So I met the real Santa Claus the other day. He was taking a quick break from his shift at the mall, sneaking out the back way because kids were still lined up and his bladder was about the burst.
“Santa, you got a minute?”
“Not really,” he said, bouncing on the tips of his boots.
“I’ve just got a quick question,” I pestered. “I’ll walk you to the restroom and keep aggressive kids at bay.”
“So how’d you get to be the real Santa?” I asked.
He turned his head so fast I saw the elastic string used to tie his beard tight. The guy had dark stubble beneath all the snowy white.
“What are you, a wise guy?”
“I guess,” I said. “I’m a writer, and I noticed the sign in front of your North Pole photo display.”
We both glanced past the gingerbread wall at the sign that, in bold red letters, declared: The REAL Santa.
His bells jingled as he hurried through the curious crowd. I had to jog to keep pace.
“Listen,” he said, “if you want to know how I got the job, I’ll tell you. My brother used to have it. Then he died and they gave it to me. Big bellies run in our family.”
I felt a little foolish for even asking, but I was curious. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ve been trying to feel the spirit of the season. When I spotted your sign, I figured you’d have some insight on the real deal.”
We were almost to the restroom. He paused long enough to nod in my direction. “You got kids?”
“A houseful,” I said and something pricked my heart.
He lowered his voice and crooked his finger so I’d lean in to hear. “I’m not sure what you’re after, but I’ll tell you this—I’m not the real Santa. You are.”
Right then two little boys came tumbling out the restroom door, twins about four years old. They made a beeline for the man in red while I ambled back the way we’d come.
I was searching my brain, trying to fine some profound meaning in Santa’s two-word response. That’s when I stopped right in front of the Christmas display, complete with gingerbread siding, synthetic snow, a camera and a big ol’ digital printer, and the empty red throne waiting for Santa.
The line coiled all around the North Pole display. Little kids, big kids, babies, and in-between kids. Some dressed right off a Gap Kids cover, others looking like they’d just rolled outta bed. They were with parents trying to hold hands sticky from the free candy canes elves were passing out. One mother clutched both a toddler and an infant, squirming and crying, but matched perfected in red and green stripes. A grandma looked weary and threatened coal if her grandson got out of line “one more time.”
Then above all the bustle, I heard, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Santa was back. He jingled and jollied his way to his chair while elves hurried to snatch credit cards from adults’ outstretched hands. Twenty bucks for a snapshot of their precious little one on Santa’s lap. But the first little girl in line was having none of it. She writhed and screamed like she was about to get immunization shots.
“Mommy!” she screamed.
Her mother bribed her, threatened her, then finally hid out of the way, just around the corner of the gingerbread wall.
That’s when my answer began to come. That’s when I realized what Santa meant.
I kept watching and sure enough, the scene repeated. When children went to have their photo taken, the adult that brought them, the one that loved them so very much, stepped out of the way, right smack dab in front of the sign that declared: The REAL Santa.
The truth was so Christmassy plain and perfect…even I got it.
And I think you will too.