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No figure in the mythology of Neanderdad’s culture held more sway with the little ones than a certain bearded, red-suited, chuckling, jolly-old-elf.  Neanderdad knew this well.  So it was with some dismay that he rode the Christmas Train with his family and looked over the man who claimed to be Santa Claus. First, this one was much thinner than the archetype.  Second, his red and white suit had a thin, threadbare quality.  Third, the fake black boots were sewn onto the pant legs and did not completely cover a pair of brown street shoes.  Fourth, his stringy, artificial beard hung unevenly on his black-beard-stubbled face.  Fifth and finally, his baritone chuckling and ho-ho-ing were forced, as if his voice truly belonged in a higher register.  

As this Santa stomped satirically down the center of the railcar, hamming it up to “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which was blaring from the train’s public-address system, dozens of children rushed from their seats, parents in tow, to greet him.  Neanderdad tried hard to smile and support the fabrication, but it was increasingly difficult. This was the third Santa they encountered this season and by far the shabbiest. Neanderdad worried that this joker was pushing things past plausibility.

The first Santa had been the best.   Well, certainly, he had been the most authentic.  He was legitimately plump and honestly white-bearded.  His cheeks were naturally rosy and his nose was, indeed, very much like a cherry.  And this particular Kringle had sat confidently on his throne at the souvenir hut of the local Christmas-tree farm and gently nodded at the 4-and-a-half-year-old girl’s expansive list of gift requests.  Because of his out-of-the-way location among the pre-cut Christmas trees and ornaments, meeting this Santa had seemed almost private – almost real.  There were no cattle gates or sneering teenage-elf helpers.  It was just Santa himself. It was as if St. Nick had actually flown down from the North Pole to this particular tract of farmed spruce for a visit.

Only the boy had remained immune to this Santa’s gravity.  The stubborn toddler steadfastly refused to meet the man, fleeing instead into the rows upon rows of pre-cut Christmas trees.  After they coaxed him out, they all stood in the rain under a snow-making machine and twirled happily in the artificial snowflakes mixed with real raindrops.  This the boy loved, but he continued to glance at the hut and frown.

On the drive home, the girl had shared with them her most important request, clearly not wanting to ruin the magic by speaking of it too much.   And there was no doubt in Neanderdad’s mind that she felt she had delivered her message to the real, actual Santa himself.

“I told Santa I want a boy doll.”   She had whispered

Then there had been the second Santa Claus.  He made his appearance at a Christmas party hosted by parents from their pre-school.  This Santa was clearly one of the parents.  Neanderdad had to give this Santa credit for his efforts, though.  He was artfully buried under red and white plush.  His fake beard was so full and large that just the man’s eyes peaked out from behind it, and only the muffled voice and a slight jiggling of the beard revealed when this Santa was speaking.   But he was animated.  He pantomimed everything with broad, Claus-ian gestures.  And he was impressively patient in greeting the rainbow array of child dispositions — some laughing, some crying, some stony, some giggly— that greeted him.

On the rejectionist end of the spectrum was Neanderdad’s son.  The boy had starkly refused to go anywhere near this second Santa as well.  At the first suggestion that he sit on Santa’s lap, the recalcitrant toddler had glanced at this red-suited wookie of a man and sprinted away at top speed, hiding himself in the playroom behind a pile of plastic toys.  No entreaty would budge the boy.

The girl’s dedication to Santa, however, remained undiminished.  Again, the girl rushed over to perch on Santa’s lap.  Again she cheerfully relayed her Christmas desires.  Again, she repeated privately to Neanderdad and his mate her highest priority request.

“I told Santa I want a boy doll.”   She whispered.

Now, as Neanderdad and his brood faced their third Santa, Neanderdad worried that the gig would finally be up.  Surely the quantity — and declining quality — of the Santas they had encountered would trigger some questioning thought?  The girl had proven to be very aware of incongruities in her world.   Neanderdad stared nervously at her to gauge her reactions.    But it seemed that the 4-and-a-half-year-old was too entranced by the dream of Santa to scrutinize the reality of Santa.  She stared at this Santa with an undiminished adoration that spoke of the true meaning of faith.  Perhaps the trappings of the Christmas Train — the songs, the click-clacking of the cars, the cheers of the riders — helped provide the necessary cover.  As before, she met Santa and returned, whispering confidentially into Neanderdad’s ear.

“I told Santa I want a boy doll,” she confessed later.

That left the family skeptic.  And though he was young, Neanderdad was sure that he would blow the lid off this scam Santa.  But Neanderdad’s son wasn’t looking Santa’s way at all.  Instead, he was staring suspiciously at an overly solicitous Mrs. Claus.  The lady, in contrast to her “husband,” was the perfect picture of Santa’s better half.  Her coiffed white hair, matronly bearing and impeccable Victorian attire screamed authenticity.  Her blue eyes, twinkling out from behind small, round spectacles, projected a warmth that proved hard to resist.  As she bent down, extending a candy cane toward the boy, however, Neanderdad positioned himself to keep the boy from jumping off the train to escape.  He thought to encourage his son, but then paused.   Was it really smart to teach his kid to accept the advances of strangers bearing candy?

But apparently, for the boy, it was the woman’s warmth, and perhaps the sugar, that brought forth his true holiday spirit.  Though the boy remained, at first, half-turned in flight,  Mrs. Claus bent down to the boy’s level and gave him the kindest, most appealing of smiles.  And after a long moment of consideration, the boy crept forward.  He was intent on the candy cane while still wary of the Claus. Slowly, she held out the iconic, curved, wrapped stick, and he snatched it from her with glee.  Surprisingly, he actually gave a half hug to Mrs. Claus.   He then peeled off the wrapper and stuck the candy cane firmly into his grinning mouth.

“Thank you, Mrs. Santa,” he said.

And as Shabby Santa and his charismatic wife proceeded past them to greet other families,  the lighted Christmas Train blazed through the rainy night.  They ate their candy canes, drank apple cider, waved at the pedestrians from the windows and sang “Its Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” And because of the melted heart of his previously skeptical son, Neanderdad sang loudest of all.

As first published on Lisa Belkin’s NY Times Motherlode on Dec. 23th, 2010