I had nightmares about them for the last two two nights.
Six year old girls screaming with need, demanding to know where the presents I’ve hidden are, why Shelly got two tops from the Gap last year while Lia only got two from Roots and if everything was made in the North Pole why could they exchange it. Topped it off by demanding that I should be thin because I was promoting childhood obesity by glorifying the fat liberation movement when fat should only be liberated via liposuction. They were six. I don’t pretend to remember six, or even my own daughters at six anymore. But it wasn’t like that.
Five days so far in the grotto with the elves, reindeer, desperate parents and screaming children. The screaming parents were the icing on the proverbial cake of shit. I felt like I was starting to feel like Hitler in the bunker. I didn’t share that observation with anyone, thankfully. By the end of the shift the mall had drafted in some local kids to be Santa’s Elves as well. Because any nightmare can be improved by the inclusion of more children.
I finish the shift using the skills one hones after years of office jobs and dealing with in-laws. Fifty years of work just teaching me how to fit into polite society by lying. Once you’re old, the jobs are harder to come by: every year I bulk up for Christmas, make money on the side that doesn’t quite get my pension checks dinged, buy a few small things for family that would break our budget otherwise. Each year it seems less worthwhile than the year before, harder to justify. Maybe the kids grow up too early, or I am too old, but the season gets meaner and uglier with each store competing with each other, malls waging wars for consumers and the fact that all gift-buying could be on the Internet in minutes hanging overhead like a ghost of Christmas future.
I almost laugh at the thought as I leave the mall. It’s just after eight in the evening, and the grotto closed a few minutes ago. I make more money because I don’t need a pillow and my beard is real, but I’m not sure I’ll bother with either next year. Everything about the season just drains and tires and I almost don’t notice the kid until he coughs.
He’s short and pale; I think he was being one of the elves, but by them I was dreaming about eggnog and rum.
“Santa has gone home,” I snap. I have this idea of the elves sitting in Santa’s lap, demanding shorter work weeks and paid holidays. It’s not as funny as it should be.
“He went home hours ago,” the boy says firmly.
“You weren’t being a proper Santa at all and that’s not very jaysome you know!”
“What?” I manage. I didn’t think they let disabled kids be the elves, but maybe the kid got past them just by being screwed-up in the head.
“Being jaysome is sometimes work, but! it’s important work,” he flings out, and pouts after. The pout is epic, astonishing: everything kids want in a pout perfected into a single cute sulk.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You weren’t being Santa. You were being all kinds of grumpy inside and kids can tell when adults aren’t real, which is why most of them grow up badly! You tell kids not to lie and then lie all the time and expect them to believe you, and then Santa comes along and he’s the worst of the lot, and even worse when they find out that Santa isn’t wholly real. But the gift-giving and kindness are, and Santa is what parents want to be but can’t always be and kids eventually get that and it’s okay. It’s not if you ruin that for everyone.”
“Kid. This is just a job I do for a few weeks every year,” I say, pushing past.
“But it’s not! Being a person is being them, not just a job,” and he’s in front of me, quick. Kids are like cats, so fast at tangling between legs it can be amazing. He looks up, and something in his eyes stops me from pushing past again. “If you make it just a job, if you hate it but you do it, you turn into a Krampus. Into a monster that pretends to be a Santa and is why kids cry in Santa’s lap because they can sense the change happening,” and I step back at the fierceness under the words.
“Being a parent is hard I bet,” he continues, soft. “There’s lots of things you’ve hidden from children to protect them, and sometimes it’s necessary because the world has lots of dark corners and the worst monsters are sometimes way too human. But Santa isn’t something that has to be hidden: giving gifts is important to the giver more than even the receiver and being a Santa is a gift of time and listening, and helping parents know what to get their kids and if you think it’s not important you can’t be one again.”
“I can’t?” I repeat, wondering if this is really the kid of someone who works at the mall, some weird TV sting.
“You’d turn into a Krampus, and that would be bad for everyone. But you don’t have to. You could be jaysome. Be happy, find joy in this again, and lots of other things too. Most worthwhile things are pretty hard cuz that’s what gives them worth and – and I’d like to stop a Krampus before it happens, as a gift from me to me!”
And the kid grins at that. The grin isn’t a blow, not a weapon. I don’t have words. It’s open, and pure, and entirely a sharing. I don’t know how I know this, don’t understand if the kid knows just how potent his grin is. I manage to say something – I have no idea what – and the kid grins even wider, somehow, and heads down the street, skipping and singing Christmas carols to himself at the top of his voice. Off-key.
I keep walking toward the car. Thinking about the grin, the desperate sadness under his earlier words. I don’t know what happened. I have no idea how it happened. I just know he was hurt, and doesn’t want me to hurt people. That simple, that innocent. I get in the car slowly and drive home as slowly. Thinking about things I’ve hidden, how hard this season has to be on my wife because it’s hard on me. Thinking about how to make her smile a little like the one that boy offered like the unwrapping of the dawn as a present. About my grandkids, and that Santa should visit some of them at home if our budget can stretch to it.