When I Wasn’t Santa
by Alan Allinger
The first time I really saw Santa was a couple of days after my eleventh Christmas, and I thought that I was dreaming[.
It was about three in the morning; I was awakened by some sound I could not name or remember, but I became so urgently curious that I got up and went downstairs. I was steadily drawn to where our family’s Christmas tree stood, illuminated by countless strands of white Italian twinkle lights, gracing our bay window with holiday cheer.
When I walked into the living room, Santa was standing between me and our tree. He was looking out through the glass at the silhouetted date palms, admiring the shoreline. He heard me come into the room and turned without haste to face me with his kindly smile. I knew him immediately, of course. Looking at his rosy face, and into his twinkling eyes, there was no doubt that this was Santa Claus.
"I always liked it here," he said. “This is such a nice little town. I’ve had the thought that I might retire here, someday."
I was dazed, not quite awake, so it didn’t seem so wrong to be having a conversation in the dead of night with Santa Claus.
“You get to retire?” I asked. It seemed odd to me. He nodded and smiled more broadly.
“Yes,” he replied. “At some point, it is no longer my turn to hold this office. When it ceases to give me sufficient joy, then I pass it on to the next person in the line of succession. I’m in no hurry to stop being Santa, but I do think about it from time to time, of course. I think about where I might like to live, once I begin to age again. I always did like it here on the beach.”
"The beach is the best,” I said. I thought for a second. "Where do you live now?" He gave a little nod as if he thought this was a good question.
“You’ll find out,” he said. “For now, we’ll just call it the North Pole. It’s where Santa always lives, there’s no getting around it. A very homey and comfortable place, but it’s far from tropical.” He was watching me, I knew, and I had another thought.
“Why am I still awake?” I asked him. “I thought you put people to sleep when they saw you.” He chuckled.
“I generally do,” he said. “But I wanted us to talk for a minute, and I need you to remember what we say. That’s why I’m taking a little time to visit with you.” He still looked kindly, but now he was serious. “You’re one of the people that might become Santa Claus someday, and you’re at the age where you need to know about the possibility.” He had my attention now.
“How does that happen?” I asked. He lifted his big arms up above his powerful shoulders and stretched. I could hear the little popping sounds that his joints made as they moved into place. He gave a small half-yawn and then spoke.
"I pick the next Santa from a group of candidates, people of all ages, from all kinds of places. It has to be a grown-up because the choices that have to be made are the sorts that can only be made by someone who has had a lot of different life experiences, someone on a track to become wiser and more mature than the average person.” I thought about that. I wasn’t anywhere near grown-up yet. I knew was smarter than average, kind to animals and my dim-witted siblings, but still, he must be planning something very long term. I supposed that made sense.
“When will I know?” I asked him. He gave another little nod.
“Not before I do,” he answered “and it won’t be anytime soon. I still love doing this, and it might be another century before I hang up my sack and hand over the sled to the next Santa in line. You may have already passed away by then. On the other hand, I may give this up in thirty or forty years, and if so, you’re right in the sweet spot for age and experience. At this point, you’re a potential Santa. It doesn’t mean you’ll ever be driving the sled, but you need to know that it could happen, so you can plan your life accordingly.” He looked at me, his deep-set, sea-gray eyes radiating power. He reached out to shake my hand, tousled my hair, and walked over to the chimney. He smiled, and said, “Watch me now; I still get a kick out of this one." He laid his finger by the side of his nose, and began to whirl, turning almost instantly into a six-foot-long slender rope of tinsel, holly, and red berries that whipped up the chimney and disappeared. I stood for a moment and decided I had really had a conversation with Santa, and that everything he had told me was true. This, of course, changed everything.
I had always wanted to believe in him, even as all my friends gradually had learned, one way or another, that we thought of as Santa was really your parents putting gifts beneath the tree, and into your stocking, after you’d gone to bed. Every year there had been fewer of us who believed, and finally, I had been alone, afraid to admit that I still held out hope for fear of ridicule. Now I had something real to hold onto, which may well have been why he had come by in the first place.
The next time I saw him I was twenty-four, and I was living in Echo Park next door to a reasonably famous musician named Tom. He had a great haircut, a voice of gravel, and his music was taking the country by storm. I knew who Tom was, but, fortunately, I was not a fan so there were no privacy issues. We didn’t talk much, but we gave each other a hand or lent tools back and forth and waved when we saw each other over the hedge or in the driveway, in the fashion of Los Angeles neighbors.
I had come back from an Easter dinner down in Long Beach with my parents and my sister, and as I slid open the screen door that led to the backyard, I saw Santa Claus dozing on one of my beach chairs by the pool. Tom was on the other side of the hedge, a slightly perplexed look on his face as he eyed the big white-bearded man in his black shorts, sandals, and a white tee shirt with a Christmas tree silkscreened on the front. I stopped dead and silent as soon as I saw him, but apparently whatever noise I had made was enough to rouse him. He sat up, glanced at Tom with a knowing smile of recognition, and looked at me, the pink light of the setting sun making his skin glow like a baby’s.
“I thought I’d stop by, and just touch base for a moment,” said Santa, his voice carrying through the evening. He motioned to the other chair, placed just a couple of feet away from his. He gave Tom a slightly sad look with an implied, rather than an actual, shake of his head. The man paused as if to say something, and then turned away, knowing he was dismissed. I realized that it was a true measure of Tom as an artist that he immediately knew who it was that had seemed to find something in him wanting. I hoped for his own sake that Tom would resolve to do better.
“Ouch,” I said, feeling the other man’s sense of rejection. Santa shrugged.
“I don’t control the choices that people make,” he said softly, in a voice that one could not argue with. “But I do recognize both actions and intentions, and then I must judge accordingly.” I sat down, staring at him. He put his thumb under his chin, and his index finger along one cheek in an “L” shape and considered me for a moment.
“That was a good thing you did, at that New Year’s Eve party,” he said. I exhaled slightly, remembering my unthinking, instinctive intervention in a domestic argument that had caught my attention as I was getting out of my car to go to a bar I favored. I had witnessed a woman being thrown to the ground by her boyfriend. “That sort of thing keeps you in the running.” He nodded encouragingly, stood up, and gave me a Christmas-sized smile. Santa was a much larger man than the one I had grown into. He let his head roll from side to side, his neck making cracking sounds.
“I wasn’t sure you were coming back,” I found myself saying. He gave me a smaller smile, his eyes twinkling.
“As long as you still believe, you’ll still see me from time to time,” he said. “Doing good things, especially when there is no reward to be had from them, helps to build your place in the succession. I just wanted to let you know, doing things like that do matter.” I found myself answering without meaning to.
“In the great scheme of things, it was a little frustrating,” I blurted. “She still left with him, even after that.” He met my eyes and nodded very slightly.
"Yes," he said. And I knew what he meant. "But that's what I meant by saying there is no reward. We don't get to solve other people's problems, but we can hope to plant the seeds of change."
“Some seeds never grow,” I said, to make sure he knew it, and his mobile, cheery face looked a little sad for just a second as he acknowledged my point. Of course, I thought with chagrin, of
course, he knows that after watching people for all these years. I was suddenly humbled, thinking of the disappointments he must have endured through so many years of observation. He put a hand on my shoulder for a second, and then suddenly spun; his smile stayed in my mind’s eye as he whirled away, a cheerful streak of brilliant colors vanishing into the gloaming.
Over the next few years, I saw him a little more frequently, and sometimes even at the holidays. In San Francisco he was actually in the Neiman-Marcus seated on a throne, pretending to be himself, listening to the children who came to see him, posing for family photos. In a smallish town in New Mexico, he rode up with the tow-truck driver when I was broken down by the side of the road in the cold, blowing snow, and we spent a snowbound evening playing pool at the local tavern with a couple of nurses who had just gotten off the late shift. When I mentioned it was odd to imagine him in such circumstances, he shrugged, smiled slightly, and said that he had to go everywhere, and experience everything that he could, in order to be good at what he did.
I nodded, thinking about it, and realized that that was what I was doing, too.
When I got married, I never mentioned this special place in the world that I was holding to my wife, but she always thought my quiet vocal support of Santa Claus was sweet and rather cute. Later, when we had children, I quietly encouraged them to believe in Santa for as long as they would. I privately told the older ones that for a time they might cease to believe in him, but that was all right with me. What was more important was that the day they told the younger ones what they believed in their youthful hubris to be the full story was the day they themselves would cease to receive gifts at Christmas. That notion got through to them until they were able to understand the philosophy driving it. While the kids were young, we annually hired a Santa to come to the house during our Christmas Eve parties, and once it really was him- when I opened the front door to let him in, I recognized him immediately. He didn’t say anything out of character while we were together. His full working uniform was noticeably grandly detailed and comfortable. The suit hung and draped about him in the way that only properly tailored clothes that have had years of both proper care and wear can ever look. The entire group became a little giddy, basking in the truest expression of the ambiance of the holiday; even the dourest of adults became a little happier, and I noticed that the little gifts he gave to all the children were personalized and clever. Everyone thought afterward that my wife and I had given these to him in advance, and I never said anything to the contrary. When he was leaving he smiled and shook my hand on the front porch. "Nice to meet your family," he said.
“Thank you for coming,” I said. We smiled at one another, with deeper than usual meaning.
“It seems to me that you’ve done well,” he said. “You have nice people in your life.” I nodded. I knew I was very fortunate. “That will be the most important thing, as the years go by. Are you finding that they’re passing more and more quickly?”
He looked up at the sky, focusing on the constellation Orion, which was burning brightly above us despite the ambient light from the city.
“He was a friend of mine,” he said quietly, his eyes suddenly reflecting an uncharacteristic sorrow in the starlight, seeing that I, too, was looking at the constellation. Orion had been the first collection of stars I had ever learned to identify. I had learned about him on a camping trip with my dad when I was about nine. “And he was a victim of unfortunate circumstance, and petty behavior.” I twisted my lips a little, remembering the story of how Orion had come to be a constellation. “The light of the stars we see from where you and I are now has traveled for so long that some of them have ceased to exist, but from where he is, he can see the remaining stars for what they truly are, in all their glory. It gives me some measure of comfort, knowing that from that vantage it might be not such a horrible thing, to be placed in the heavens.” He regarded me for a moment, accepting my silent, understanding sympathy, and then set off walking through the snow. I kept up with him because his explanation of Orion's fate had tipped me off.
“I’m not really ever going to be Santa, am I?” I said it very quietly, but he stopped and half turned to look at me with a genuinely tired smile. We regarded each other for a moment, with respect and affection. Finally, he gave a very slight nod.
“Probably not,” he said, at last. “But it’s no reflection on you, you understand. You have this life, and it’s a good one. I think it best if you stay in it and enjoy it fully.” He gave me a little double nod, and strode on easily, growing bigger with each stride until he passed a tree and vanished. That was his last visit, to date. I don’t know that there will ever be another one, and it is a loss that I must learn to contend with as the years go by, watching my youth fade into the distance without the possible salvation of immortality, and the world seems to become a darker place. Still, one must hope.
Although I haven’t seen him in many years, I know he’s there, just like the oxygen I need to live, but cannot see. And on certain very difficult days, it offers me a great sense of comfort that I was nearly Santa.