My first true experience with Santa Claus came when I was working in a now-defunct Philadelphia department store in the advertising department. Each year, Lit Brothers, a wedge-shaped building at the corner of 8th and Market Street, hosted Santa Breakfasts where small children could dine with the magical figure and ask for their heart’s desire, confident that Santa would somehow get a bicycle or life-sized doll down their small row house chimney on the night of December 24.
Understand that, as a Jew, this was entirely foreign territory for me. I did, fortunately, have a red-and-green plaid maxi-dress that worked well with the holiday décor, and I became skilled at guiding children up to Santa’s throne, handing them a candy cane, and settling them for their Santa and Me photo. It wasn’t hard.
I never thought, in those post college days, that part of my professional life would involve booking Santa Clauses for many more years. However, as a Children’s Librarian, you do a lot of unexpected things including reuniting children with lost parents; cleaning up various body fluids when children can’t reach the bathroom in time; and occasionally pulling unattended children off table tops, book shelves which they’ve used as ladders, and the tippy top of very long flights of stairs. None of this is ever mentioned in the library school syllabus.
Planning family programs for the library can be fun and inventive, especially when an act you’ve hired (in this case a troop of clowns) doesn’t show up and you get to improvise a circus for twenty-five children. Improvisation at this level really is an underrated skill set that can’t be fully explained on a resume.
In two public library jobs, I was in charge of scheduling Santa’s visits during December. I understand that most Americans sees Santa as a cultural rather than a religious figure and, indeed, to the best of my knowledge, Santa appears in no religious text except in his most original form as Saint Nicholas. However, to my mind, libraries should be neutral zones during the winter season since there are at least six major religious celebrations right around the Christmas holidays. This, by the way, is my justification for wishing people the more generic, “Happy Holidays,” since I don’t know whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, Kwanzaa, Diwali, or Festivus for the Rest of Us.
In my first go-round as a Santa scheduler in Central Florida, I really lucked out. A delightful gentleman in the community, Jerry Jacobs, volunteered to come to the library as Saint Nicholas. He was emphatic that he was the original Saint Nick and not the commercial imitation in the red suit. In fact, he used to refer disparagingly to the common representation of Santa as “the Coca Cola Santa.” While not exactly true (Santa as a “Jolly Old Elf” was around in 1822 in the poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, generally credited to Clement Clark Moore, but even that authorship is in question). However, sometime in the 1930s, Santa did start shilling for Coke in the image that we are now most familiar with: red suit, cottony beard, black boots, and the obligatory twinkle in the eye.
When my friend Jerry showed up at the library, he came in very different garb. He appeared in flowing green velvet robes (and often sweated his weight off in the Central Florida heat), and a holly wreath on his head. What I loved most about Jerry’s version of Saint Nicholas, was that he was involved in greyhound rescue from the dog racing tracks up around Gainesville. He never came without bringing three or four lovely retired greyhounds wearing felt antlers. Jerry and his “grey deer.”
Because of Jerry, I learned the real story of the folkloric and religious Saint Nicholas who was, in fact, Greek therefore swarthy instead of white and rosy cheeked. Nicholas was orphaned young and raised by his uncle, a bishop, who was also named Nicholas. Young Nicholas had several miracles attributed to him, among them a gory event of raising young boys from the dead after they had been butchered by a local purveyor of meats. However, the thing that Nicholas was best known for was providing dowries for young woman whose families could not provide one for them. By performing this great good deed, Nicholas saved these young, unmarried women from a likely life of prostitution. Like the latter day Santa, Nicholas delivered bags of gold to these girls in secret by delivering them to their houses at night.
Cool story, huh?
Now fast forward a few years, and I’m still booking Santas, this time in a New York area library with a very diverse community. I am still fighting my inner conflict about whether libraries should really be Santa-free zones to accommodate the Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu children that I served, but I was outvoted by my European-raised Jewish boss who just loved Santa.
Booking Santa means beginning preparations sometime in August because you don’t just walk into the middle of a New Jersey street on December 10, and hook one of the drunk kids dressed up in a Santa tee shirt for the annual Santa Pub Crawl, and sit them on the Christmas throne. No, you contact the Santa agency, which also books costumed superheroes, Disney princesses (trademark not included), and other characters for parties and such, early so that you have your choice of December dates.
After that, you have a few months’ respite, while you tackle back-to-school, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, and then you begin to plan crowd control for Christmas. Understand that most of the children who show up to meet and have their picture snapped with Santa are accompanied by nannies or other caregivers in this upscale town. The nannies have their instructions from the parents to get the kid’s picture with Santa OR ELSE! A room full of highly motivated nannies can be a very scary thing. On more than one occasion, it took a human chain of staff and very brave moms to keep the Santa-hungry crowds at bay.
No longer do children sit on Santa’s lap. Most have been well-trained to never approach strangers let alone a strange man in a weird suit and an obviously fake beard. Instead, we would put a child-sized chair next to Santa so the children could discuss their laundry list of gift requests safely and comfortably. That is a slight exaggeration. Very few kids really discussed gifts. The youngest children, infants still in elf-design “onesies”, start screaming immediately upon being taken from the safety of familiar arms. Most of those Santa pictures show a child with a wide-open, shrieking mouth reaching for their caregiver. The older children stand a few feet back. Most are modest in their gift requests, perhaps knowing at some level that the real gifts come from mom and dad. The children who came to see my Santas were always representative of a much wider racial, religious, and country of origin community. It didn’t matter. Brainwashed by television and peers, all of the kids wanted to meet the guy in the red suit.
I tell you all of this because in the news, this week, was a story of the Minnesota Mall of the Americas where an African American Santa was hired. I saw pictures of the gentleman. He looked appropriately kind and jolly and his lap seemed wide enough to accommodate a child small behind. He looked like he would a fine Santa with whom children could share their Christmas wishes. However, in this strange new world in which we live, there were hateful complaints to the mall and on-line (of course! Anonymity breeds hateful comments) about Santa’s race.
See, as a non-Christmas person, I believed that the color of a Santa, like the Greek Saint Nicholas himself, was immaterial to the message of love, generosity and kindness that is supposed to mark the season. I would have hired a Santa of any race if he showed up for the gig on time and entertained the kids, even the screaming, drooling ones. I’ve been led to believe that Christmas is a holiday of light and happiness and perhaps even a period of détente for hating others because of how they look or how they worship.
I’ll bet the kids at the Mall of the Americas don’t even notice the color of Santa’s skin. At most they might express curiosity but never in a mean way because kids are inherently open-minded, until someone, some adult, changes their minds.
My holiday wish, allowing for my inclusive attitude toward the holidays, is that we leave children unfettered by adult prejudices and biases because if I lose my faith in the basic goodness of children, I will be left with nothing but the hope that January comes soon.