The story was inspired by … nothing – this does not relate to any actual person; it was written, however, after seeing the results of an IED explosion which had killed some Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in 2007. After seeing the footage of the carnage I couldn’t help but think about the families, back here in Canada, and how they have to keep on living when a part of their family has been violently ripped from their lives on the other side of the world. The story’s dedication is at the end of the text.
I hope you enjoy the story. Have a Merry (Belated) 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).
Department Store Santa
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. At the end of every day sitting on his “throne” it took every bit of restraint that he had to not rip the Santa suit off and just quit altogether.
Christmas wasn’t what it used to be, he thought to himself with a heavy sigh, as yet another child recited what was turning into 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 a familiar scene for Santa, seeing spoiled children who seemed to lack for nothing and for whom Christmas was a payday of sorts, the day they were rewarded for being good little boys and girls. 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, earlier that day as he took a final sip of coffee before shrugging on his heavy winter coat. 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 in 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 and his wife had over breakfast about retiring completely; the more he thought about it the more he liked the idea. He had been able to retire early from his consulting job with the city 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. He was certainly not doing it for the money. 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, especially children; 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 the decision to retire was not an abstract anymore, it was coalescing into something he could really see as a distinct possibility. Before he closed the locker door he looked at the handwritten letter that was taped to the inside of his locker. There were only a handful of lines on the page, a total of 169 words if you included the final initial he had signed his name with; all written in haste just before Kevin went out on a mission. Even though he had memorized every word on the page and could recite them forward and backward, he read it once again, his eyes lingering on the swirl and swoops of his son’s neat handwriting.
Yes, he thought, he would definitely retire. After everything that had happened to their family this year there was no reason for him to have to put up with this crap anymore. Why should he? He had worked his entire adult life and had earned his retirement; why shouldn’t he take advantage of that time now and enjoy his winter months without having to pretend to be Santa Claus, the symbol of everything he hated about the commercialization of Christmas. Yes, this day would be different, he thought to himself; it would be the last day that he would ever have to wear this pathetic costume, and sit on a stupid throne while wisecracking teens laugh at him all day. Santa suits, he thought as he walked towards his “Kingdom” for the last time, should come with pockets so you could conceal water guns and other projectile toys.
Throughout the day and a stream of endless, anonymous children, all seeming to want the same mp3 playing robot that could do all kinds of cool, inane 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. He even 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 (it was no wonder he was nearly deaf in his left ear). Since this was Christmas Eve it was busier than usual in the mall, with last-minute shoppers desperate to find that elusive, perfect gift, which was no doubt made in China. 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, and Christmas Eve with what could only be described as uncommon gusto; the family was not particularly religious, but they were extremely enthusiastic. When it came to the Christmas Eve meal no expenses were spared: they usually 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; Kevin, 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 to feed a small army; or at least their son’s unit. This would be their first Christmas without him, 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. The words of the letter crept into his mind and he heard them in the voice of his son Kevin, as though he was reading them instead of writing them from so far away.
“Hi Dad, I don’t have too much time to write; the unit’s deploying this afternoon and I only have time to wish you a Happy Birthday before our column leaves the base. Things have been boring as hell - sorry - heck lately. We had a scare the other night when a unit came under heavy fire after an IED blew up the lead vehicle in their column. Fortunately, nobody was killed - they were in a Buffalo - a great beast of a machine. I know telling you and Mom not to worry isn’t worth my time, but - don’t worry. Everybody here has each other’s back - we’re as safe as we can be. Hope Mom treats you well on your birthday! All my Love, Kevin. P.S. My orders came in yesterday! I’m scheduled to ship out in 10 weeks. I’ll be home in time to see you in your Santa suit for the first time. Baring any changes, I should be back in Petawawa by the third of September. Love you, K.”The words echoed in his mind as the final child approached him. “Baring any changes ...” oh, but there had been changes, hadn’t there? The column of armoured vehicles had left their forward operating base at 0500h and entered a mountain pass, to rendez-vous with a group of Afghani tribal representatives, but it had all been too easy. As they left the meeting site they came upon a bottleneck in the road and encountered an ambush: several insurgents with armed with both heavy machine guns and the dreaded Rocket Propelled Grenade, a holdover from Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union decades before. The first RPG hit the vehicle in front of Kevin’s, but even before he was able to leave his vehicle - not the much lauded Buffalo in this case - a second RPG turned his Light Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicle into a pressure cooker, killing all five of the soldiers inside instantly with the overpressure caused by the exploding grenade. Nine had died that day, the day the letter had been sent. Nine sons that would never see another Christmas, one of whom was his own precious Kevin.
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 this past September,” these final words were barely whispered, but the mother and son had no difficulty hearing him speak.
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. He wasn’t worried about leaving things in his locker at the mall, he knew he’d be back there at the beginning of the next Christmas Season, to once again sit on his throne amidst the magic kingdom of Santa Claus. After all, he thought to himself as he walked along the Canal with his new found friends, the spirit of Christmas was about finding love even if that was accompanied by a little bit of pain.
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.