I hope you enjoy the story. Have a Merry Chanukah; a Joyous Christmas, and a Happy, Happy New Year (or don’t, I don’t care … really, I don’t … I’ve got my own issues … really, I do … honest).
Every year since he had turned fifty, and his long beard had turned white, he had worked as the department store Santa in one of the large shopping malls in the centre of town. Hundreds of children would come to sit on his lap every day in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but as the years passed by and he grew older the old man began to feel more than a small amount of resentment towards the ever growing commercialisation of Christmas. As much as he tried to hide those feelings of bitterness behind his bushy beard and smiling eyes they ultimately filtered down towards the children and their parents. Playing Santa used to be fun, now it was only a job.
Christmas wasn’t what it used to be, he thought to himself with a heavy sigh, as yet another child recited yet another list of expensive computer games and electronic devices that they not only wanted but already knew they would be getting for Christmas. It was even getting to the point, he sadly realized, where he was finding it increasingly difficult to smile for the photographs that his “elf” would take with the children while they sat on his lap; all he wanted to do was leave this shattered Yuletide fantasy of commercialised fraud and seek refuge with his wife, safe in their home where they had created a lifetime of memories of Christmas’ past. Living in the past had become something of an obsession of late, especially now as Christmas approached.
“Today’s your last day,” his wife had said as she gently squeezed his hand. They had just finished breakfast in their comfortable breakfast nook and he was preparing to leave for work. The words had managed to cheer him up considerably as he left their house near the Canal and walked to the mall with an added bounce to his step. A faint smile crept over his face for the first time in a long while as he approached the employee’s entrance and made his way to the locker room. He kept thinking about the conversation that he had with his wife over breakfast about retiring completely and the more he thought about it the more he liked the idea. He had been able to retire early from his consulting job and had taken on this job as Santa seventeen years ago just for fun, not at all expecting to do it for such a long time. Of course, if he was perfectly honest with himself, and his wife, he would have admitted that his heart just was not into being around so many people anymore, not after what had happened to their son Kevin.
As he entered the locker room and put on his Santa suit for the last time this year, and perhaps for good, there was something a little different in his attitude; it seemed as though a weight had been removed, perhaps because he had decided to retire. This day, he thought, would be different, if only for the fact that it was the last day that he would ever have to wear this pathetic costume and sit in the stupid throne while wisecracking teens laugh at you all day. Santa suits, he thought as he walked towards his “Kingdom” for the last time, should come with pockets where you could conceal water guns and other projectile toys.
Throughout the day and the endless, anonymous children, all seeming to want the same mp3 playing robot that could do all kinds of cool things … (he really was getting too old for this, he thought to himself, not for the first time this season), he still managed to keep smiling, reminding himself of the Christmas Eve dinner awaiting him at home that his wife would have been working on all day; and he remembered to laugh at the appropriate places for the children, to smile for the photos and to give each of the little urchins one of the obligatory candy canes for having had the pleasure of screaming in his ear (no wonder he was nearly deaf in his left ear). Since this was Christmas Eve it was busier than usual with last-minute shoppers desperate to find that elusive, perfect gift. This did not prevent the old man from letting his mind wander to what his wife would be doing at home.
His wife came from a family that celebrated Christmas Eve with what could only be described as gusto; the family was not particularly religious, they were just enthusiastic. When it came to the meal no expense was spared: they made a roasted ham, a turkey with all the trimmings, potatoes of several varieties, salads enough to sink a ship and more than enough side dishes to feed dozens of people. It was a feast worthy of royalty, and it was a tradition that the family tried to continue, as much as possible.
Unlike other Christmas Eve dinners, this would be a meal only for the two of them; their only son had been killed earlier in the year while serving with his unit in Afghanistan, but knowing his wife there would be more than enough food for a small army; or at least a battalion. This would be their first Christmas without their son, without their Kevin, he thought to himself with a note of sadness as the last of the children was admitted through the gates to see Santa; his assistant pointed to the “closed” sign, signalling to him that the gates to “Santa’s Kingdom” were now locked for the season. Thank God, he thought to himself.
As the boy approached there seemed to be something odd about him that immediately caught the old man’s attention. He was only about seven years old, but there was something about his eyes made him look much older, far more mature than his years. When he was close enough to speak, he said, in no uncertain terms, “look: we both know that I’m too old for this, right? I’m only here for my mother — it’s been a rough year for …” but he couldn’t continue as a tear began to roll down his freckled cheek.
“Come here, my boy,” the old man said, his voice kinder and gentler than it had been since the Chaplain had arrived with the news of his own son’s death, four months before. “What is it that you want for Christmas?”
The boy looked up at the old man and, seeing his own grief reflected back in his eyes, replied, “I want my father to come home from Afghanistan so we can be a real family again, but he already came back,” his voice cracked, “… in a coffin.” The boy buried his face in the deep plush of the Santa costume and he cried for several minutes while his mother came to get him, visibly embarrassed by the situation. But the old man didn’t mind the tears, for they were his as well, and those of his wife. They were tears that seemed to flow unceasingly, from eyes that saw ghosts in every corner of their house; they were tears that never seemed to run out, that never seemed to lose their sting.
When the boy stopped crying and his mother introduced herself to the old man he took her offered hand and asked, his voice thick with emotion, “would you and your lovely son do my wife and I the honour of joining us for dinner this evening? You see,” he continued, gently squeezing her hand, “this will be our first Christmas without our son as well. He was also killed in Afghanistan,” these final words were barely whispered, but the mother and son had no difficulty hearing them.
All she could do was nod her head and do her best to smile, something she had not done very much of since the Chaplain had arrived at their house two months ago. As the three of them left the mall the old man was still dressed in his Santa Claus suit and for the first time in a long, long time he was feeling every bit the part.
Dedicated to the Canadian Servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and all other Peace Keeping Missions, and to their families; Merry Christmas. Peter Amsel, Ottawa.