This is the sixth year in a row I’ve played Santa Claus in the annual East Hampton Town Christmas Parade. For about an hour beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday, December 2, the many floats, marching bands, elf troops, antique farm tractors and a Frosty the Snow Man giving out candy canes from a bucket march along between the crowds lining the streets. The mood is festive.
The last float in the parade is my sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Mrs. Claus and I sit inside, 10 feet up, waving to the crowd. It’s as if—if you were a five-year-old—all these dancers and singers and all the floats are but the opening act for us. We smile at the crowd and shout “Merry Christmas,” and music emits from the sleigh—a 1944 version of “Here Comes Santa Claus (Down Santa Claus Lane)” over and over. A more spectacular entrance could not be imagined, even by the likes of Bruce Springsteen.
The kids jump up and down for joy. Or they run and hide behind their mother’s skirt. Or they stand there stunned. He’s real. You betcha, I’m real.
The parade comes all the way down Main Street, then up Newtown Lane, then a slight left turn to Railroad Avenue and then up to the YMCA on Lumber Lane. There, everybody gets off, and someone from the Chamber of Commerce finds me and whisks me through the screaming throngs of children to a car that roars off, with me inside, while the paparazzi run after us, flashbulbs flashing.
Destination: Rowdy Hall restaurant in the center of town, whose dining room has been cleared of tables and chairs. Parents and children await my arrival. The line to see Santa extends out the front door and down the street.
I come in waving, smiling, shouting “Ho Ho Ho” and “Merry Christmas.” Applause, squeals and cheers welcome me. I’m ushered to a red club chair by a roaring fire. I sit. A bucket of candy canes is by my feet, and I’m to give out one to each kid as he or she has 30 seconds of conversation with me. I ask them to tell me their name and then to come over, sit on my lap and whisper in my ear what they want for Christmas. I always tell them okay. Then I smile and call over a parent to lift them off. My job is done.
In each of my first five years being the East Hampton Santa, almost everybody came up onto my lap. Sometimes it’s the parent that wants that, not the kid. They want to take a picture. The kid balks. But then, sometimes, gives in. Okay, say cheese, everybody. Thank you. Or the kid would flap their arms and kick until the parent would get the idea they didn’t want to do that and take them off. Oh, well.
I must say that during each of those first five years, there were always one or two sets of parents who considered it a battle of wills to get the kid on my lap. It pained me to see this, but I never said anything. It was their kid. Once or twice I’d get kicked in the head.
This year, there were two things new about being Santa. One was—and this was so sweet—about half the kids brought me Christmas cards they had made. They’d stand in front of me and smile shyly, then hand the card over. I have saved them. There are about 40 of them. And during this Santa experience time I’d read each one aloud to the child, thank them for it, then set it down on the floor next to the chair. Midway through this, I realized I was putting them right in front of the roaring fire. I could burn the place down. I moved them.
Here’s a sampler of some of them. I read them exactly.
“FACMACUP” read one. That’s the whole note. That’s what this little blond girl wanted.
DEAR SANTA I WANT A LOT BUT ONE THING IS A WIPPIZ PLUX SET. This from a little boy.
REMOTE CONCHROL, SNOWEM, DERT BIKE, MODEL CAR FROM JASPER.
DEAR SANTA, I LOVE YOU! YOU CAN BRING ME ANYTHING YOU WANT! LOVE, DAMIAN. LETTER TO SANTA. (Written by an adult, I think)
TO SANTA MERRY CHRISHMAS, LOVE LUKE. PS I WANT A LOT OF TOYS.
DERA SANTA CEN I GET A AMERICAN DOL BATHROOM AND A DOLL MOTORCICLE CLOSET. ANGELA.
TRACTOR FOR ANER. TOY MONSTER TRUCK REMOTE CONTROL, TOY PUPPY, REMOTE PICK UP TRUCK, SAND ART, CLOTHES, SNEAKERS, OLD MCDONALD PLAYHOUSE.
Here’s the one I liked the best. Written in the block print of a seven year old. TO S. C. REMOTE CONTRESHAMADELE, 1,000,000 DOLLARS ROBLOX TOYS BIG GET, FROM MAGNUS.
DEAR SANTA, I WANT A DOG AND LOL LITUL SISTR A LOL PETS AND TOYS, CAT TOYS. DOG.
DEAR SANTA FOR CHRISTMAS I WANT A POLOR ROID AND CAN YOU ALSO BRING ME NEW SHOES VANZS PLEASE…OH AND CAN YOU ALSO GIVE ME SQUISHYS PLEASE!!! AND CAN I ALSO HAVE THE HEADPHONES BEATS PLEASE. LOVE, JENNIFER, TO SANTA.
One 10-year-old had a list of 20 things he wanted for Christmas. As he was handing it to me, his mother said, “We have to add one or two more,” and she took it back. I really wanted to see it, but she said she’d send it to me in the North Pole metal post office box on Newtown Lane. So I never got it. The real Santa did.
The other thing different this year was that very few kids sat on my lap. They’d walk over—boldly, fearlessly, giggily, shyly, exhibiting the whole range of kid behavior that is so charming—and then, sometimes with prompting from an adult since I was such a fantastic storybook character, hand me the envelope. Then they’d stand there. I’d say come on over and whisper in my ear and tell me what you want, and they’d do that while standing. And that was it. Then they’d turn to face the camera as I peered over their shoulder and smiled for the camera. Then they’d turn, wave goodbye and go running off.
Out of the 70 or so kids I encountered during that hour, only 10 jumped up. In prior years, only 10 didn’t jump up. I wondered, is anything wrong with me?
That evening, I realized there is something wrong with me. But it’s not personal. It’s a sign of the times. I went on Google and searched “not sitting on Santa’s lap.”
Here’s what I came up with. In England, Santas coming to grammar schools are to avoid all physical contact with children. “The Santas aren’t required to pass a background check the way others are,” a spokesman for the Department of Education said. So no touching.
A magazine article in Romper has Andrew Adesman, MD, chief of developmental behavioral pediatrics at the Children’s Medical Center of New York, noting that the risk of forcing a child to do something like this “sends the implicit message that she cannot control with whom she is physically intimate.”
Then there was this in The Washington Post: At the Seminole Towne Center in Sanford, Florida last December, a Santa reportedly told a little girl she was on his ‘nice’ list, but then told her there was one person on his ‘naughty’ list and that was Hillary Clinton. The mother overheard it, reported it, and the mall reassigned this Santa, who came via an outside company, to a different location.
“Santa was given additional training to ensure that he remains in the character of Santa during all future appearances,” came a statement from the mall. “Santa is a symbol of peace, joy and good will to all…”
I’ll drink to that.