Last week I was floored with one of those stories that go around the Internet. You may have seen it. It was about a little five-year-old boy who was terminally ill and expired in the arms of a man playing Santa Claus.
It was heart wrenching. It was also completely fabricated.
A good friend of mine constantly reminds me to check Snopes and other fact-finding sites before posting or sharing amazing stories from the online world. He's right too, but this Santa story hit me in the place where my real life memories are preserved, especially one memory that changed me during the holidays.
I was a mall Santa one year, and I did have a young girl who sat on my knee with tubes running in and out of her face as she whispered in a weak voice "I want a Princess for Christmas." She did not die in my arms, but I think I died a little in her presence, feeling completely undeserving of the hourly wage I was earning as she stared up at me with her desperate brown eyes.
I remember as I patted her on her little head that I wanted to say something meaningful, something that would spark her strength and help her face the cancer inside her. Instead, I was frozen inside my own sadness, my own admiration for this child, and then just let the red suit do the job of providing the magic she deserved rather than insert myself within her private journey.
Being a mall Santa is half joke, half emotionally exhausting.
Maybe it is because I have two small children, but I can't imagine lying about a child dying in my arms. The purveyor of this sordid tale probably doesn't have any children, and hopefully is not an actual Santa Claus at a shopping mall somewhere in America.
Years ago, I wrote a piece describing my time as Santa Claus in Toronto's largest shopping centre for The Globe and Mail, but since the piece came out just a week later, I have never touched on how the experience stayed with me, launching my mind back into that magical red suit once a year at Christmas time.
Being a mall Santa is half joke, half emotionally exhausting. It gets extraordinarily hot under that red suit, and a sizeable percentage of children are mortified when they are placed on your lap, screaming in fright as they are inexplicably given to a scary old man for no real reason whatsoever. But other children who are genuinely moved to be in Santa's presence balance out those instances. One child wanted my help bringing her mother back from heaven, resulting in me taking an unscheduled break so I could retouch my makeup. Apparently teardrops and foundation do not mix well.
The overriding idea behind dressing up as Santa Claus is not to provide children with hopes for gifts; it is to provide them with a vehicle to escape into an imaginative state, where wishes and secrets are tangled together, and a man in a red suit is the only arbitrator qualified to pull the right strings. It's almost a therapeutic exercise, a way to alleviate the very real stresses that children carry with them, especially if they still believe in magic.
And let's be clear, Santa has a special place for many adults too. Sometimes it represents memories of parents who have passed away. Other times Santa is a quick fix for people who are lonely. During the two weeks I played Santa, a homeless man came to visit me several times, each time he wore a huge child-like smile as he sat down and repeated what he wanted for Christmas; a room with a window that he could call home. "Nothing fancy," he'd say, "Just so I can get out of the cold."
Individuals living with mental illness love Santa too, by the way, and seem to relate quite easily with him. I fully admit to being uncomfortable the first couple times an adult with obvious mental illness sat on my lap. But eventually I shook off that snobbery, mostly anyway, and thought to myself, "These people are troopers. Let them have this."
We have seen a lot of fake news over the past year or so. The Internet spares nobody the agony of becoming tragically misinformed. But since Santa is already a fictitious character, perhaps he should be spared the wrath of the digital age's worst characteristic; the complete fabrication of unbelievable stories for ad revenue via clicks.
Wishful thinking, I know. But hell, isn't that what Santa is for in the first place?
So the next time you see a Santa at a shopping mall, try to ignore the nagging voice inside that makes light of the person underneath that suit. Instead, try to imagine the countless children and adults who rely on Santa's magic to give them something intangible, especially during that time of year where material gifts are omnipresent.
And most of all, have a Merry Christmas.
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