Many years back, I had the opportunity to spend three Christmas Seasons taking pictures of Santa Claus. It was the typical mall setting with a man dressed in a Santa suit, putting children on his lap, having pictures taken, lines of parents and children, crying, colds and sickness. It can be quite an experience.
- by NLH... it is a magical story
One morning a very pregnant woman came over and said, "Would it be all right for me to have a picture with Santa? It is my child's first Christmas." I never look at a pregnant woman, at this time of year, without remembering that glowing woman, sitting on Santa, and the child who would one day see the picture.
One middle-aged man was pushing his father in a wheelchair when he stopped. The man came over, and in a quiet voice said, "Can I get Santa to take a picture with my Dad. It is probably his last Christmas."
"Really? You think this is his last Christmas." Behind the man I could see his dad moving away, pushing the wheelchair wheels with such strength that the son was going to have to run to catch up. "I think you might want to ask your Dad if he wants a picture with Santa," said I, while nodding in the direction of the traveling wheelchair and father figure. The last I saw of the two men was the son running down the mall.
There is a certain age where Santa fills a child with pure terror. This fear response is typically seen in children between 2-4 years old. The brain projects an image of what is "safe" and Santa does not fill this picture. There is no way to dispel the child's fear, as it is rooted in the "Fight or Flight" protective response in the brain. Many frustrated parents fight with terrified children for a terrible picture of Santa. And, we were told not to interfere in the child abuse.
The Sneakered Santa was my salvation. Maybe it was the pink sneakers. More likely it was this cheerful, friendly voice behind the beard and the young man's wonderfully kind eyes that quieted the child. That year the lines were much longer. Many were parents with children who had failed the Santa photo session at other malls. The word was out, there was a Santa who would get any kid on his lap without tears.
One day Santa did not show up and the very dark complexioned, large sized, Jewish manager of the Santa program had to put on the Santa suit. That was the day I began wondering about the magic in the suit. I had been fearful the illusion of Santa would not be possible by the gruff manager who looked as un-Santa as I could imagine. When he came out in the suit, he looked absolutely ridiculous - worse than I had feared. He barked some orders and then sat down in the chair. The first child was already approaching. By the time I took the picture, something had changed. For staring me back in the Polaroid photograph was none other than Saint Nicholas.
He followed me into the back area of the mall and the room where we had the Santa costumes. He had put on the pants, the padding, the jacket. He was still just a man in red. He bent over and pulled up the fake-black-boot top that would sit upon his shoes, making it look like he was wearing boots. First the right foot, then the left foot became booted. When he looked up from his feet and turned to look me in the eye something had changed. There was a twinkle in his eyes. I was excited. The suit was beginning to work. Santa would soon be here.
While he continued sitting, I outfitted him in first the beard and then the wig. I capped him off with the hat and asked him to stand, so I could finish off with the big black belt. During all this he had sat silent. With the belt on, I took his hand and brought him over to a full length mirror. The man gasped, exclaiming as he viewed his own image, "Santa!"
Indeed it was. That year, I came to believe that the real Santa Claus would take over this man's body, every time the suit was put on. Yes, it sounds crazy; but, I tell you I saw it every single day. In the thousands of photographs I took with this man not one was bad. Not one child ever went away crying. Not one parent rejected a photograph, disappointed at the photograph with the real Santa.
"Oh, do you know that young man?" thinking he was a neighbor friend or something.
"No, we never saw him before."
I looked over to Santa and he winked. I had to wonder if an Elf had just visited.
The most memorable event was the day the Downs Syndrome child came up to Santa. I looked at Santa who was talking to the young man. I watched as the boy's face began to smile and then to beam. I knew he could see the truth behind the phony beard. Santa was really there.
When the mother saw the picture she began to cry. I looked at the photograph of Santa with a normal looking child sitting on his lap. "What's wrong," I asked.
She looked up from the picture and said, "This is the first picture I have of my son where he looks normal. Where he looks like I see him. Thank you, so much."
I choked back my own tears, saying, "Thanks Santa."
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