In the fall of 1977, I moved to Boston seeking literary triumphs and intellectual stimulation. As a 21-year-old college dropout from the mountains of Virginia who had just sold his first article, I assumed I could easily rack up more sales in the big city. But my submissions struck out everywhere, and the financial wolves were soon howling at my door. After seeking refuge in the Boston Globe’s Help Wanted ads, I found myself front and center at a Santa Claus prep session run by the Western Temporary Services.
After completing the 28-minute training program, I was dispatched to a Filene’s department store in the distant south suburbs, where I met the Boss Lady from Hell. She looked me over, grimaced, snorted and growled: “I hope you’re not like those Santas that damn temp agency sent last year.”
“Why? What’d they do?” I asked.
“The first one was a drunk who would sneak into the bathroom and hit his flask and then drool on kids while slurring the names of his reindeer. The second pranced around like he was Peter Pan. The third was the worst — he seemed perfectly normal ’til he dropped trousers with a hundred kids watching.”
I made a note to double-check the belt on the Santa outfit.
Boss Lady greeted me every day with the traditional Boston “Howahya? … LISTEN!!! I don’t like the way your hair looks under the wig! And I thought I told you to shave that red beard. And don’t be snacking while you’re on the job. Now, get out there and look jolly.”
I worked as a restaurant Santa, circling the dining room and visiting families as they munched their mediocre cuisine. After getting kids to recite their Christmas gift wish list, I handed each a little bag of goodies. It was holy writ to never promise that a child would receive a specific gift, else Filene’s would suffer the parents’ undying wrath.
This was my first and only experience being a minor deity. As I approached, some kids would jump up and down in their seats, and if there were two or more children at the same table, they often had shouting contests.
But not all the children treasured their visit with Santa.
I walked up to one agitated, blond 4-year-old girl hunkered down in her chair and clutching the armrests like a life raft. When I leaned over and asked what she wanted for Christmas, she gritted her teeth: “I want you to leave.”
One evening, I saw a dark-eyed, dark-haired, 7-year-old boy standing in the entrance staring at me like he’d seen a ghost. I stopped and gave him the biggest grin of the night. “Santa, you have a weird laugh,” he sputtered as he clung to his mother’s skirt.
The boy had a point. My laugh has always been rambunctious, and it became rowdier when I occasionally slammed down a beer or two before commencing Claus work. It wasn’t my fault that the happy hour at the nearby pub began just before my shift started. (The same laugh that spooked some young Bostonians got me ejected almost 20 years later from the Supreme Court press box.)
Toward the end of my final night on the job, the high-strung assistant restaurant manager — who had almost fired me the night before after she caught me poaching a piece of apple pie — signaled to follow her to the soda fountain section of the restaurant, far from the prevailing hubbub, for a special guest. As I readied the jollity, Boss Lady Jr. tapped me on the shoulder: “The little girl is blind.”
There sat two of the most tranquil people I had seen the entire holiday season. The mother was resting her left hand lightly on her daughter’s shoulder. The little girl looked to be 6 or 7, with light brown hair and a gentle smile that bloomed across her face when her mom announced, “And here comes Santa Claus.”
I encouraged the girl to touch the fake Santa beard. Unlike some kids, she did not try to yank it off as if she were capturing the enemy’s flag.
I have forgotten what she requested for Christmas, but it was reasonable. She didn’t ask for a pony and a French au pair and every Barbie doll and accessory produced since 1959.
Speaking softly, I described some of the Christmas decorations in the restaurant. She seemed to enjoy my comments, so I rattled on about the meaning of Christmas. I had seen a lot of warmth between parents and children that season, but the bond between this mother and daughter was more precious than any other. There was such a radiance from her mother’s love, I knew that girl would have a wonderful Christmas.
Visiting with that mother and daughter rejuvenated my holiday spirit in a way that a bowl of spiked eggnog never could. In later decades, when the Christmas season sometimes seemed burdensome or hollow, thinking back on that pair has helped put a sparkle back in my eyes. And I count my blessings that I no longer have to don a garish suit, false whiskers and a stuffed pillow to rake in $3.50 an hour frightening children with my laugh.
James Bovard is the author of 10 books and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.
From the Wall Street Journal.
BACKGROUND NOTE: My editor, Kelly Jane Torrance, asked if I had any photos of my Santa Claus gig. No such luck and Filene’s has long since gone bankrupt, so no chance of accessing any photos that store might have made. In lieu of a 1977 picture, I sent her this photo that my friend Tom Blanton made. New York Post wisely chose instead to go with a very snazzy picture of a Macy’s Santa Claus (not reposting that because of potential copyright issues). Here’s the picture Tom Blanton made: