This story chronicles the misadventures that a 4-year-old T-bone and I had one year when I took him to see Santa two days before Christmas. The piece originally appeared in the December 1998 issue of Phoenix Magazine and was later excerpted in “Ho! Ho! Ho! The Insider’s Guide to Santa’s Secret World,” written by the Scottsdale Fashion Square Santa himself, who wrote in a preface, “Year after year I see many of the same faces waiting in line to see me. I always wondered what it was like from their perspective. Then, in 1998, I finally found out!” It’s been interesting to look back at the details of this story and see how technology has changed the Santa visiting process as well as the mall. Just try to find a video store at Scottsdale Fashion Square, or anywhere, now …
Day One–December 23, 1997
10:30 a.m.: As we walk to the mall’s escalator, shoppers passing by us ask The Future Firefighter, “Where’s the fire?” and “Is your truck parked outside?” and “Did you bring your Dalmatian?” He holds my hand tightly and does not answer them, ignoring their comments about his darling hard hat, cute bunker coat, sweet clunky snow boots, and precious plastic ax. He is all concentration, focused on the mission that has preoccupied him for weeks and the simple promise that I–his mother, The Cynical Housewife–made. “Sure, we’ll go and see Santa,” I said in mid-November, soon after his brother was born, a statement no doubt tossed off in a moment of postpartum dementia, a sleep-deprived haze, or an after-diaper-changing-right-before-feeding frenzy.
But then, how could I know that the otherwise healthy baby would have complications involving two separate hospitalizations during the holiday season? Or that we would be in the midst of moving back into our partially renovated house, rooms crowded with packed boxes, workmen, and enough dust to cover everything like winter’s first snow? Or that The Future Firefighter believes in the implicit honor of his mother’s word just as much as in the existence of Santa Claus?
Still, because I am The Cynical Housewife, a part of me wants to finally call it quits on this appendage of mass consumerism and crass commercialism that capitalizes on a religious holiday with its meaning and significance submerged beneath mall displays hung by September; the chaos of each season’s “it” toy that drives parents to camp on sidewalks outside of stores for a chance to purchase or resort to the classified ads and black market prices; and a culture of exorbitant gift-giving that, by December 26, amounts to long lines at return counters, drifts of credit card receipts, and untenable debt. Yet, what does The Future Firefighter know of or care about disillusionment, bill paying, and bankruptcy? He is a sweet little boy and for that reason I arrange for the On-The-Spot Grandmother to sit with the recovering baby and, just as we’ve done the four years prior, but much, much later in the month of December, The Future Firefighter and I trek to the Scottsdale Fashion Square mall.
As we ride down the escalator we gain an elevated view of a good one hundred similarly minded people waiting in a long line that curls along the ground floor and around Santa’s forest village like loose wrapping ribbon. “What are they here for?” The Future Firefighter asks, pointing his ax at the still-gathering crowd.
“Good question,” I say as I pull him along, not wanting to allow even one more person to beat us to the end of the line. We, after all, have feeding, medication, and nap schedules to keep, not to mention a checklist of chores: walls of boxes to unpack, a stack of cards to address that will never be mailed, and a hodgepodge of food to buy for the Christmas dinner we’re hosting. Thinking of all this unfinished business sets my teeth grinding and my eyes twitching, as well as a growl reverberating at the back of my throat. I feel like an unpredictable old dog, the kind that my mother told me never to pet.
“You’re hurting my arm,” The Future Firefighter tells me. I apologize, take a full breath, and walk at a reasonable pace the rest of the way. I mean, really, how long does it take for a man in a red suit to hoist a kid onto his lap and for a teenager dressed as an elf to snap their picture?
So we assume our place as whole other counties of parents and children fall in behind us, including a little girl from The Future Firefighter’s preschool class the year before. She screams in recognition and hugs him tightly. When he doesn’t respond to her, she takes the plastic ax from his coat loop and hits him over his helmeted head. “Hi,” he finally tells her. She hugs him again.
He shakes himself free, tugs on my shirt, and whispers, “There’s a fire over there,” pointing to a children’s clothing store where people–shoulders slumped, eyes glazed–stand in line to buy loud flannel pants, bright turtlenecks, and cheerful corduroy dresses.
“Get to it,” I tell him, now familiar with fires breaking out wherever we are. “But be careful.”
“Michael and Johnny, stand over there,” The Future Firefighter says to his imaginary battalion. “Sit, Dewey, sit,” he tells The Incredible Flying Fire Dog. Then The Future Firefighter raises a pretend hose with his hands and whistles through his teeth, the water that only he can see spraying wide and far, drenching shoppers and merchandise alike.
“What is he doing?” the former classmate asks me.
“He’s on the job,” I tell her.
“He’s silly,” she says, hitting him on the head with the ax again. Protected by his helmet and used to occupational hazards, he seems not to notice.
With The Future Firefighter hard at work, a task that can occupy him for hours, there’s plenty of time for me to observe how other, more organized parents in holiday outfits have dressed their children in velvet and lace, or matching Christmas sweaters. And spot a local sportscaster with his kids. And wave to a neighbor who I finally notice is leaning against a large sign with bold print.
The Future Firefighter is 4 years old, interested in letters and words but, thankfully, not yet able to read, for the sign informs all standing behind it, such as us, that the wait to see Santa is approximately four hours. I think to myself that surely this disclaimer isn’t correct and must be some sort of ridiculous mistake. I mean, four hours is a sixth of the entire day, equivalent to eight back-to-back episodes of Barney–there’s a thought to shudder over. So, if the time estimate is to be believed, why are all these reasonable-looking people still hanging around?
11:30 a.m.–OK, the sign is true. In the last hour we’ve moved two steps forward. By now some people are beginning to leave, but most are those at the tail end of the line. Only a few folks in front of us have given up their positions. Actual shoppers, those laden with bags and fancy boxes, pass by and laugh at the growing spectacle, reminding me of other varieties of public ridicule and punishment. Stocks and stoning, for instance. Meanwhile the former preschool classmate continues to take batting practice on The Future Firefighter’s helmet.
“Honey,” I tell the little girl, removing the ax from her hands, “let’s avoid a head injury and an emergency call to The Future Firefighter’s paramedic friends.” My hopes for backup discipline from her mother are not forthcoming. The poor woman is busy trying to corral the little sister who runs into the nearby video store and nearly topples a rack of neatly stacked tapes, then skips into the furniture store with its expensive glassware, and finally tromps among the poinsettias lining the way to Santa’s big chair.
As the former preschool classmate gives The Future Firefighter a bear hug, I tell a fellow linemate, “What this mall needs is another Santa.”
The woman shakes her head. “No child would go to him,” she says. “This one is the real thing.”
In spite of my impatience and general cynicism, I know she’s right. Even I was once a kid. One year my parents waited for hours with my brother and me to see Santa. This was in Connecticut, outside, in frigid and snowy conditions. I still remember said Claus, his pink gingerbread-style cottage, and his team of live reindeer, as well as the requisite picture in which my cheeks and my brother’s nose are red with wind rash. The Future Firefighter already has the beginnings of his own store of holiday memories. This is the Santa he always visits. This is the Santa who makes the holiday TV newscasts. This is the Santa on whom Clement Moore could have based his poem–his eyes do twinkle and his dimples are merry. His face is broad and his belly is round. His beard is very white and very real. This is the Santa kids will wait for, no matter the length of time.
But on this day, we don’t have three more hours to spare. And besides, the former preschool classmate’s hugs have turned into Heimlich maneuvers. So The Future Firefighter is actually understanding, relieved really, when I kneel down and tell him that we have to go home. “You’ll want to eat lunch soon and the baby needs to be fed,” I say. “We’ll try to come back tomorrow.”
After a goodbye kiss and an admission of “I love you” from the former preschool classmate, we leave the line. The Future Firefighter wants to peek at Santa so we wend our way around the throng and stand near a wishing well where the lucky children wait to receive the finished pictures of themselves and Mr. Claus.
“Just in case we don’t make it back here,” The Future Firefighter says, “I’m going to run over and say hello to Santa right now.”
I imagine cries of “Gate-crasher!” and “Line cutter!” as irate parents and their tear-streaked children descend on my innocent, moon-faced boy. “I promise that you’ll see Santa tomorrow,” I tell him, grasping his hand firmly and hurrying him from the mall before he gets any more ideas.
Day Two–December 24, 1997
8 a.m.: The On-The-Spot Grandmother agrees to stay with the baby. Again. The Future Firefighter wears his get-up. Again, but with tennis shoes this time. And although we arrive more than two hours earlier than before, we end up standing in the same place. Again.
Today the prevailing mood is grumpier, more disheveled. It seems that everyone was here yesterday so the killing-time talk revolves around how long the line was. And no one wants to go through the disappointment of not seeing Santa. Again. So parents appear in sweatpants and children arrive with hair uncombed and wearing whatever was handy. Few have had breakfast. Soon there’s a run on coffee, juice, and muffins at the nearby bake shop.
While we all attempted to be prompt and punctual, the situation is still not good. Again. An elf handing out picture order forms warns us that the wait will be a solid two to three hours.
“That’s forever,” says The Future Firefighter.
“We’ll take our chances,” I tell him.
Up ahead, a mother and her two sons soon think better and drop out. We move forward three steps.
8:30 a.m.: Everyone is making resolutions to visit Santa months earlier next year. What with all the standing around and the ever-growing crowd, the wait turns hot. The Future Firefighter fans himself with his wish list, which he’s written himself. In front of us, two brothers wipe their foreheads with their shirtsleeves and talk about the possibility of visiting Santa on his web page: www.santa.com. I have time to wonder if, in the future, my kids will just stay home and sit on the lap of a virtual reality St. Nick. Meanwhile, the real thing arrives. Santa rides down the escalator and waves to the masses.
“When can I talk to him?” The Future Firefighter asks, waving back.
As I look at my watch, the two brothers opt for the internet visit. “You’ll talk to him a little sooner than anticipated,” I tell The Future Firefighter as we take three more steps forward.
8:45 a.m.: I figure out that the projected two- to three-hour time frame is a means to dodge a barrage of complaints or, maybe in these litigious times, a hedge against lawsuits. Whatever the reason, the line is moving. And as it never has before. I perform a rudimentary calculation and estimate that The Future Firefighter should be clambering onto Santa’s lap before the hour is up. Encouraged, I fill out the picture order form after we reach a row of benches and sit down, but just briefly.
8:50 a.m.: We’re in sight of him. We watch as a little boy and girl sit on Santa’s lap. The girl smiles, the boy fusses. The big man snaps his fingers and the boy grins. The crowd “Oooos” and “Ahhhs” with amazement and wonder at Santa’s enchanting manner. He performs the same sort of calming magic with the infant in front of us, a 5-day-old dressed in a tiny Santa suit, while the grandmother takes her own pictures, the father shoots the proceedings with a camcorder, and the mother chases after a 2-year-old who has eschewed the photo opportunity in favor of a dash through the food court.
8:54 a.m.: Suddenly, it’s our turn.
“I’ll be just over there,” I tell The Future Firefighter, pointing to the photographer elf and her camera as we walk hand-in-hand to Santa.
My boy stops and asks, “You won’t be with me?” His eyes widen, his brows lift.
For a moment I think that, after all of this, he is going to pass on the whole deal. But after the momentary hesitation, he approaches Santa on his own.
“Fireman!” Santa says by way of a greeting.
The Future Firefighter tells Santa his name and hands him his one-item wish list of an essential piece of firefighting equipment which his dad, The Amazing Scurrying Man, has yet to find in any toy store.
“What does this say?” Santa asks, looking at the letters that stretch and sprawl over the page in The Future Firefighter’s tender penmanship.
After squinting his eyes, The Future Firefighter quietly says, “I have no idea.” He looks up and yells, “MOM, WHAT DOES THIS SAY?” while waving the paper at me.
“Green pumper truck,” I tell him, for I have heard this plea for months.
“Oh yeah,” The Future Firefighter says, shaking his head with the thought that he would ever forget his heart’s desire. “I know this for sure. This is my name,” he says, slowly tracing each letter as Santa waits with saintly patience.
Finally and gently, Santa directs The Future Firefighter to look at the camera. My little guy smiles, holding up his index finger in a “We’re Number One” foam finger pose. I have no idea where he picked up this bit of athletic machismo.
After Santa lowers The Future Firefighter to the ground, he returns to me with a broad smile and a bouncing walk until he stops and turns around. “Santa!” The Future Firefighter says urgently. “We don’t have a chimney!”
“Don’t worry,” Santa says, lifting his thumb in the universal OK sign. “I’ll take care of it.”
9:03 a.m.: These days the photo processing is all computerized, printing up bright and clear in minutes. We look at the picture of the small fireman and the large, jolly man. “What’s with your finger?” I ask. “Did you see some football player do that on TV?”
“No, Mom,” The Future Firefighter tells me, looking at me with concern, like the long wait has damaged my logic and reasoning. “I want everyone to remember to dial 9-1-1 in all emergency situations.”
Day Three–December 25, 1997
7:51 a.m.: Was it worth it? Even The Cynical Housewife can answer in a word: absolutely. And in two words: no doubt. Also three: sheesh, of course.
“Santa is unbelievable! How did he get in our house and leave this without me knowing it?” The Future Firefighter asks after he wakes up and finds the green pumper truck beneath the Christmas tree. He hugs the toy and says, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The night before, The Amazing Scurrying Man secured the last fire truck of this variety in the entire metro area, as well as a note from the store manager authorizing a replacement because the siren is mute and the lights flash only intermittently. But the Future Firefighter doesn’t notice any defects. He guides the truck along the floor, providing his own sound effects.
The sight of him playing, absorbed in his world of the imaginary and the timeless, makes The Amazing Scurrying Man finally sit down and the as-of-yet-unnicknamed baby coo. As for me, The Cynical Housewife, I feel my heart catch fire. Thanks to The Future Firefighter, I know I should stop, drop and roll, crawl low, and call 9-1-1. But this is one blaze I’m going to let burn.
Even so, I haven’t gone soft enough to attempt to rekindle the glow of last year’s last-minute proceedings. By the start of this month, The Future Firefighter and his little brother, Toothless Laughing Boy, will have already visited with Santa. This, I also promise.