests that season and this was by far the most selfless. I wanted to hug this little boy and make everything okay for him. But I couldn’t. I had to be Santa. I had to say some version of, “I can’t promise anything, but if you’re really good, I’ll bring you something nice.” To do anything else would blow my cover. I had to maintain my calm reassuring voice. It was tough.
My noncommittal answer didn’t solve all his problems, but they didn’t make them worse. Grandma was very gracious in thanking me as she guided the kids toward the front door. The little girl turned just as they left and said, “Goodbye Santa!” I channeled all my rush of emotions into one loud “Ho, Ho, Ho! Meeeeeeeeerrrrry Christmassss!” which both shocked and reassured the kids a little. More importantly, to me at least, it gave me a way to vent my feelings after that most intense of encounters.
I played Santa for 6 or 7 years. That Sunday in that convenience store in the “hood” made the biggest impression on me. I hope those little kids, who are now young adults have a Merry Christmas this and every year. They’ll never know how much they affected me all these years later.