Monday, December 21, 2009

My Other Car’s a Sleigh

My annual transformation into a right jolly old elf

Remember that classic movie where the Romans had captured an army of escaped slaves and demanded that they reveal their leader? To which the men each stood in turn and declared, “I’m Santa Claus!” That’s how I feel as I don my jolly red, fur-lined battle armor.

Some years ago, one of my bosses told me about his family’s tradition, wherein each Christmas they’d have a big family gathering, and they’d all tell the little children to listen carefully for the sound of reindeer on the roof. Soon, there’d be jingling sleigh bells outside and Santa would burst onto the scene, passing out gifts and candy, singing songs and reading Christmas stories. To me, this sounded like the ultimate kids fantasy, and I resolved to replicate it myself.

Back in 2002, I did just that – assembling a great Santa suit from various online stores. I got the coat, pants and (I think) the hat from one place. The giant red bag came from somewhere else. The wig and beard are really high-quality stuff. The heavy leather boots are actually Rockwood biker boots, but they get covered up with these leatherette covers that have white fur around the top edge. I even contacted my theater masters at Le Moyne College, where Kristy McKay was very helpful in telling me how to buy spirit gum to stick the bushy false eyebrows onto my face. A wide black belt, white gloves, gold-rimmed glasses and a big cushioned pad to put a little extra jelly in my bowl completed the outfit. The whole thing ran around $1,000 by the time I was done, but it’s in its eighth year of use and still counting.

The first couple of years were probably the best. At the time, my wife’s sister and her family still lived in town, and their kids were young, too. They’d have a Christmas Eve gathering at their place, including their kids, my kids, and her husband Mark’s family’s kids. It was a full house, which was perfect! We weren’t quite as organized or theatrical as my old boss’s family, but we got the job done just the same. It ended up being a complex project.

To properly emulate Santa, it was vital that I know all of the kids by name, so I had to memorize them. We also solicited input from all of the parents about what the kids wanted for Christmas, whether they’d been naughty or nice, and any extra-special messages the parents wanted Santa to deliver to the kids (stop giving your brother wedgies – that sort of thing). Lastly, we had to arrange to collect presents from the various parents for Santa to pass out to the kids. We didn’t want to go with little trinkets – we wanted Santa to hand out something special to each boy and girl that had been selected just for them.

On top of all of that logistics and memorization, I also arranged to visit our friends Mike and Sue DeCarlo and their kids. And by request of Sue’s mother, I stopped at her neighbor’s house and said hello to their young son as well. All told, I think I brought Christmas cheer to around 15 kids that night. I really did feel like Santa as I zoomed all around town. Although, since Santa’s sleigh can fly, he probably doesn’t get nearly as many funny looks from other drivers as I tend to.

Also, I’d imagine his suit is specially tailored to be a little more comfortable than mine. In particular, my suit is godawful HOT. Holy cow, there’s nothing like driving around Syracuse, New York in December with the air conditioner literally blasting on maximum! Worse, as soon as I step into a house, my glasses completely fog up to the point where I’m quite literally blind, and I begin to sweat profusely. My limit indoors is about 15-20 minutes before I overheat completely. That’s usually plenty of time, but wow – it really drags you down when you’re trying to be cheerful and you feel like you’re locked in a metal box at the Hanoi Hilton.

The next year, as I recall, was similar. They all run together after a while. I remember there was one year where I had a really bad cold or flu and had to miss it. In fact I stayed home that year with my youngest son who had it, too. Of course, the kids thought I got sick EVERY Christmas Eve, since I was always too ill to join them at the party. Putting on the Santa costume takes a half-hour minimum, and taking it off and packing it away takes almost as long. Trying to suit up on the road or at somebody else’s house was impractical.

As the years have gone on, the event has scaled back quite a bit. When my wife’s sister moved away, we no longer had a single big gathering with all of the kids in one place. Now, my wife just takes the kids to her mom’s on a Saturday afternoon and I head over there. The kids still really look forward to it, though. Even though my daughter figured out something was up and then conned my wife into fessing up a few years back. Then, this year, my beard was pulled down a little and my older son noticed me fixing it. Of all people – he never notices anything! Naturally, he made sure to tell everybody about it later, where my youngest could hear. My daughter tried hard to cover for me, saying that “Santa was probably just scratching his moustache.” But my son was undeterred, so the concept of “Santa’s helpers” had to be trotted out. There wasn’t the slightest inkling among either of them that it might be me under all that hair, but it’s clear that I won’t be able to maintain this charade for too many more years. My youngest is growing up the fastest of any of them.

And thus is a Christmas tradition made. So if you’re in Syracuse on the Saturday before Christmas and you see Santa Claus zooming around with the A/C and Christmas tunes blasting, give a wave and take home a dose of Christmas Spirit for yourself.

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