I’ve got just a spritz of a memory of the last time I sat on Santa Claus’s lap. It was 1960 and I was five—a common cut-off time for such visits, not dissimilar to giving up trick or treating when you’re 12—and it was at the Woolworth’s on Main St. in downtown Huntington. A one-minute meet and greet, and while my mom looked on, likely bored of these mandatory occasions after my four older brothers, I sat on Santa’s lap and murmured this or that, and got an outsized candy cane for participating. It wasn’t a big deal, and I didn’t smell booze on his breath, he didn’t try to get fresh with me, nothing of the sort that made Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of St. Nick in the great Bad Santa (2003) such a funny film.
Silly old goose, I figured in-store Santas were nearly extinct today, but a one-minute Google search proved otherwise, providing loads of locations that carry out the tradition. As the country and world gets more weird, and malls, at least in northeast, are nearly empty, it seemed logical that this staple of Americana had petered out. Maybe it’s not so odd, I guess, that you read more and more about “Americana” in the last few years, with waves of nostalgia for the 1940s and every decade until the start of this century.
(Americana is the New Fetish: if you don’t yearn for a frothy milkshake from the diner with that tough but heart-of-gold waitress, you’re out of touch. I’m not entirely immune: Saturday Evening Post covers and old baseball cards are fun to look at, as is the memory of smacking a banana Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy bar into delectable bits. But drive-in movie theaters and the suburban habit of keeping every fucking issue of the incredibly boring National Geographic in a bookcase? Count me out.)
Not in my experience, those work-for-minimum-wage guys, here in Baltimore—but I never go to malls anymore so maybe that’s the explanation. I definitely don’t see seasonal Santas on street corners, ringing a bell, shouting (or whispering, depending upon the individual) a hearty ho-ho-ho with a Salvation Army tin for those inclined to toss in a dollar or two.
It’s corny but I like the idea of fake Santas in December; as I’ve written about before I was a “guest celebrity” Santa at Baltimore’s Harborplace in 1986, although the supervisors weren’t at all pleased with me suggesting to Timmy or Debbie that a really swell gift on Dec. 25th would be an easy-to-read copy of Tom Sawyer or Beezus and Ramona. Could be I took the one-hour shift too seriously; and I might add that the tots sitting on my stuffed-pillow lap weren’t often tots, but older; one kid had, I swear, a five o’clock shadow. And some of the parents were pissed, but that rolled off my back.
As for my children, one early-night at my oldest brother’s Southampton house, during a holiday party, a Santa was ferried to a spot by the tree, and my older son Nicky, around two, took his turn, among other cousins. It wasn’t eventful: he seemed kind of mystified by the strange man, understandable at that age, and the gathering proceeded. I can’t recall Booker’s first (and perhaps only) halting conversation with a Santa, maybe my wife took him to Bergdorf’s while I was at work, but that too made no lasting impression. Some parents are indifferent to their kids with Santa, some completely with the program of holiday joy, and I say more power to the latter group.
In my childhood, the concept of Santa was fleeting. When I was seven, and at this point agnostic on the existence of St. Nick and his reindeer, my neighbor Dicky Howard, whose family was Jewish and went the distance for Hanukah, took pleasure one day in telling me that Santa didn’t exist. As I said, my belief was teetering, but that was, perhaps unwittingly, nasty on Dicky’s part. (Dicky had his own difficulties: highly allergic to bee stings and forced by his well-meaning parents to wear an orthodontic contraption on his face for two years, which only added to his nearly-toxic halitosis. Today, a kid like that might be casually described as “autistic”: I’ve no idea, but do remember how foul the air got one day when he asked me, “If one of your brothers had to die, who would you choose?” I was speechless, and aghast when he volunteered that he’d pick his sister. Gotta go, Dicky! A re-run of My Little Margie is on!)
The picture above is of Booker, not yet an adolescent, getting into the spirit at his middle school down the road in Baltimore, maybe several hours before we trimmed the tree, a father-son job that I always liked. Every year, we played Blonde on Blonde, talked about Donovan, the Zombies, the Byrds and, later on, his favorite hip-hop and rap, and he got the ladder for the hard-to-reach branches, while I placed the exalted and delicate, ornaments on the lit tree.
Take a look at the clues to figure out what year it is: Sen. Barbara Boxer (on January 6th) objects to election results; YouTube goes online; The Office debuts on NBC: Mark Felt reveals he was “Deep Throat” (yawn); Teresa Wright dies; Kanye West releases Late Registration; House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) is indicted; Maxwell Jenkins is born and Lucien Carr dies; Wedding Crashers has a domestic gross of $209 million; Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is published; and Britain’s quadricentennial Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023