I Was A Mall Santa

by Randy Murray on December 22, 2011

Many years ago, when I was in my first year of grad school and Diane and I were in our second year of marriage, I took a job as a mall Santa. The next semester I’d be teaching expository writing and making money working as a tutor, but the extra money earned as a Santa would be a big help for the holidays. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do, especially for a theater student and working clown, so I put on the red suit and beard.

There’s great responsibility that comes with the uniform.

I’ve only put it on a few times since, but the weight and responsibility is still there. I’m not sure everyone feels it, but for me, it’s tangible, real, and significant.

For me, becoming Santa isn’t about the costume, it’s about accepting a temporary mythic status, of becoming an icon for a brief moment in time.

Some people don’t understand this. They laugh at themselves, they treat it ironically. I can’t do that. My time wearing the suit, sitting in the chair in the middle of that little mall outside of Carbondale, Illinois in the Christmas season of 1982, convinced me that the responsibility is real and to treat dressing as Santa with anything but respect is self-serving and an insult to others.

Dressing as Santa isn’t about the man in the suit. It’s about the families who line up so their kids can spend just a few moments with Santa. It’s about the small, often frightened, overawed, or confused child that’s sitting on your lap. It’s about listening, about connecting, even briefly, with someone who knows that you are special and important.

Last year my youngest daughter was in charge of an event at her high school and asked me to appear as Santa. She borrowed a suit (I don’t have one of my own, tempting as the idea might be). I shook it out, straightened the wrinkles it had gathered from being stuffed in a box for the previous year, and spent an hour or two brushing out the tangles from the beard and wig. I found that I needed very little additional padding, a change over my mall Santa days. And I found the old magic.

When I made my appearance, when I met and let the group of kids, mostly teenagers, sit on my lap, I could see that even though they were in on the big secret, they were excited and happy to see Santa. I was happy, too.

If you are offered the chance to put on the red, don’t hesitate. It’s a grand opportunity. There’s very little magic to be found in the world today, but a white beard and red suit still carries some.

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