I suppose if it were a scene from the movie Bad Santa, it would have been amusing: Santa ambling up the mall hallway, candy cane cane in hand to steady his gait, his anticipating groupies—ages ten and under—waiting (perhaps not especially) patiently for his arrival back from his scheduled dinner break. Chaos abounded—as is to be expected at this most festive time of year. To get a handle on things, both my mother-in-law and I virtually simultaneously inquired of two of Santa’s “elves” where we should line up. Both pointed to our right, so line up we did. We were the first to do so. So, once Santa seated himself and visited briefly with weeks-old twins, my three boys made their enthusiastic way up to his capacious chair.
We choose this same spot every year. First of all, Santa’s beard is real; and, not immaterially, he is also patient and kind. And it is always the same Santa (or certainly appears that way) since the time my oldest son, now nine, was an infant. In recent years we have taken to going the day after Thanksgiving—yes, Black Friday. For our children, the magic works: They see Santa arrive in New York City at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade at noon the previous day; so it makes sense that by six o’clock the next evening he would have made his way to Providence, Rhode Island.
It dawned on my oldest last year that Santa was more a magical construct than an actual hirsute gentleman in a red velvet suit. But he played along this year—and at times seemed the most fervent of the three. The boys made their lists, and with their devoted grandparents in tow, we made our way to see our friend.
When the boys approached Santa and began their simultaneous holiday monologues, I stood nearby—hoping to garner a few ideas from their stream-of-consciousness litany but also ready to wrangle them for the obligatory picture for which I was ready to plunk down probably ten times what it costs them to print it. In the middle of my youngest’s conversation with St. Nick, one of the photographer “elves” came over to us, pointed to another family and said, not without a decided edge, “Excuse me, they were next.” I was a little taken aback. Interrupting a child’s visit with Santa seems rather irreverent—especially when the interrupter is sporting an apron that says “I’m Santa-Approved.” But I didn’t want to argue; so, in my best parenting (read: sarcastic) voice I said, “Well, Santa, I guess we’ll have to come back. Your elf said these folks were next.”
Now, whether they were or not I cannot say. They were situated clear across from where we had been told by the elves in authority to line up. We thought we were following the rules; but if someone else were truly next, then next they should be. But the woman who was purportedly “next” told me she would wait—that my children should continue their visit since they had already started. And she was right. But the elf photographers seemed a little chagrined.
They tried to take some photos, but since they were already put out, they pictures weren’t coming out especially well. The photographers were losing what was left of their limited and collective patience, and it was showing in their efforts. No one expects a work of art from their “Visit with Santa” photograph, but eyes open shouldn’t be too much to ask. One of the elves said resignedly, after snapping six times, “We can only do a couple more. That’s it.” He snapped two more—one of which was a perfunctory effort at best, the other just okay; but I was increasingly aware that our time was up. People were waiting—not to mention the woman who gave up what she believed to be her spot for us. So I simply said, “Why don’t I just snap a few with my camera, and we’ll call it a day?” I took one photo—with just two of my three children (the oldest had already left), and I was told I needed to make a donation—that anyone who takes pictures with his or her own camera (and is thus not going to purchase one of their products) needed to make an obligatory one-dollar donation to what I am sure is a worthy cause. Wanting this to be over—and not a little disappointed that this was going to be the first year in ten we would not have an “official” picture—I put down a dollar in coins on their desk. One of Santa’s elves then literally and not a little invasively dropped the six coins back into my wallet and said, “We don’t want your money.”
At that point, I asked for the name of the person in charge of their operation. Santa moved on to the next child, my own children went back into the recesses of the mall with their grandparents and father. A business card was handed to me. It invited my comments and offered a toll-free number. I extricated myself and called. A man picked up. I asked him if he were in charge, and he said he was not—that he was a person in charge but not of this particular area. And though he said he was out to dinner, he offered to help me. After some finagling, I finally found the person who could address this and had a serious chat with him about common courtesy and reasonable expectations. I handed the phone over, and he spoke to his employee; and I walked out with a photo package, an extra 5 x 7 print, and a ceramic photo frame—all free of charge.
But I also walked out with something else—in addition to elevated blood pressure.
If you ask my children what they will remember about this visit with Santa, I am sure it won’t be this thread of the story. August will remember he asked Santa for a “fire-breathing dragon” and a “coffee maker” (he’s four). Edgar will remember he wrote his own Christmas list for the first time and that Santa could read it. And Oscar will remember he got his own chai tea from Dunkin’ Donuts and traipsed through the mall looking a lot like his coffee-cup-carrying dad. Though all three knew I was complaining and that I walked away with everything I initially wanted—and for free—it wasn’t their focus. And nor should it have been.
But still this leaves me wondering what sort of legacy I am leaving my children. Though I do, in earnest, try to pick my battles, as the age-old wisdom goes, I tend to pick a lot of them. I have a hard time letting injustice or disrespect simply go. I speak up not for attention or to get free goods (believe me, I would rather have paid their exorbitant fee and not have had this story to tell); but for me, there is seldom a choice. Blame my childhood or some other influencing factor, but if someone is rude, inappropriate, or unkind to me or my children, I speak up—without exception.
And while I hope my children will ultimately feel comfortable speaking out against injustice, I don’t want them to feel my at times crippling compulsion. I want them to have the wisdom to occasionally let things go, to know when it’s simply not worth their mental or physical energy to engage. I don’t know if my speaking out ever changes anything, but I know it influences my children.
Our 2013 holiday picture will hold a different kind of memory for me. It will sit above my desk, where I tend to pen the bulk of my life’s invectives, and remind me that sometimes people have bad days, sometimes they are in over their heads, sometimes they don’t know any better because they haven’t learned any better, that not everything needs to be a battle, that we are all imperfect and need to be more tolerant of one another.
An auspicious message to start the holiday season brought to me by a couple of the most disgruntled of Santa’s elves . . .