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The Day I Was Santa Claus

Christmas season, 2003. I was working at Chili's in Richardson, Texas, and the restaurant had elected, for the first (and as far as I know the only) time to host a Breakfast with Santa. The event was held for two different groups of kids on the same morning. Some were from an underprivileged, low-income neighborhood, and the others were orphans. They were probably five years old or so.

And who did they ask to play the lead role in the festivities? Why me, of course. And I gladly accepted without any regard to what it might entail.

So one cold Saturday morning, I put on the Santa Claus costume they'd provided me. I looked pretty legit except that I couldn't get one of my pant legs to tuck into my boot. But, I figured, the kids aren't going to be paying any attention to that.

I entered the restaurant through the back - the kids weren't there yet, but the place wasn't open, so the other doors were locked. All of the cooks were already there preparing the feast for the kids, and they got a good laugh at my expense. I was laughing too. I came out front, and the people running the event had done some decorating and had set up a pile of presents for all of the kids. I wasn't going to be a stingy Santa. I walked around, trying to get into character, suffering the laughter of my coworkers who were helping out.

A yellow school bus pulled into the parking lot. We were told later that it was a struggle to get these kids up in the mornings to go to school, but they were all lined up and wide awake to meet Santa that morning. The most important thing for me was that I not shatter the illusion, in any way. Whatever I did and whatever I said, these kids had to leave still believing in Santa Claus.

So of course, the first thing one of them asks is, "Are you the real Santa Claus?"

And I placed my hands on my stomach, leaned back, and without hesitation declared, "I'm the real Santa! Ho ho ho!" Crap. They'd called my bluff.

They settled into their seats to eat their pancakes and eggs and what not, and I was supposed to walk around and talk to them. They'd grow really quiet and stop eating when I passed, and they smiled at me like they'd probably never smiled before. One kid asks me if I could name all the reindeer. Well, that was easy. I knew the song. But I overthought it - I figured if I listed them in the same order as the song, the kids would know I was just quoting. Santa wouldn't necessarily go in the same order every time, right? So I started picking them out randomly and quickly realized I couldn't remember which ones I still had left. So, quick thinking time. I stopped, gave them a soft "Ho ho ho," and asked, "Can any of you name all the reindeer?" Eager hands shot up, and I was in the clear. I Ho ho ho-ed after everything I said that morning.

Right around this point was when the left half of my fake beard decided to call it quits. It hung down, slowly peeling off my face, and I had to hold it there with my white glove. I walked up and down, Ho ho ho-ing, laughing and talking to the kids, with my hand on my face. They didn't notice. It was Santa Claus - who cares what he does with his hand?

I got the beard working decently again, and it came time for the kids to sit in my lap. I was in a chair at the front of the restaurant, surrounded by all the presents, and the kids came up to stand in the line. As they arranged themselves, I gave off a soft wave and a quiet laugh on repeat, like a robot Santa Claus.

One by one, the kids climbed up on my knee, told me what they wanted for Christmas, and got their pictures taken. They were very respectful, which was smart. I'm not opposed to giving out coal to kids that pull on my beard or pee on my leg.

At one point, the photographer had to change film or batteries, and this little boy was stuck on my lap for a minute. I lifted my hand to wave at him, offering my soft robotic Santa laugh, and he pressed his little hand against it. Then, after a few seconds, he slid his fingers down between mine. This little kid, who was either an orphan or whose parents probably didn't make enough money to get him much of anything for Christmas, believed in me and trusted me, and I wonder if my eyes were a little glassy when they finally took our picture.

When it was all over, the kids begged me to come out to the bus and get a picture with all of them, which of course I did. As I stood in the throng, two little girls hugged my legs, squeezing tight.

I'm sure each of those kids had a fantastic morning. But mine was better.


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