I packed a gym bag with a few items I’d need—an old pair of wire-framed glasses, a pillow, a belt. Offered an office for a dressing room, I changed into the baggy red suit, careful to fold and stow my personal items, to leave no trace behind. I dropped my gym bag to the bottom of the Santa sack and covered it with the gift-wrapped packages I was given for the children.
Varsha knocked and cracked the door open, “You ready?” she asked.
I found my reflection in the glass of a framed diploma on the wall. Thumbs up.
The door swung open. I shook a band of sleigh bells wrapped around my fingers. “Ooh, ho, ho,” I belted out. “Oooh, ho, ho, ho…”
I tasted stale coffee on my teeth and smelled the dry-cleaned crispness of the strap-on facial hair. My breath labored through the mustache and beard, while the sounds of the hallway seemed muffled and far away. Through the tunnel vision of wig and stocking cap, I spied my chair at the head of the hall.
I felt like a spaceman—elated and vulnerable—an astronaut in his flight suit lugging a life-support satchel down a preflight hallway. Every fold of clothing had to operate properly—every zipper remain zipped, every patch of Velcro anchor neatly upon its mating patch. Any flaw in the suit—a tear at a seam, a lazy waistband, an exposed stomach pillow, would result in incalculable damage.
The children filed in, class by class, sitting on the floor in front of me.
I wasn’t ready.
I don’t think there was a way to prepare for the children—the adoration—the way they looked at me as something unknown and possibly wonderful.
I thought it would be different, that I would feel confident, more in control. I thought the Santa suit would carry an air of authority, to stand above others in judgment of their virtues—to weigh the behaviors of the naughty and the nice.
Now, I’m in charge. Now, I’m the fat man in the red suit. Now, I’m the boss… but there is none of that.
When the eyes fell upon me, I forgot about the naughty. All I saw was the hope and the wonder. I looked around the room to find it in everyone, the children, the teachers, the parents and grandparents standing in the back. It was the only thing worth looking for. It was the only thing worth finding.
God help the man who has never worn a Santa suit.