By Joel Badzinski.
I’m standing in my brother-in-law’s garage in my underwear. It’s a frosty, late-December-in-Northern-Minnesota 20 degrees in there. In the dim light I can see my breath as I struggle to open a clear plastic bag. From the other side of a door, I can hear the merry, loud conversation and laughter of my wife’s family. They have warmth, food and drinks. Children are running around in holiday frenzy. As for me, I have this plastic bag and its daunting contents. Let’s look at the cardboard insert depicting what appears to be either a champion weightlifter, New York City fireman, or NFL linebacker decked out in a red suit with white trim and black sort-of-boots. He is buff. He is confident. He is Santa. And tonight, I am Santa.
But I am not buff, and I’m definitely not confident. What I am is cold, troubled, and a bit buzzed. As I take another sip of one of my brother-in-law’s famous Captain Morgan and Cokes (recipe: Pour lots and lots of rum into a glass with ice, then use an eyedropper to add the Coke), I wonder if maybe it’s not such a good idea for Santa to have jet fuel on his breath during his audience with the children. The costume—did I mention it was $9.99 at Walgreen’s? You have certainly encountered mall Santas before, with thick, luxurious red suits that could actually protect the wearer from Arctic winds. Not this outfit I’m holding in my hands. It is made of paper-thin felt, the kind you use to make crafts in elementary school, and the boots aren’t even boots, but instead cheap vinyl wraparounds. Oh, and I have a couch pillow to enhance Santa’s belly. Let’s do this. Let’s put it on (take a sip of drink; for medicinal purposes only) … this is not as easy as it sounds.
First, the red felt pants. Problem: the waist size is at least 10 inches larger than my own. The extra-flimsy “belt” isn’t going to help. It would not do for Santa/uncle to make his grand entrance and have his trousers fall. So, tape. Where’s the tape? Got it. Now, the “boots” … tuck in the pants, which bunch up at the shins. Whatever (sip). The jacket fits well, even a bit snug, but now I’ve got to shove in the pillow without ripping any seams. Done. I look down at Santa’s belly and see the exact, squarish outline of a pillow. The tiny snaps of the jacket are strained to the max, and now I have a horrific vision of the front popping open and pillow falling out just as the pants slide down. (Sip). Last, the beard and hat. The beard is of the same quality as the rest of the costume, so it’s basically an oval piece of white furry craft material with a hole and a string to tie it in back. It’s itchy as hell. The final trick is tucking the beard into the cap, which is way, way too small.
How did I get into this, I wonder. Oh yeah, I was told by my wife I would “get to play Santa this year.” But even as I slid that plastic bag to the cashier at Walgreens, even as we drove north to the family Christmas and she kept asking if I was ready to be Santa, even as I walked into that garage, I didn’t believe it would come to this.
But now it’s time. I take a moment to gather myself. “I am Santa. I am jolly. I bring presents and joy. I can do this.” (Sip. Final long sip). I open the door and try to get someone’s attention. The children have gathered in the basement waiting for Santa and the adults are partying in the kitchen. They all turn to look. And laugh. My wife jogs downstairs and I hear her shout “Santa’s heeere!” followed by a wave of gleeful squeals. My in-laws, clutching drinks and cameras, head downstairs, each giving me the kind of look that people gave boxers heading out to face Mike Tyson circa 1987. Good luck, I guess?
It is hard to walk. I keep thinking the tape is going to fail, the pillow is going to slip, plus the white itchy tendrils of the beard are blocking my vision. And I have more than several ounces of holiday cheer in my belly (the real one). The stairs are a problem. I descend them gingerly, one at a time, because I can’t see my vinyl-encased feet. At this rate, I won’t be bursting into the room with a hearty “Ho! Ho! Ho!” but stumbling and squinting like someone woken up at 3 a.m. by a fire alarm. My wife continues her act as Santa’s hype elf—“He’s almost here! Get ready for Santa!” etc. I gather myself at the foot of the stairs and stride into the room. There’s a second of complete stillness and quiet, then an explosion. The girls, who are all under 6 years old, are screaming and spinning around like whirling dervishes. One is crying in excitement, fear, or both, and another is bouncing like a human pogo stick. “Santa! Santa! Santa!” She chants. There is pure joy etched on her adorable face. From the younger boys, there’s a “Whooooa!” Only the oldest nephew, who is around 10, seems unfazed. Later, they will force him to sit on the arm of Santa’s chair and we’ll share a look. I know, his look says. I know you know. Mine says. But the others have fallen for it. They can’t see my wispy beard-mask, square pillow belly or vinyl half-boots, they can’t hear my lame attempt at a baritone voice, they don’t look around and ask, “Hey, where’s uncle Joel?” they can’t tell Santa has been riding high not on his sleigh but on Captain Morgan. The suspension of disbelief is complete and total. Once I understand this, I become Santa. Nothing can touch me.
I hand out gifts, I ho-ho-ho until I can’t ho-ho-ho anymore, several of the nieces come up close for a hug, looking me directly in the eyes, but I know I’m safe. I am Santa. Finally, it’s time for Santa to leave, and probably for the best, because my Captain Morgan buzz has changed to a different kind of intoxication. For a half-hour, I’ve been the focal point of pure adoration. There is power in this $9.99 get-up, but it has to be activated by belief. Back in the garage, I peel out of the suit, which has become damp and humid. Whatever material this is, it’s the exact opposite of modern “moisture wicking” workout gear—rather than absorbing and cooling sweat, it holds it on its inner surface like a felt greenhouse. I stuff the magical outfit back in the bag and hide it in the trunk of our car. It wouldn’t do for one of the kids to see it, because now it’s sacred. (FYI, the suit will come back home, go into a plastic storage tub of Christmas stuff for a year or two, then be thrown out, never to be worn again, except the hat, which I kept for some reason.)
Now I’m back in my civilian clothes, my drink is empty, and the sweat is starting to chill on my body. Time to go inside and get a refill. Santa has earned it.
Joel Badzinski is a Minnesota native now living in Tucson, Arizona. A recovering sportswriter, he seeks meaningful travel when possible—visiting Warsaw and Krakow to understand his Polish ancestry, achieving Zen in Chiang Mai, Thailand, or eating his way across Lima, Peru—but is always up for a chilled-out week at the beach or checking out a new Major League Baseball stadium.