It began very simply as I imagine most instances of evolution do.  There was a little more weight around the middle.  The hair turned from shades of salt and pepper to white.  The eyes, which had once frightened away potential suitors during my adolescence, now twinkled.  My father, at 60, was becoming Santa Claus. 


It was my fault.  When my youngest daughter was just 9 months old, I’d scheduled a late visit with Santa at our local shopping mall for both she and her three year old sister.  I’d had to reschedule once already for one reason or another, when both girls caught a nasty case of the flu just days before Christmas.  Exhausted from a frightening and sleepless night, I called my Daddy in tears – my baby’s first Christmas would not include the traditional picture on Santa’s lap.  As Daddy’s often do, my Daddy set off to fix this.  It just so happened that he had seen a Deluxe Santa Suit for sale earlier that day, and he rushed back to the store to purchase it.  He donned the suit for the first time that evening, made a practice run to the kids in his neighborhood and then he showed up in all his glory on my front doorstep.  I was delighted – one of my fondest childhood Christmas memories was of a personal visit from Santa at my grandparent’s house.  There he stood – my father – he had black rubber galoshes on his feet and black gardening gloves on his hands.  Frankly, he looked more like a deranged gardener than Santa.  He wore a curly white false beard over his own close cropped one and his “Ho, Ho, Ho” was issued with the uncertainty of a novice.  But he was there with the best of intentions, and my girls ate it up.  He made over my youngest, inducting her to the wonderful world of Christmas enchantment – and she gazed upon him with great curiosity.  My eldest acted as though a rock star had crossed our threshold, squealing and clawing at his brand new red coat.  He listened to her Christmas wishes, delivered a sweet gift to each girl, and then walked off into the cold, dark night.  By January, the suit was packed away with all of the other Christmas decorations. 


The following year, a neighbor called my father.  His sons were two of the children my father had “practiced on” the year before.  He worked with a commercial realty company, and one of his shopping centers was putting together a holiday festival.  He asked my dad if he would mind “playing Santa” for the affair.  My father asked my sister and me to assist, and we joined him as Santa’s Elves – taking pictures and serving as crowd control.  My little sister and I both looked on as Dad tenderly held babies, maneuvered past questions of his true identity and listened intently to each and every wish.  Many of the children were very poor, not a one of them was afraid of this big man and every last one of them left grinning ear to ear.  It was an exhausting, but memorable experience that we were all proud to share in.  Once again, come January, the suit was packed away along with the Christmas tree, the ornaments and the other holiday knick-knacks.


I don’t know why I was surprised when my father announced the following summer that he wished to become Santa.  He and my mom had recently closed their own business of nearly 20 years and downsized to a small, but charming cluster home.  Surely, he was experiencing the dreaded, albeit late, mid-life crisis.  He attended a workshop, joined a company of “real bearded Santas”, bought a respectable pair of gloves and boots to go with his suit, and began to grow out his hair and beard.  My father – who had been a leader in women’s retail in the Southeast, whose face had once graced the pages of GQ magazine, who’d owned his own chain of women’s specialty retail stores – threw himself into the role of Santa Claus heart and soul.  Previously impeccably dressed and professionally coiffed, my dad now looked more like a roadie for the Grateful Dead than Santa Claus to me.  He started wearing red everyday and would practice his new craft in front of mirrors, holding them down so he could see himself from a child’s angle.  He is an imposing 6’4”, which I would think children find frighteningly enormous. 


Dad had faithfully attended every visit to Santa with my children from the time my first daughter was born, and now he had to regrettably decline out of professional courtesy for the other Santa on duty.  Suddenly, his calendar was filling up with Santa gigs regularly, which left little time to see his grandchildren during the holidays.  And when they did see him, he was absolutely exhausted.  What was worse is he told my little girls that he was Santa Claus, but that they couldn’t tell anyone.  I was in unchartered waters here, and didn’t know how I felt about perpetuating that whopper of a tale.  I was immediately childish and jealous, feeling that my children were being robbed of their grandfather who was being replaced by a myth, and during such an important time of the year!  That was never the case at all.  How many kids out there KNOW Santa Claus?  My girls now shared a special secret which strengthened their relationship with him.  They never questioned it – they just believed.  Whenever they saw him, they asked how the reindeer were doing.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel my father was losing it.  After so many years in a corporate environment, he just didn’t look like himself anymore.  He was a grown-up playing a glorified version of “dress-up”.  I had once bought my husband a t-shirt that read “The Four Stages of Life: you believe in Santa, you no longer believe in Santa, you play Santa, you look like Santa”.  This, like that, had to be a joke.  I appealed to my mother – surely she could see the changes.  She said, very simply, “This makes him happy, dear.”


Her answer opened my eyes and slowly, somewhat begrudgingly, I began to see the light.  Before my Dad’s transformation, I recall on more than one occasion my children pointing to a heavy-set, bearded stranger and saying “Santa!”  I might have glanced over and nodded “Yes… Santa.”  Suddenly, I was really seeing “them”.  What many grown-ups don’t realize is that there is an underworld of sorts of these pleasantly plump, white haired, bearded men running about amongst us.  Children spot them immediately, but we lose the ability to pick them out of a crowd once we grow up – unless they are standing before us, clad in a red suit with puffy white piping.  On one shopping trip, I saw a tall, bearded man surrounded by probably 10 kids – he was wearing overalls with a red shirt and he was very animated with the children.  He took his leave and waved goodbye to the kids, reminding them to be good.  I pushed my cart out at the same time he was pulling out of his parking space.  The license plate of his red pickup truck read “Rudolf”.   I remember feeling I may have just been in the presence of greatness – he could have been the “real one”.   On another occasion, we had rented the Santa Clause and Santa Clause 2 in preparation for the release of the third installment in theaters last year.  Tim Allen, who plays the role masterfully, faces his own set of challenges and skepticism to be “the Big Guy”.  I really paid attention this time, and found myself truly wishing to buy back into the magic and mysticism of Santa. 


Children were now pointing at MY dad and saying “Look, Mommy!  It’s Santa.”  I can see now that my father wasn’t going through some sort of insane turning point with his identity, he wasn’t doing this for the attention or for the money, he wasn’t taking a stab at becoming a performer – this was a calling.  He serves selflessly alongside hundreds of other men just like him who are craftsmen in the art of a magic that dates back to the 17th century, when America was first introduced to the Dutch version of Sinter Klaas by early settlers.  I have always felt a childlike excitement at the onset of the season – nothing compares to the wonder of Christmas.  Now, I feel a sense of pride mixed in with that excitement – my father is responsible for perpetuating the myth in the hearts of countless children who sit on his lap or touch his hand.  Because of him, I believe in Santa again.  Most of all, I will always believe in my Dad. 


By the way, the suit – along with several new ones – hangs in his closet now.


by Kasie Bolling

Published in: on December 21, 2008 at 4:19 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. My greatest joy is my “dadness”.

    Awesome piece, awesome.


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