We don’t see the inside of the mall very often. In fact, for years my children believed the North Pole was located halfway between Macy’s and Sears, because Santa was there as often as they were.
But it was the last week of December, and I was standing in line in the middle of the mall so my kids could talk to a complete stranger in a red suit. There’s not much to do while you wait your turn for the elves to extort $21.95 for photographic documentation of your terrified kid on Santa’s lap.
So I began to study my fellow shoppers. There seemed to be two species of mall rats this time of year.
Shopper #1. Those who finished their shopping early and are only in the stores because they think it might be nice to replace their old Christmas tablecloth and centerpiece.
Shopper #2. Those who wouldn’t know a Christmas table cloth if it wore mistletoe and sang “Rudolph” because since the Bush Administration (Okay—both Bush administrations…) their dining room table has been buried under piles of wrapping paper, sewing, and craft projects. Shopper #1s may think that they are anonymous, but we #2s know better. #1s are the ones who got to the mall early enough to get parking places in the same state as the stores. They bought Baby Upchuck while stores still had their choice of foods for her to regurgitate, and Bucket-o-Yucko before they ran out of the neon slime.
But you #1s aren’t fooling us by talking about how much you still have to do. We know who you are and we’re sending a full list of your names and phone numbers to every PTA in town. By this time tomorrow, your houses will be surrounded by crack SWAT teams of Room Mothers with bull-horns: “This is your last warning. Come out with 3-dozen homemade cookies for the fourth-grade’s holiday party AND a hot dish for the teachers’ luncheon or we’ll hold a committee meeting out here and appoint you Chairperson of the Winter Carnival.”
MY FATHER: “The traditional time to purchase a Christmas tree is the last minute on Christmas eve when the sellers give you their traditional price cuts.”
US KIDS: “But Daddy, everyone else gets their Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving.”
MY MOTHER: “Why don’t we get an artificial tree this year, maybe one of those pastel ones in colors that would amaze Frosty? And instead of our usual collection of chipped, homemade, mismatched ornaments and all that tinsel that clogs the vacuum, we could just hang blue balls with matching strings of blue lights.”
US KIDS: “Uh, Daddy, about that Christmas Eve tree? Let’s try for one with branches on at least one side this year.”
My second Christmas job was buying presents. With nine brothers and sisters, we had to be creative: “Okay, I’ll give her the bubbles and you can give her the bubble wand.”
But my hardest Christmas job was going to see Santa. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go. It was just that in the terror of finding myself on his knee I knew that I would never remember to tell him what I really wanted.
One year, I tried everything: writing down “Miss Mimi Poodle with the glitter collar”, repeating it over and over while I waited in line, telling my sisters to remind me, even cutting the picture out of the Sears Holiday Wish Book. But it was no use. Santa always stumped me with his first question, “Have you been a good girl this year?” I always wanted to say, “Aren’t you already supposed to know that? Haven’t you been making a list? And checking it twice?”
But I was worried that he did have the list, and this was a trick to see if I was willing to cop to that incident involving my younger sister’s hair and our new safety will-not-cut-skin scissors.
SANTA: “How about a dolly?”
SANTA: “Ho, ho, ho! Next…”
I couldn’t believe I had blown it. Santa was bringing me a dolly.
And to make matters worse, my neighbor Terry had been whispering heresy about Santa himself. I was desperate enough to turn to my older brother. We decided to approach the matter scientifically—wait for everyone to go to bed, and then get up and keep watch.
Next thing I knew, he was shaking me awake and telling me it was morning. “But don’t worry,” he assured me. He said he had been awakened by the sound of sleigh bells, and had tiptoed into the living room in time to see Santa heading back up the chimney.
I raced out and there, her collar glittering in the glow of the mismatched lights and the tinsel hiding most of tree’s bare patches, stood Miss Mimi Poodle.
But it was years before I realized the best gift I got that year came from my big brother, and it wasn’t the little red ball he gave me to go with the set of jacks from my sister.