When someone tells you that a journalist will do anything to get a story, short of an ethics violation, there’s some truth to that. If you don’t believe me, read the following story, presented in the spirit of Christmas. It was originally published by The Honolulu Advertiser on Dec. 16, 2007 when I was a feature writer and columnist in the Island Life section. And here’s a little-known fact: This wasn’t the first time I was a Santa for a story, as you’ll see if you get to the bottom of this story.
By Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer
The first child looked up from her stroller, brown eyes growing wide, and promptly began to cry.
Ho, ho, ho, no. The “Merry Christmas” caught in my throat. Then she began to howl. Not a very good start, Santa.
Two minutes into my shift as a mall Santa, and my self-confidence was being tested. Was I doing this right? I was just walking toward the Santa chair, and things were going wrong already.
Maybe it was my furry red suit. Or the enormous white beard, which was fake. Maybe I should have had bells that jingled. The other Santas had bells.
When you put on a Santa suit, you have only one mission: Make everyone smile. Your whole job is to embody the soul of the season, to share the joy of Christmas and touch the hearts of those who believe.
It’s a tough gig. Failure translates to disappointment. If you can’t make someone’s wish come true, you have to at least leave them thinking it’s possible.
The spirit of Christmas can be elusive, as hard to grasp as chimney smoke. Some might even say it’s nothing more than pleasant nostalgia.
But I can tell you otherwise. I found it the other day at the Kahala Mall.
Undaunted by a few tears, I kept on walking.
The next child I met looked at me with a face as bright as holiday lights. Kai was 2.
“What do you want for Christmas?”
Turned out her mother is already pregnant. Close call, Santa.
“Merry Christmas,” I said to a pert salon worker watching this unfold. “Have you been good, or do I have to bring you coal?”
“Not that good,” she said. “Mostly good, but just a little naughty. Mostly good, though.”
“Santa understands,” I said. “Santa has been around a long time.”
Of course, the next encounter left a child in tears.
To prepare for my gig as the holiday’s biggest icon, I consulted a true master: Patrick Brown, a 56-year-old Kaimuki resident who has worked as a mall Santa for more than three decades.
Brown grows his own beard, which is bleached white for the holidays, and he doesn’t need a pillow in his pants.
He can make an entrance that’s all Christmas. He has bells on his belt, bells on his wrists and bells hanging from his cap. The slightest motion triggers a spasm of jingles.
“You gotta like kids,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. Sometimes you are getting the young kids. The younger ones are the fussy ones. You have to get their confidence so they’re not afraid.”
This guy knows from experience. In a single holiday season, Brown will listen to more than 5,000 fervent Christmas wishes, he said.
One year, a parent handed him her 3-day-old child. Another year, a 105-year-old woman was brought before him in a wheelchair.
“She said to her daughter, ‘I am going to get out of this wheelchair and walk up and sit on Santa’s lap,’ ” Brown said. “And that’s what she did.
“She just laughed and said, ‘God bless you, Santa,’ and gave me a big hug.”
A mall Santa is nothing without his suit.
It has power. It grants those who wear it a license to wave at strangers and to nudge them into a smile when you say “Merry Christmas.” Hey, you can even make them feel guilty if they don’t smile.
Strangers will take your photograph and pose with you. Of course, it isn’t you they’re posing with, it’s Santa.
But let me tell you a little secret: You aren’t you, either. You’re Santa.
Regan Yamashiro, manager of The Costume Closet, warned me when I picked up the suit that it would make me behave differently. This time of year, that happens a lot, he said. People step into the suit like Clark Kent steps into a phone booth.
“I see them prancing around all of a sudden, acting like Santa and practicing their ho, ho, ho,” Yamashiro said. “They may be hesitant at first, but once the suit is on, they are totally different.”
Trouble was, this Santa could use a few more pounds. Walking a mile in Santa’s shoes is easier than walking in his pants. When I stepped into them, I looked like one of those “after” photos from a weight-loss program.
Yamashiro included torso padding that looked like it did double duty on an umpire’s chest during baseball season. Steee-rike.
It took a bit of creativity to secure the padding. The whole time, I was one broken safety pin away from disaster. (Ho, ho, HO, my goodness — Santa moons mall!)
And not that you’ve ever pondered this, but mall Santas suffer for their craft. Those suits are hot.
Under the wig, I was a sheep dog with reading glasses. The beard tickled. I had hair in my teeth.
As I sat in the Santa chair, it was all I could do to be patient. Trust me, five minutes alone on the big guy’s throne can make you feel like the loneliest Santa in the world.
So I waved at people.
“Hi, how are you? Do you want to come say hello to Santa? No? Oh, that’s OK, when Santa was little, he was shy, too. But not for very long.”
I was pathetic.
Then I met Logan Bennett, a 3-year-old from ‘Alewa Heights.
“Do you want to tell me what you want for Christmas?” I said.
“I want my own black Nintendo.”
“I have to ask you: Have you been good? You have? Actually I knew that because I’m watching. So I’m glad you’re good.”
“Are you, like, all over, looking?”
“Well, Santa knows things. Santa finds out. It’s like Santa radar.”
Long moments passed after Logan left, and I managed to scare another child to tears before the Nishihira twins from Mo’ili’ili rescued my confidence. They’re 4.
“Hi, Santa,” Micah Nishihira yelled from across the mall in a tiny voice. “We love you.”
He introduced me to his sister, Mia, and pointed to his mother.
“Now we have to go.”
When I waved at Jason Schriber, a 4-year-old Hawai’i Kai boy, his brow wrinkled.
“I saw you two times already, yeah? I saw you two times.”
But he wouldn’t say no to a third visit with Santa.
“You want a candy cane?” I said. “C’mon. There you go. Hey, what do you want for Christmas?”
“Didn’t I just tell you?”
“Will you leave me out a cookie on Christmas Eve?”
“My mommy always does it.”
“You know, I’ve been good enough for a cookie.”
Nothing lasts forever, and some fantasies end just as you discover that they are both wonderful and fleeting.
When it was time to leave the mall, I walked slowly. In a few minutes, I would have to relinquish the suit, the itchy beard and the power to say that dreams come true, even when they can’t.
I waved at everyone. I wished shoppers a Merry Christmas. I stopped for a father who wanted to know if Santa had time for one more child.
The power to make someone happy is not something one takes lightly.
In the parking lot outside the mall, the Santa suit safely folded and put away, the world looked ordinary. Shoppers walked with purpose. Drivers stalked parking stalls.
“Ho, ho, ho,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”
No one noticed.
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com
Santa’s first gig
My first gig as a mall Santa was in 1988 when I was a Honolulu Star-Bulletin feature writer in the Today section.