I saw the red outfit and overgrown white beard even before I heard the bell ringing. I reached into my pocket to dig out a few coins. This Sunday Santa looked surprisingly like a Norman Rockwell version. Then I noticed there was a glint rather than a twinkle in his blue eyes.
“I’m asking you to give back,” the man in red said:
“I’m asking you to give back!” His voice was deep, but I didn’t hear the old jolliness.
He handed me a piece of paper with the heading: Capital Campaign, The Season for Giving, S. Claus and Associates. “Have you received good service from our outfit over the years?”
“Well, yes, I have,” I said, remembering the red bicycle that had magically appeared when I was seven.
“And do you feel like we have met and exceeded your expectations?”
“Yes, I do.” I rubbed my hands together. The wind was sharp and my fingers felt frozen.
“I really need to get going,” I said.
Santa touched my arm. “We need your help. How would you feel if you’d been working night and day for others, trying to make wishes and dreams come true, creating astonishing presents and delivering them. How would you feel if all you ever received back was the occasional cookie and milk. I have had enough. I am asking you to give back.”
I looked at Santa carefully and wondered if whoever hired him knew he was over the edge. I breathed in, but detected no odor of alcohol. His pupils were not dilated; his hands not frenetic. He didn’t look like he was on some mind-altering substance.
I reached into my wallet for a dollar or two.
“No,” he said, pushing away the money. “I want you to truly give. Not just a spare couple of bucks. I want you to understand and appreciate what I’m doing.”
Part of my brain was sternly reminding me this was an ordinary man dressed in a fluffy red suit. Then, a wave of compassion pushed through me. Here was a great mythological hero asking for help!
Santa’s legs seemed to buckle and he sagged as though he were about to fall. I took his arm and led him into a nearby fast food place, where I bought him coffee and fries and a big burger with everything. As he ate, I pulled out my cell phone.
“I’m going to be a few minutes late,” I told my shop manager.
“That’s just one of the things we need,” Santa said mournfully, as I finished my call.
“Cell phones. Can you imagine dropping down all those chimneys without calling ahead first and making sure there’s no chestnuts roasting?”
I pictured Santa, sitting in his reindeer-driven sleigh, dialing direct and collect. I wondered how many would take the call.
“Santa, people expect to receive from you. That’s what we love about you. All we have to do is act reasonable for a year, and we get wonderful gifts.”
“Things change,” Santa said. “We’ve existed for years on nothing but goodwill and good cheer. But the supply is running low. I’m thinking we should forget the old fashioned approach and embrace the age of technology.”
My throat tightened. I imagined Santa, logging in on line, charging up presents on his gold credit card, filling out W-2’s on the elves and writing up reports for OSHA and the SPCA about the reindeer. I imagined a virtual holiday, where presents simply appeared as part of an email attachment, recipients unspecified.
“What can I do?” I asked. “Do you have a list of what you want? We always give you a list to work from.”
“I hadn’t thought of that! Of course! Can I borrow a crayon and paper?”
I handed Santa a pen and a page from my note pad. As he wrote, I stared out the window, watching shoppers rush past. Most of them looked anxious and overwhelmed. They would be even more anxious if they knew Santa was considering taking a Christmas off!
Santa smiled as he handed back my pen and said,
“Now, I want to sit in your lap and read you my list.”
Before I could refuse, Santa had settled at least half of himself on my lap.
“So what would you like for Christmas?” I said, in my deepest, merriest voice.
- “A cell phone, with unlimited long distance.
- A new transportation system. Something that doesn’t leave hoof prints.
- Productivity training for the elves.
- Sensitivity training for the reindeer.
- A new suit, something with pockets.
- A new corporate headquarters — in a more temperate climate.
Santa bounced up and down as he recited his list. Each bounce made my legs twinge. Each word made my heart cringe. If Santa traded his charm, and his bumbling good will for high tech efficiency, the whole spirit of the holiday season would be radically changed.
“Now what?” I asked, when Santa had finished his list..
“Now that you’ve paid some attention to me, I feel better.” Santa stood up. He fluffed his beard, brushed a few crumbs off his belly, and said, “Ho Ho, I feel richer already. Please spread the word about giving back.”
I raced to work, feeling great. I had just given to one of the world’s champion givers. As I walked down the crowded street, I looked carefully at each rushing person, wondering who else was in need of a little good cheer.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together and Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.