OPINION | I was a mall Santa


An alcoholic, otherwise-unemployed Santa in the movie Miracle on 34th Street or Art Carney as Henry Corwin in Twilight Zone’s “Night of the Meek.” That’s what came to my mind when a mall-manager friend of mine offered me the Santa job in the early 1990s. His Santa had been showing up drunk or not at all. I was unemployed and living in Sturgeon Bay, Door County, Wisconsin, with a nonexistent job market; I took Robert up on his offer.

I donned the cheap, fleecy red costume with black plastic belt, pulling the white trimmed red hat and white wig down to cover my eyebrows. No amount of Lysol™ would remove the idea of germs or someone else’s spit on the inside of the beard and mustache attachment. As I took my seat and waited for dreamers and wishers to visit, I wondered whether to use my own, female voice or try for a deeper male imitation.

The first few children accepted my deep voice with its “Ho, ho, ho.” “Ho, ho, ho,” by the way, is not very easy to transfer to a real, natural-sounding laugh. One child said my voice sounded like a woman. I asked if it mattered, and he said no. Cherry Point Mall was small; it contained a card/gift store, a soon-to-be-closed furniture store, sporting goods, and not much else (this spoke to the area’s poor economy and was even more depressing for this recently-unemployed Santa!). After the first week a friend asked how it was going. He knew of the many resumes I had been sending out; the cold calls I was making, and how futile it was all seeming to me. As to the mall-Santa job, his words encouraged me: “Sage, as Santa in this emotionally- and economically-depressed area, you have the greatest of opportunities to reach people in a deeply spiritual way. Each time a child visits with you, you have the gift and opportunity to pray for that child and family and the special needs in their lives.”

From that day on, I made that my mission as I played Santa in Cherry Point Mall. I was careful not to assume that each child had a tree or stockings, or even celebrated Christmas. This wasn’t difficult since my visitors would be poor or children whose families lacked transportation in this peninsular, rural small town. Families who were better off financially would be taking their children to Green Bay or Milwaukee for a large-department-store Santa, whose tacky beard lining didn’t taste and smell of liquor and cigarettes.

One sweet child came to me with his grandmother. When I asked what he most wanted for Christmas, he said almost pleadingly, “I want my dad home from the Gulf War and my mom home from the hospital.” His grandma mentioned prayers they had been saying for his parents. As Santa, I offered to pray with them and the three of us joined in prayer; it seemed like the only gift Santa was capable of giving.

“Boxes. Our Christmas is in boxes in a friend’s basement.” That’s what a five-year-old girl told me. “Someone came and took our house and we’re living in a basement.”

One day a woman identified herself as a foster mom of three children whose ages ranged from about 10 to five. They came not to ask for gifts or stocking fillers, but to have Santa talk with the seven-year-old. Apparently, the child had beaten the family’s small dog or cat to death with a shovel and then was chasing his younger sister trying to beat her. This was an ongoing pattern of behavior. The woman and the ten-year-old were hoping that Santa could talk the child into better behavior. Santa talked with the child, but also connected with social services the next day to be sure that DHS was aware of the situation (they were) and that the children were receiving the help they needed.

Like the several foster youth who passed through my home during that time and touched me in a myriad of ways, I will never know what became of Santa’s visitors during those two weeks. There was laughter during that stint – the time the mall janitor left early, locking my car and house keys as well as my clothes in the office.

I managed to call a friend (long before cell phones) who picked me up. In daylight, I had to “break into” my home and hope no one would consider Santa suspicious, climbing through a window!