Tahlequah Daily Press

December 16, 2013

Sticks and stones, velvet suits, and 'helper' Santas

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — Almost every parent has faced it: a ‘tis-the-season episode at a shopping mall, where a struggling toddler is forced onto the lap of a long-suffering Santa for a photo opp and recitation of a wish list, which usually doesn’t happen because the kid can’t stop screaming long enough to tick off the toys.

Parents are disconcerted by this behavior, but we wouldn’t be, if we put ourselves in the child’s shoes. Thanks to the shrinks, we now have coulrophobia on the human list of neuroses. If some kids (and adults) are afraid of clowns in their garish makeup and costumes, it stands to reason they might also be freaked out by a fat guy implausibly decked out in a furry red suit and a long white beard, and intermittently bellowing “Ho, ho, ho!”

The first time my son encountered “Santa” was when we he was a year old. We were driving to California to see my in-laws, and we had taken the southern route so we could pass through Houston and visit my brother. After a day or two there, during which time Cole embarrassed us by eating food from the cat’s bowl, we drove onto San Antonio and spent the night. While strolling around on the Riverwalk, we came upon a Santa taking orders from kids, so we got in line. We sat Cole on Santa’s lap, and he dutifully grinned, eliciting a response of “Awwww!” in unison from all the adults in the vicinity. The Polaroid was snapped, and we bought it and went on our merry way.

Upon our arrival in California a couple of days later, my mother-in-law decided she wanted to take her turn at the Santa scene while my husband and I were at Disneyland. When she showed us the photo later, she was a bit irritated; Cole hadn’t cooperated quite as well the second time around. The photo showed a clearly annoyed Santa, and a wailing child whose countenance called to mind that famous painting by Edvard Munch.

Parents are bound by a code when it comes to Santa. Early on, we have to explain who he is, what he does, and all the other traditions associated with the jolly old elf: the reindeer, the sleigh, and the requisite letters to the North Pole. We get to explain why he doesn’t shave, why he’s so fat, and why he doesn’t just wear jeans like everyone else. And no matter what time of year, St. Nick is always used to compel good behavior: “If you get into Daddy’s toolbox again, Santa won’t stop at our house eight months from now.”

The second time we drove to California, Cole was 3, and by that time, he was asking more complicated questions – like how Santa managed to stuff presents for all those kids in such a small sleigh, and how he got from the department store in Amarillo to the park in Gallup in such a short span of time. At first, such queries are deflected with the catch-all, “He’s magic,” but later, the child has to be let in on a secret to which only special boys and girls are privy: Those Santas are just “helpers”; the real McCoy is generally too busy making toys in his workshop at the North Pole to hang around shopping malls.

On this particular trip, Cole was raising Cain in the back seat, and after a while, we noticed that traveling alongside us on I-40 was a flatbed semi carrying dozens of bundles of what looked like large sticks. I told Cole, “There’s the Switch Man, and he’s headed to your grandparents’ house to leave you a bundle of switches.” This ploy worked at first, but eventually he became restless again and started acting up. Then, right outside of Flagstaff, the big rig turned off on a road leading to a mine. My husband said, “And look, the Switch Man is going over there to pick up your lump of coal!” Cole – the kid in the back, not the mineral – began to shriek, “I’ll be good! I’ll be good!”

I don’t remember too many visits to Santa after that. When Cole was about 5, we did take him to see to one at Woodland Hills Mall. He came away rolling his eyes and saying, “Whew! That was one of those helpers, and he smelled like cigarettes. You know that’s a drug, Mom.” (He had recently been exposed to the DARE program.) A few weeks later, he informed me he was “keeping a short eye out for Santa,” who was expected to swing by that evening with a cache of Hot Wheels cars.

Of course, Santa still visits our home. The last item of any significance he dropped off for my son was a PlayStation 3 a few years back, although he always seems to pick out nice tools and DVDs for my husband. This year, he has apparently offered up a brief train trip to San Antonio over the New Year’s holiday, along with a $25 coupon for beer at Mad Dog’s.

You know what they say: The only difference between men and boys is the size (and price) of their toys. Thanks, Santa. You’re a real pal.

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.