Let me start out by clarifying that I love the idea of Santa Claus as the embodiment of joy and generosity for children around the world. But it was the department store Santa with the nasty cigarette and coffee breath I endured for the sake of the obligatory traditional McCartan photo every Christmas.
After dressing my sister Patty and me in our matching outfits and itchy scratchy tights, my mother drove us to Gimbel’s Department Store. While gripping my mom’s hand, my little dimpled one perspired as we joined the line waiting to sit on the Big Guy’s lap.
“Tell Santa what you want for Christmas,” she reminded us. I studied some of the children with eyes as big as saucers. Others wailed while squirming away from the Mythic Man as the lights flashed from the camera set up not far away. Overwhelmed by performance anxiety, I worried that once it was my turn I would forget to say, “A Chatty Cathy doll.”
Being born gullible, I believed in everything magical longer than my friends. I guessed that since we didn’t have a chimney, Santa blasted through our heating vents. The year we didn’t have snow, he was smart enough to put roller skates on the sleigh and reindeer. But there were several things about this Santa that didn’t add up. How did he have time to sit for hours? Wasn’t this his busiest time of year? Why did I have to tell him what I wanted for Christmas? I had already written a two page list. There were Santas in other locations and none of them looked alike. Some were short and fat and others were tall and thin. The one that came to our door looked a lot like our neighbor Mr. Ripple and his suit was plastic!
This was all so very strange. We never sat in any adult male’s lap other than my dad’s. The proximity and intimacy would have been unacceptable. So why did we have to sit on Santa’s hot and overstuffed one every year?
It was our turn. With trepidation and a slight push by my mother, I stepped forward. While glancing over at my little sister, I could see the terror along with tears welling up in her eyes. I had to be brave. As we neared Santa, my heart pounded and I realized how big he was. He was like a human stop sign! His long curly white hair tumbling down past his shoulders and beard that rested on his gross protruding belly looked foreign compared to the men of that era who sported crew cuts.
It was show time. I was lifted onto his knee, but with my bony rear end, I slipped off. His big hand drew me in close and I could feel heat emanating from his body and smell the stink of his breath.
Finally the all-important question was asked. “What do you want for Christmas little girl?” I could see that although his lips moved, his beard remained independent. Obviously a clean-shaven stranger lay underneath. Patty wouldn’t have anything to do with him and started screaming and pulled away. I gawked at her in horror. Would she get what she wanted for Christmas?
The picture was snapped and I was released from Santa’s firm grip. I scurried back to my mother and sobbing sister. Did I even tell him what I wanted? Even with my mother’s assurance, I stressed out about it until Christmas. Weeks later, I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered Chatty Cathy under the tinseled Christmas tree.
I went through the same process with my own children. It was my daughter Courtney that would have nothing of to do with him while her older brother Kelly stoically sat on his lap.
I am trying to keep Courtney on Santa’s lap while she is momentarily distracted by a stuffed bear.
Now I look back on those pictures and smile knowing that the McCartan tradition lived on. Perhaps one day in the future Kelly and Courtney will make their own children endure the creepy shopping mall Santa.
Were you ever creeped out by Santa?