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Desperately Seeking Santa

An epic mall-to-mall journey begs the question, Will the real St. Nick please stand up?



Hello fellow recovering addicts. It’s been 21 years since my last true fix. Every single one-day-at-a-time day is a struggle, particularly around the holidays—specifically and especially around Christmas. I know there are seven habits to becoming a highly effective person, 50 ways to leave your lover and 12 steps to sobriety. But after years and years as a recovering believer in Santa Claus, I have to ask, “When will it end?”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t still believe in Santa Claus. It’s been 21 years and I’m still going strong. The problem is, thanks to believing in Santa Claus when I was young, I find it difficult to believe in anything these days. For those of us who accepted the reality of St. Nick, we proved to ourselves that our minds could believe the unbelievable. A reindeer with a red nose? A fat man who can work at light speed? Then God? Then Jesus? What about politicians? Lovers? And finally, in December, do people actually eat fruitcake?

A Christmas Present

Asking if I could borrow my friend’s 9-year-old boy, Taylor, for a Saturday seemed like a great idea. The surface goal for us was to see as many Santas in one day as possible. It was to be a day filled with candy canes, reindeer and Christmas. Deep down though, perhaps even further inside me than I knew to look, the true question I was searching for was, how could I have been so stupid as a kid to believe in Santa Claus?

At 9 years old, it was time Taylor quit believing in this fantasy world of Santa, reindeer and elves. Instead of telling him there wasn’t a Santa Claus, it seemed like a good idea to show him. Certainly seeing seven Santas in one day would help him figure out what I couldn’t all those years ago. You might say this should be the responsibility of his parents, but I thought I had a higher responsibility. And at 33, it was time to put my inner child to bed.

Taylor believes the unbelievable. He believes in magic and that reindeers can fly. He believes in Santa Claus. He believes in the goodness of man. He couldn’t be more like I was at his age if I were his father. Except for one thing: Taylor is smart. He tested out of his public school and into an accelerated learning program. In his new third-grade class, he’s one of the brightest. Yet, he still believes in Santa Claus.

In Taylor’s mind, all of his moves are monitored by elves. They report back to the North Pole and give Santa a rating level of naughty vs. nice. On a scroll of paper or computer readout sheet or whatever fictional method Taylor imagines tallies such details, he hopes his checkmarks in the “nice” column outweigh the “naughty.” At 9, “nice” is Taylor’s main character trait.

A Christmas Past

When I was young, I believed in Santa with a zeal that only a soldier in combat could feel, and I defended this belief on the playground of my elementary school with bloody results. Fighting for Santa was like fighting for my religion, my country and my parents. Certainly none of these entities would ever lie to me. Heavens no.

It wasn’t until the summer before sixth grade that my parents sat me down and said, all staccato-like, “Santa Claus is not real. We are Santa. This year we will have a fire in the fireplace. Santa Claus will not get burned. OK?” That was the day my childhood ended. “By the way,” my mom said in the same halting fashion, just when I thought the day couldn’t get any stranger, “have you ever heard about the birds and the bees?”

Even though I’m not his father, the lies and painful, embarrassing moments like those were the reasons I felt I needed to protect Taylor. The plan wasn’t to get a 9-year-old boy to cry real tears, the tears a child cries when he breaks his leg—the tears of a child who finds out Santa Claus is a lie two weeks before Christmas. Those are the tears I wanted to prevent, because that’s what happened the day my childhood came to an end.

Believing the unbelievable is part of childhood. When I was 5 and my mother said Batman could fly, I believed her. First off, Batman can’t fly. He has to rely on his utility belt or turbo-charged car to do anything really cool like that. And second, if you were my mother, would you have said, “Yes, he can fly,” if I was standing at your feet in the kitchen with a cape around my neck?

As I leapt from the top of the stairs leading to the cement floor of our unfinished basement, not once did I break my concentration, my belief in my mother, or my imagination. What I did break was my leg. From that I learned about the laws of gravity and the fragility of Bruce Wayne. What I didn’t learn was that my parents don’t always tell, or know, the truth.

Breaks like this are what build character. For instance, last summer while fishing with Taylor, I told him to wade barefoot in the river. It would be safe, I said. The water will feel cool, fresh, almost like a York Peppermint Patty. Because he is a child, he didn’t know that I didn’t know the truth. If either one of us were paying attention, he would have known not to step on my line, and I should have known not to set the hook. Instead, I caught a toe the size of a minnow. At Taylor’s age, I learned I wasn’t Batman. And now Taylor knows that Aquaman’s life isn’t all buried treasure and mermaids.

A Christmas Present

Armed with a list of questions that would separate the “Real Santa” from “Santa’s Helpers,” Taylor and I set out on a quest, and tackled almost every mall from Five Points in Bountiful to Fashion Place in Midvale.

“The real Santa,” Taylor said, “would have to have a real beard. Otherwise his face would freeze at the North Pole.” The other questions Taylor asked weren’t nearly as important as the beard question, but they included: Can you name your reindeer? How do you get into my house since I don’t have a chimney? How old are you? Where do you spend your summer vacation? How do you get to every house on time? And how do you remember what each child wants?

Like Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys or little Harry Potter, Taylor, with 10 questions, was going to find the real Santa through sleuthing, deduction and possibly a little magic. Guess what, Taylor, he doesn’t exist. Of course you don’t know that, so it will be some miracle on 3400 South State Street when we find the “Real Santa,” won’t it?

According to Taylor and possibly every other Santa-believing child, these intricately worded questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “It’s magic.”

“Can you name your reindeer,” Taylor asked one Santa.

“Yes,” the Santa answered.

Next question. “Magic,” Santa answered. Next question.

“The true Santa Claus,” Taylor said, “will be able to name all of his reindeer and Rudolph will be his favorite. Of course, he won’t tell me his real age, because that’s a secret.” If you ever need to have a “one-on-one” with your 9-year-old, here’s a tip: Sugar is like a truth serum for little tykes.

“Since we don’t have a chimney,” Taylor continued, “Santa will say that he needs to use his magic bag to get into my house. His magic bag is what he uses to make his reindeer fly, get into houses and supply his sled with toys. And the way that Santa gets the energy to stay up all night is because of all the cookies that people leave out for him.”

See, this is just the type of child-like nonsense I wanted to put an end to. Magic bag? Even I didn’t believe in a magic bag when I was 9, or even 10, 11 and 12. I knew that Santa just twitched his nose to get into houses and to make his reindeer fly. It’s OK to believe that way when you’re 4 or 5, I felt like saying to Taylor, but now that you’re 9, kids are going to hit you. It’s what happened to me. It will happen to you. Yes, Taylor, there is no Santa Claus.

A Christmas Past

Not since I believed in Santa Claus had I stayed the night in a house full of Santa-addicted children. Then last year, I spent Christmas Eve with Taylor and his family. First off, that magic “pixie dust” he described that enables Santa to get all the toys into the house consisted of his father and me. We were the magic dust. And the only thing “magic” or “miraculous” was that we didn’t get frostbite hustling back and forth in the midnight cold from the shed to the living room. It seemed like a short run, but not when you’re barefoot.

We moved quickly and quietly, trying to set up the toys without waking a house full of Whos. Then we played the kids’ Nintendo without waking them up, which was no easy task. We had to plug it into the TV and test all the games in such a way that the kids would still think it was straight out of the North Pole when they woke up and opened the box. Besides, Mario Cart is difficult to play when one eye is watching a giant monkey race around a dirt track on a go-cart and the other eye is watching the stairs for little boys looking for Santa. It’s no wonder my dad has black circles beneath his eyes in all of our family Christmas photos. He’d been up all night playing with our toys.

When it was time to meticulously rewrap Taylor’s gifts, eat the cookies and go to bed, neither his dad nor I were in the mood to eat the kids’ hand-colored Santa cookies. It was the night before Christmas, and the only sound in the house was a dog named Buddy, who was hungrier than a mouse. That’s right, Buddy ate the cookies. Last year, in Taylor’s home, a black lab played the role of Santa Claus. The cookies didn’t give Buddy the power to travel at light speed from house to house in the middle of the night. The cookies gave the dog gas.

A Christmas Present

Back at Fashion Place Mall, the first Santa we talked to had a fake beard and couldn’t even name all his reindeer. His said his favorite elf was “Charlie,” which I suppose is better than saying, “Snake.” But when Taylor asked, “What do you do for summer vacation?” And Santa answered, “Fishing,” that was all it took for this one to be the “Real Santa.”

Walking out to the car Taylor said, “The Real Santa would know that my grandpa likes to fish. And he would try to be like my grandpa. Like someone I know. I bet if my grandpa didn’t like to fish, this Santa would have answered that question different.”

What we had here was a failure to communicate. Taylor believed this Santa Charlatan because he was a fisherman. Once, Taylor trusted me when I was a fisherman, and that didn’t have a happy ending. His imagination seemed to lock out cognitive thinking.

“But his beard was fake,” I said.

“He said it was real,” Taylor said, “and he’s Santa Claus.”

“Did you notice he couldn’t name his own reindeer?”

“Yeah, but sometimes when I want to call our dog, I accidentally call him the cat’s name.”

A Christmas Past

How do we do this when we’re young? Take all the facts, weigh the evidence and then say, “Goodbye logic, hello imagination.” Granted, at 9 we don’t have the intelligence of a Supreme Court Justice, or even Clarence Thomas for that matter, but we shouldn’t be blind. Yet I remember the time I discovered Smokey the Bear in my living room.

Apparently my father was playing Smokey at his company Christmas party, and he thought it would be fun to show his kids the costume. Coming down the stairs and seeing Smokey in my house made me think the house was on fire. I immediately fell to the ground doing my best “stop, drop and roll.” Then my dad took the head off his Smokey the Bear outfit.

“No Phil,” my mother said to me. “Get off the floor. It’s your dad. Your dad is Smokey the Bear.” From that day on, I believed my dad was Smokey the Bear. When he went to work I imagined he was off preventing forest fires: superhero forest-fighting bear by day, ordinary dad at night and on weekends. Passing billboards on the highway or watching commercials on TV, when Smokey said, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” I’d look at my father and say, “Only me?” And he’d reply with his smoky eyes, “Only you.” This, I believed, was our way of acknowledging his secret life. He just thought I loved Smokey, so he’d buy me the bear’s memorabilia. This just fueled the fire.

For three years I thought my dad had a secret identity. It wasn’t until we moved to Washington, D.C., and I took a school field trip to the National Zoo that I found out the truth. My second grade teacher told us we would see the real Smokey the Bear at the zoo. Knowing his favorite cookies were vanilla wafers, I brought a pocketful to give to my dad when I surprised him at his “day job.” On the bus trip to the zoo, I told my friends we were going to see my dad, because he was Smokey the Bear. On the bus ride back from the zoo, I sat by myself with a pocketful of cookie crumbs, confused and suffering the taunts only a group of second graders can inflict.

A Christmas Present

As we traveled from mall to mall, Taylor thought each Santa we had just seen was better than the one before. I felt more like Goldilocks. The Santas were either too fat, too fake or too fast. These guys may have tricked me when I was 12, but I wasn’t as easily duped as Taylor—not this time around. You don’t give up 21 years of Santa sobriety to a guy who thinks “Boris” is one of the eight reindeer.

The Crossroads Plaza Santa, although he looked like the jolly old St. Nick in Coca-Cola advertisements, wasn’t much in the way of a refreshing Claus. He was in a hurry and let it be known. Then there was the Santa at a Maverick gas station, who said “Gumdrop” was his favorite elf as he passed out candy canes to the kids lined up next to the Doritos and cherry 7-Up.

The Santa Clauses at the Five Points Mall and the Maverick gas-and-go were so real to Taylor that he was convinced they were the same guy. And, of course, there had never been a Santa Claus at a Maverick gas station, so the real one showed up because he knew that’s where we would be.

“How did he get from one place to the next so fast?” I asked, testing Taylor’s logic.

“His magic bag,” Taylor said with near disgust at the fact that I couldn’t figure it out. “He used his magic bag to travel from the gas station to the mall. He knew where we were going next.”

“Does his magic bag have any glue? Because his beard was falling off his upper lip.”

“The beard was real,” Taylor said. “Didn’t you hear him?”

It was so easy to imagine Taylor standing on the pitcher’s mound of his elementary school next summer saying, “I will punch anyone who says ‘Santa Claus is not real.’” I could feel the punches raining down on him when five or six boys approach the mound and kick his ass.

After Taylor sat on the lap of a character who looked like the guy I had just given loose coins to on the corner, I asked, “What’s the best part of your job?” I waited for the typical response: “Making kids happy,” or “the money.” I was surprised when Santa said, with a wink and a twinkle in his eye, “When college girls sit on my lap.”

Ho, ho, ho.

A Christmas Disaster, Narrowly Averted

After seeing that Santa, Taylor’s voice shook as he said it was the real one. Now I could see he was beginning to garner an inkling of the truth, and I wanted out of this situation.

If I had the day to do over, I would change a lot. There was no reason now, except stupidity, that I had undertaken this task to unmask Santa. Although Taylor had spent the entire day looking for the real Santa, it wasn’t until we had one more stop that I joined Taylor’s quest. Instead of trying to strip Santa down to his red long johns, it was time to dress him up in the mind of my 9-year-old friend.

When I was young, I didn’t know why we prayed morning, noon and night to God. To me, it seemed, God just took the fun out of Sundays. But Santa? Talking to him just once a year filled my house with toys. Santa I believed in, and he wasn’t even real. I had forgotten that if I had my childhood to do over, aside from flying down the stairs, I wouldn’t change a thing.

By the time we ended up at Cottonwood Mall, Taylor was exhausted but I was undaunted. I didn’t know whether to give Taylor a pep talk or more sugar.

Just when I didn’t know how I was going to make this day up to Taylor, we saw Santa sitting beneath the escalators next to the Food Court. He had the right girth and a real beard. I was so excited I tried to cut in line. The real Mrs. Claus was working the photo equipment.

When Taylor hopped on Santa’s lap and began asking questions, instead of answering with “yes,” “no” or “magic,” this Santa said, “I can’t tell you my age. It’s a secret.” And he knew Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. He didn’t toss the names of the Seven Dwarfs into the lineup, and his favorite elf wasn’t “Charlie.” His favorite elf was his wife, Mrs. Claus—and she was really his wife.

Driving back to Bountiful, Taylor and I continued to argue over who we thought was the “Real Santa.”

“But the Maverick Santa,” I said in desperation, “had a fake beard.”

“No,” Taylor said. “His beard was real and he liked to fish.”

“I bet the Cottonwood Mall Santa likes to fish,” I said. “He just forgot to mention it.”

Sometime during that day spent with a younger me, I realized I had found what I was really looking for. Instead of being with Taylor when he discovered there was no such thing as Santa Claus, he was with me when I learned it was OK to believe. Although I still can’t figure out why people eat fruitcake.