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Here Comes Santa Claus 

He gives and gives, but what does he get in return? Ronnie Virgets and Eileen Loh-Harrist meet the man behind the myth.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For the following story, Santa Claus graciously allowed writer Ronnie Virgets to dress up as one of his helpers, in order to better understand how the real Mr. Claus lives and works. Staff writer Eileen Loh-Harrist donned elf-like apparel to help out. Gambit Weekly is grateful to Mr. Claus and all his helpers for their assistance.

Imanna was a Sumerian goddess, whose myths stressed her irascible nature and the fatal consequences of her anger or sexuality.

Finn MacCool was a giant Celtic poet raised by a Druidess and married to a deer. He acquires wisdom through the Salmon of Knowledge, has the gift of prophecy and is a great warrior.

St. Nicholas was born in Asia Minor and was reputed to have had reason from the moment of birth. He began to fast from the cradle, refusing nourishment from his nurse's breasts on Wednesdays and Fridays. Orphaned young, he inherited much money and was generous with it. He secretly tossed bags of gold through the window of a poor merchant who lacked a dowry for his three daughters; one of the bags landed in a stocking hung by the chimney to dry. He is the patron of sailors and pawnbrokers, and is supposed to have raised from the dead three children who'd been buried in a pickle-tub.

They are all myths and almost all are gone. Of them all, only St. Nicholas lives on, often under the name of Santa Claus, and it takes plenty of people to make that happen. In Seattle there's an annual street parade in which 100-plus Santas denounce commercialism and praise drunkenness. At New York's Radio City Music Hall, there's a song-and-dance number performed by 54 Santa Clauses.

And closer to home, we find others who give of themselves to keep St. Nicholas alive and well. ...

PLACE: Xavier University's Bolden Child Care Center

TIME: 10 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 29

Thirty-six children between the ages of 2 and 5 dart around the playroom, jamming Legos together, sometimes yanking toys out of each others' grips. Several are dressed in their holiday finest: red velvet, new shoes and ribbons. Shrieks punctuate the air, and Santa isn't even here yet.

Day care teacher Evezah Daniels flashes a nervous smile. "Santa's late," she says.

Our visit today is research for our upcoming roles as Santa and elf. Next week, we are scheduled to work a Saturday shift at Lakeside Shopping Center in Metairie.

All morning long, mothers had been driving past swaybacked houses with cracked-paint smiles to the Bolden Center, then jogging through the pelting rain with their children clinging tight. The notion of Santa has generated much excitement in these keyed-up kids. The future elf reminds the future Santa that he's going to face hundreds of tots just like these, all waiting not-so-patiently in line for hours to see him.

"If you think I haven't worked up the appropriate level of fear," the future Santa replies, "you're wrong."

At 10:15 a.m., Santa calls on his cell phone to say his prior stop had twice as many children as expected. He'll be just a few more minutes. Mrs. Daniels hangs up the phone and calls out, "Santa's coming!"

A girl named Dominique, wearing a velvet dress embroidered with a reindeer, repeats the information: "Santa's coming." Mikaela, a 4-year-old with long braids, claims, "I know Santa." How? "Oh, I met him before," she says carelessly.

A little girl named Jadah tells everyone that "Santa's in Chicago," but he's not. At 10:40 a.m., he pulls up in a maroon Chevy pick-up with Mississippi plates.

Santa and his helper, Phyllis, linger for a moment in the entrance conferring with the Bolden staff. Many children have realized that Santa is here, and gather near the doorway. Mikaela peers out the door, spots Santa, stares for a long moment and then turns and runs to a little upstairs loft area in the corner of the room, watching the door apprehensively. When Santa enters the playroom, she starts to cry.

Santa's appearance generates in every child a range of emotion. The bolder kids cluster around Santa's boots, patting his belly and hugging him, and he responds with a resounding "Ho-ho-ho!". Santa's beard is gray, natural and magnificent.

Santa's helper, Phyllis, hurriedly sets up professional photography lights and installs a giant roll-down backdrop, a Yuletide scene with a tree and fireplace. She drags a teacher's chair, one of the few adult-size seats in the room, in front of it. Santa places a tiny kids' chair next to his own, so children can step easily onto his lap. "I want a scooter, Santa," one girl yells. "I want a motorcycle!" another girl keeps repeating, following Santa as he directs Phyllis on how to adjust the lights.

The first little girl up is Jaelyn, who wants "a purple cat and a brown toy." She looks fearless.

So does Christopher, who last year hid upstairs all during Santa's visit and would only come down to wave goodbye. Today, he is sure and unafraid and takes a nice picture.

Unbeknownst to the kids, this photo is going to be a defining moment for them: the image their parents will include with this year's Christmas cards, will adorn in a nice frame for Grandma, will preserve in a baby book, will show to future spouses. Many of the parents have paid for this shot in advance. One little girl isn't scheduled to take a photo, and she's wailing. "Your mama is going to take you to the mall to have your picture made," a teacher tries to explain, but she is inconsolable. A hurried conference between staff members results in the child perched on Santa's lap, beaming as Phyllis pretends to snap a photo.

In the opposite situation is Mikaela, who'd earlier claimed to know Santa. She remains in the loft surrounded by Lego toys, and is sobbing piteously: "I want my daddy!" A teacher reminds her that her mom has ponied up the money for her to take a picture on Santa's lap, but even the gentlest attempts to move Mikaela closer to Santa generate piercing screams.

Mrs. Daniels shakes her head. "She's a rough-and-tumble one," the teacher says in disbelief. "I would never have picked her to be like this."

But Santa is so ... so ... unapproachable. The size and shape and beard and Red Rajah look! He is godlike, and who would truly remain uncowed when given the chance to talk to their God, face to face?

So Santa goes on, sometimes bending to kiss one of his more timid petitioners, sometimes asking a teacher to pass a baby wipe over a messy little face. When he gets up to leave, he mentions to the grown-ups clustered nearby that his most requested gift by adults is "the combination to the lottery."

Then he is gone, and soon Mikaela has stopped sobbing for her daddy. She stands on Santa's chair in front of the backdrop, by herself, and smiles brilliantly for the camera. Christopher comes over to tell her something, and it is hard not to believe he is saying "Wait till next year," and the strength of Santa is Next Year and Next Year and Next Year.

Of course, there's a very narrow window of opportunity, too, and by the time we get comfortable talking to Santa, we've become skeptics.

Just like real life.

PLACE: Celebration in the Oaks at City Park TIME: 8 p.m, Saturday, Dec. 1

He is 5-foot-6, 180 pounds, with gray hair and green eyes with Ferolux lenses. He also works for the Internal Revenue Service. "Yeah, I've heard all the jokes," he says. "Santa giveth and the I.R.S. taketh away."

He's in his giving mood tonight, perched on his throne between the choo-choo train and the melodic flight of the flying reindeer. For the past decade he has volunteered at City Park's Celebration in the Oaks. He knows most of the Santa tricks.

"Bring slip-on shoes and your own beard and mustache," he advises. "Because those common ones get funky."

Lap-wetting is not the problem most laymen think it is, but you've got to keep one twinkling eye on some parents. "They'll tell their kids, pull Santa's beard," he cautions.

This elf-size Santa calls all the boys "pal," uses his normal tone of voice and never says, "Ho-ho-ho."

"The first year I did 'Ho-ho-ho' in the deep voice, but the park lady said I had a nice voice and all that other stuff scares the little ones."

One scared little one in a pink parka comes to the first step of Santa's gazebo, but no farther. Santa gets up from his throne and goes down to sit on the step next to her. They talk, but the visitor will not get up on Santa's lap for a picture. "Maybe next year," Santa calls to the kid's mom.

And what about the romantic possibilities of Santa, which became public dialogue a half-century ago when some kid sang "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"? And maybe earlier than that. A powerful stranger of immense wealth who wears a uniform. Think about it.

One young mom climbs onto Santa's lap and coos: "Got any diamonds for me this year?"

"Have you been a good girl?"

"I been trying."

The line slackens. The photographer talks about last night and the kid who asked for an X-box, the latest in electronica. Santa asks if he's been good, and then promises the X-box. A few yards away, the kid's dad rolls his eyes and says, "Three hundred dollars!"

"That's why I'm always non-committal," Santa says. "I ask if they've been good and then say, 'O.K. We'll see.'"

More children come, and it's interesting how fast all the parental teaching, direct and implicit, about avoiding strangers goes out the window. Santa's not a stranger, you say? Of course he is. And always, too, he points to the faint gleam at the frontiers of the physical world, the hint of light invisible, the one seen best by saints like himself. The mysterious stranger.

"I can have a bad day at work, put on the suit, and enter a different world," he says.

Three boys come up, too big for Santa but maybe starting to miss him already. They ask for sixth-grade things and one says he wants a rifle. After they leave, Santa says, "I wanted to tell him, kid, you'll shoot your eye out."

A girl named Jessica gets her picture taken and then hops down. Santa says, "But what do you want?"

And Jessica says, "I already talked to the Santa at the mall!"

PLACE: Lakeside Shopping Center

TIME: 8:15 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 8

Well, I hate to go big-league on you, but here I am, being Santa at Lakeside Mall on a Saturday in December. This is the Monkey Hill for anyone aspiring to myth-building. I am assisted by my co-author, who will serve as Santa's favorite elf-helper and will be with me for the entire shift, from 9 to 5.

Eight hours? I had thought we'd fill in for the standard Santa while he went to lunch. Eight hours. Eight hours of giving of myself. It sounded frightening.

ELF: By the time I arrive at Lakeside Mall, Santa is decked in his brilliant red outfit, and Cheryl Welliver -- of Video by Welliver, the studio coordinating Santa's appearances -- is dabbing rouge onto his cheeks.

"This Santa doesn't need any padding!" Cheryl reports brightly as I duck into a back room to don my elf uniform. It's a red-and-green-felt affair, bedecked with jingle bells. My jaunty green cap and pointy yellow elf shoes are courtesy of Rivertown Repertory Theatre.

I apply my makeup while Cheryl gives the finished Santa a once-over and comments that he looks so good; would he like a more permanent job? Santa gives a weak laugh and remains non-committal.

Cheryl gives Santa a pep talk. "I believe in Santa Claus, and you are Santa. You are Santa," Cheryl reminds him. She tells him not to fret if kids get scared. "You are what these parents have been threatening their kids with all year long."

She also tells Santa that young women often like to pose on his lap. "Remember," she reminds him, "Santa is a gentleman."

SANTA: An itch, says Webster, is a parasitic cutaneous disease causing great irritation. And during daily working hours, I have 12,271 of them, all unscratched. Did you ever see Santa scratch himself?

Of other numbers: I say "Ho-ho-ho!" at least twice per child. Roughly three minutes per child for eight hours equals 320 ho-ho-hos. Which is plenty.

At one point, former pro baseball player Will Clark appears with his little boy, who is mesmerized by Santa. Which shows that no matter who your dad is, he can't hold a candle to Santa.

Some of the kids ask Santa for money. One requests a $100 bill; a wiser one simply asks for generic "money." Another wants a million bucks -- and a pony.

ELF: In public view, Santa Claus reigns on a plush velvet bench built into an elaborate sleigh, brimming with toys and borne by nine lifelike Plexiglas reindeer soaring majestically up into Lakeside Mall's high vaulted glass ceiling.

In private, Santa's dressing chamber is a plywood stall big enough for a cafeteria chair, and not much else. Its narrow shelf is packed with Santa's shoes, a stick of deodorant, a pack of safety pins and some baby powder.

Surrounding the sleigh is an exit ramp where kids and parents line up to pay for their photographs after visiting with Santa. Much longer is the Entrance ramp. It starts at Santa's dressing room, hidden behind a "North Pole Post Office" facade, and switchbacks around like cattle corrals, the strategy employed by theme parks. Next to the long, winding line is an impressive model train setup, and surrounding that is a choo-choo train big enough for many kids to ride at once. Heaps of faux snow, white-flocked Christmas trees and glittering lights complete the landscape.

In front of the sleigh, Santa-photo veterans Rachel Welliver (daughter of Cheryl) and Kathryn DiStefano, and rookie Bonny Gelpi, are hard at work. To induce infantile smiles, they employ a squeaky ball and a piece of cardboard that, wafted in front of a baby's face and accompanied by a cooing sound, at times induces giggles.

The early visitors approach Santa's sleigh. One is an infant named John, and his parents sing to him in an attempt to make him smile. Santa tickles his cheek, finally inspiring a giggle, and Santa joins in with a genuine laugh of relief.

John's father hears Santa's distinctive voice and phrasing in lines like, "I'm gonna be by ya house on Christmas," and "Y'all sure look pretty in them dresses," and "I'm not gonna hurt ya. What ya want for Christmas?" John's father says he's heard this voice on TV. "I thought Santa sounded local," the father says.

The father then quotes to Santa a line he's heard from one of those TV spots, from an essay about summer in New Orleans: "It's hard to feel dignified when you've got your underwear sticking to you like a wet bathing suit."

"Ho ho ho!" replies Santa, already perspiring.

SANTA: Santa's helper is being very helpful indeed. She alerts Santa to the next kid's name, and if they begin screaming dire murder while on Santa's lap (about one in four), she tries to calm them by doing a hot-footed dance that very much looks like Walter Huston after discovering gold in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It seldom works.

There are several calls for karaoke machines, TVs, VCRs, DVD players, a computer with a Pentium-4 processor and CD burner, etc. My favorites are the sister-brother duo; she wants "a real live rabbit." He prefers "a real live snake." Sooner or later, that snake is gonna be twice as big and the rabbit is gonna be absent.

Some kids ask for nothing, and some ask for everything. One girl with bangs asks if Santa can get her mommy to stop sleeping.

ELF: When I identify a potential screamer, I sometimes tell the parent he or she may want to sit next to Santa holding the kid. A few comply. Some are positive their child will smile beatifically. Others confide they're just holding out the hope that the kid will start wailing after the photo is taken.

Some parents seem a little desperate. One mother grabs me and tells me, "Tell Santa to tell my kids they have to listen to their mama and daddy, okay?" A few have come from as far away as Shreveport and Mississippi to get this photo. "We've driven hours to get here," one mother mutters while struggling with a crying child. "We are taking this picture no matter what."

A surprising feeling of solidarity breaks out among parents in line. When a solemn or scared child is perched on Santa's lap, many of the other parents join in, singing and making funny faces to try and get the kid to smile. When the photographers allow parents and now-calmed children to return to Santa, cut in line and re-take a picture, there are no audible complaints.

At the other end of the spectrum are the thrilled children, the ones who can't wait to get to Santa. Many race up to Santa's sleigh and catapult themselves gleefully onto his knee, resulting in a loud groan from Santa followed by the jovial, yet slightly strained comment: "What a fine big fellow you are!"

SANTA: "Forty-three years," yells a store manager at Santa, "and I ain't seen that pony yet!"

The Virgets grandchildren come, and seem impressed that Santa knows so much about them. One far-off day they'll study the pictures and wonder about Pappy. Might trigger some very peculiar ancestor worship.

I only remember two "Charlies" all day long. But there are five little girls named "Caitlin," a name I'd never heard till today.

The worst is a fellow dressed like a Renaissance prince, with black-velvet leggings and a pancake hat. While he wails and kicks Santa's shinbone into snowflakes, his mother grunts, "Can you tell him he must listen to his mother?"

Toward the last two hours, some of the kids begin to look a lot alike, like kids who have already been through the line in another shirt or dress. This must be how Santa sometimes messes up and leaves the wrong thing on Christmas morning.

At the end of Santa's shift, a friend of Santa's named Mary Beth comes by and delivers a plastic Kentwood bottle full of Maker's Mark. This helps Santa smell like most of the Santas of his boyhood.

ELF: The children who have come today want to know all about Santa, the elves, the reindeer, the North Pole, Mrs. Claus. Speaking with them, one can't help but become enmeshed in Santa's world. The kids ask more questions than a grand jury. Are you a real elf? (Yes.) If you're a real elf, why don't you have pointy ears? (Only boy elves have pointy ears.) That's not true! (Yes it is.)

Is that the real Santa? (Sometimes it's the real Santa and sometimes it's Santa's helper, and not even the elves know for sure.) Do you build the toys? (No, all the elves have different jobs. I'm Santa's assistant.) Is that Santa's real sleigh? (No, it's at the North Pole getting a tune-up for Christmas Eve.) Where are the reindeer? (On the roof.) Can I see them? (Maybe, if you look up.)

Santa-banter can be tricky, but this Santa is good at it. He asks the kids what they want for Christmas; if they're tongue-tied, he makes suggestions: bike? doll? Some of them are surprisingly honest, admitting they've "sort of" been good. That's when Santa ho-ho-hos the loudest.

Some have brought lists, and Santa reviews them with the children before stashing them in his sleigh. He asks them to leave him milk and cookies, and carrots for his reindeer. He tells them to look under the tree Christmas morning, because there will be surprises there. He tells them he knows they've been good, because Santa knows everything. "Santa loves you," he tells them.

SANTA: Now it is time to go, and as Santa creaks to his feet and turns around to retrieve his Kentwood bottle from its hiding place in the sled, his Santa pants fall a full foot, showing at least one young True Believer plenty of Santa's fire-engine-red shorts.

ELF: Fortunately, few people in line, including the mother who's waiting to go next, notice. I scurry up to the sleigh to hitch Santa's festive britches up to his waist. Then I trail after him, down the exit ramp.

As I follow Santa, basking in Santa-adulation, the crowd parts a little, and children break from their parents and run toward us with shrieks of joy. A few minutes later, nobody will notice as a man saunters through the mall, dressed in khaki pants and a loud print shirt. We walk to the North Pole Post Office to get his shoes. People jostle into us and children barely glance up as we pass.

"Half an hour ago I was a god," the man laments. "Now I'm just some guy in his sock feet."

SANTA: And these are some of the ways this year that a myth -- an old and wonderful one -- is being twisted and diluted and modernized.

Oh yeah ... Ho ho ho! And perpetuated, too. ...

click to enlarge Jared Lemoine takes his seat in the sleigh.
  • Jared Lemoine takes his seat in the sleigh.
click to enlarge Some parents are positive their child will smile beatifically for their picture with Santa. Others confide they're just holding out the hope that the kid will start wailing after the photo is taken.
  • Some parents are positive their child will smile beatifically for their picture with Santa. Others confide they're just holding out the hope that the kid will start wailing after the photo is taken.
click to enlarge For research purposes, we accompanied other Santas and helpers on their rounds, including a morning visit to Xavier University's Bolden Child Care Center.
  • For research purposes, we accompanied other Santas and helpers on their rounds, including a morning visit to Xavier University's Bolden Child Care Center.
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