“OK Punky, it’s time!” I kneel down beside my 4-year-old daughter, who is freshly scrubbed, beribboned and dressed in her holiday best. “Do you remember what you’re asking for?”
“A pink horse and a Peekaboo Barbie shop,” my daughter recites solemnly, “and a house for my princess dolls.” We’ve been discussing Punky’s annual rendezvous with Santa for days, and she’s finally settled on three toys, afraid that if she asks for more, he won’t be able to carry everything. Sounds good to me. Over by Santa’s plush throne, an older woman motions to us. “He’s ready,” she calls.
“Go for it!” I tell Punky. She runs to Santa and climbs onto his knee. Behind her, my husband carries our squealing, squirming toddler son and places him carefully on Santa’s other knee. Little Bruiser perches there stiffly, stunned into silence by his close proximity to the jolly old elf, while Punky gazes up at Santa, waiting for him to look at her. Unfortunately for her, Santa’s eyes are riveted on my husband.
“Well, if it isn’t the television newsman!” he says delightedly. “You know, I used to work at your station back in the day. Do you remember a fella by the name of Jim Bob Harriman?”
My mouth drops open. Santa has completely forgotten he’s Santa.
I’ve never had much luck with mall Santas. For Punky’s first visit a few years ago, I took her to our closest shopping center, a ghost town of a mall. Once Punky got herself situated on Santa’s threadbare lap, I managed to coax a smile from her for the camera before returning home triumphantly to e-mail our photo to the grandparents. Minutes after I hit send, the phone rang.
“Loved the La-Z Boy,” my mom said when I answered. “That’s real classy.” Confused, I looked at the photo again and noticed for the first time that Punky and Santa were seated in an ancient tan recliner that would have elicited a sneer from Archie Bunker himself. Nice.
After that, I did my research. The consensus was that the best Santa could be found at a megamall in a nearby suburb. I drove there with my daughter on a cold December day and jockeyed her stroller through the Christmas crowds. We were met with one incredibly long line.
“He’s a very understanding Santa,” the woman ahead of me said as I took my place at the end of it.
“Really?” I said.
“Yes,” she replied. “That’s why we come back here year after year. This Santa listens.”
Forty-five minutes later, Punky scrambled into Santa’s lap and began earnestly reciting nonsense words to him.
“Hey, Punky! Smile for the camera!” I said, positioning myself beside the photographer. She looked over at me, annoyed. Her face twisted with outrage as the bulb flashed.
“I talking to Santa!” she spat. The camera flashed again. Oh, that one was a keeper for sure. I frowned at the photographer. As understanding as Santa was, time was running out and I still didn’t have a Christmas photo that Grandma would approve.
“Psst. Santa!” I said softly. He glanced up at me. “There’s a 10 in it for you if you can get her to smile.”
His white brow furrowed as he turned his attention back to my daughter.
“Make it a sawbuck!” I stage-whispered. He just wasn’t getting it. “That’s 20 dollars,” I said slowly. Nothing. I bit my lip in anger. Compassionate Santa, my ass.
And that’s how I ended up where I am today, standing before yet another Santa in yet another mall and watching as he chats up my husband. I wait for a moment, but my son is like a ticking time bomb on Santa’s lap and, damn it, I need a decent picture. I turn to Santa’s helper beside me.
“My daughter has been practicing what she’s going to say to Santa forever,” I chuckle in as sincere a tone as I can muster.
“Has she asked him yet?” the woman says.
“Well, no,” I say, fluttering my eyelashes in bewilderment. “Santa seems to be a little bit …” I drop my voice to a whisper, “… busy.”
She purses her lips and strides over to the man in red. “Santa!” she calls gaily. He ignores her. “Santa? Santa … Santa! SANTA!” Santa finally tears his eyes from Hubs. “This little girl would like to tell you what she wants for Christmas,” she says through clenched teeth.
“Oh, OK,” Santa says, with a hint of reluctance. He looks back at my husband. “Hey, if you see Holly, be sure and tell her Cookie says hello!”
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