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State of Mind: Adventures Behind the Beard

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In the last issue of The Bridge (Dec. 1, 2021), my colleague Carla Occaso published a commentary about the big lie. No! Not “The Big Lie” about the 2020 election being stolen. We know who started that one, and I’m hopeful he will be getting a lump of coal in his stocking for that. I’m talking about the one we tell our kids about a jolly old elf who lives at the North Pole.

In her piece, “Our Make-Believe Holidays,” Occaso asked, “What is a lie? … What is fun?”  She had to wrestle with those questions when her young son looked her in the eye one day and asked her for the truth about the myths we perpetuate with each new generation: tooth fairies, Easter bunnies, Santa. They are questions that most of us parents have had to consider — should consider — and, like my colleague, ultimately we have to come clean with our kids. For children, learning the truth is a rite of passage into adulthood. But when it comes to Santa, is it really a big lie? 

Perhaps the most famous and eloquent answer came in 1897 from journalist Francis Church of the New York Sun newspaper when he answered a letter to the editor from an eight-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon, in an unsigned editorial, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”

I am here to reaffirm Church’s answer. I do this because I have seen first-hand the magic of Santa. I have been behind the beard. 

Let me explain. I once had to fill in for Santa Claus.

The occasion was the birthday of a friend, which falls just 10 days before Christmas. Several years ago, some of her other friends and family were planning a surprise party for her birthday and asked me if I would pose as Santa and make an appearance at the gathering, which was to be held in a private event room at a local restaurant. I was eager to help. 

I rented a Santa suit and began practicing “Ho-ho-hos.” The original plan was for me to suit up in the parking lot, then enter through the kitchen door of the restaurant. There I would be led the back way to the party room. 

There was a last-minute change of plans, however, and I was told to come in through the main entrance to the restaurant. I did not give this another thought until the restaurant owner greeted me in the entryway and whispered, “I have a favor to ask. I told one little girl that I would have Santa stop at her table. Could you do that for me?” 

As I followed the owner into the dining room to the girl’s table, all the diners stopped eating and followed my movement. Realizing everyone was watching Santa, I had to overcome a sudden bout of stage fright. 

The little girl’s mouth was agape. I gave it my best “Ho ho ho,” and asked her what she wanted for Christmas. Then I noticed about five other tables with children, all of whom were looking expectantly toward me. I was doomed! Santa cannot disappoint, and I felt an obligation to represent him as best I could. I would have to work the entire room. I made my way from table to table.

As I finished with the last table, I saw a large group of people in an event room just off the main dining room — an office Christmas party. This room had two glass doors, and against that glass were pressed the faces of about five or six more children who had become aware of the commotion. As Santa’s representative, I felt obliged to go in.

This office Christmas party had been going on for a little while, so many of the older partyers were, shall we say, feeling their Christmas spirits. 

Once inside, the children flocked to me, and I did the Santa thing. But more interestingly, the adults began to gather around, too. Many asked for “selfies” with Santa, and I happily obliged. People put their arms around my shoulders. Then one young woman asked me, “Could my boss sit on your knee so I can get a photo?” Without thinking I said, “Of course.” 

It was fortunate that Santa’s knee was still strong, because her boss turned out to be a FULL GROWN MAN who could easily have played fullback for the New England Patriots. Without hesitation he sat himself on Santa’s knee and posed. Photos were taken. The revelry kicked into a seemingly higher gear.

It took some time, but I eventually made it to my friend’s party – nearly exhausted.

So where is the magic? From my perspective behind the beard, the moment I entered the restaurant everyone, whether child or adult, whether guest or staff, became happier. Smiles abounded. The mood escalated into a more festive one in each room I entered. Everyone truly seemed delighted to see Santa.  

Never before had I contemplated the power of that red suit with the white trim. I came to see that within us all, regardless of age, is a child who, even for a brief moment, wants to believe in magic. 

As Mr. Church wrote some 124 years ago, “Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.”

Thank you, Mr. Church. And thank you, Santa. Happy Holidays to all!

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