There’s something magical about a mall during the holidays. I love how they sparkle with glittery snowflakes and twinkle lights. I love the peppermint bark samples at Williams-Sonoma; the bath and body shops that smell like cinnamon, pumpkin spice and mistletoe; the peppy piped-in music about sleigh bells, chestnuts, firelight and faithful friends; and how the staff at Brookstone is much more tolerant of me parking myself in their massage chairs.
So naturally, when I had a kid, I couldn’t wait to take her to this indoor wonderland to have her picture taken with Santa. Fortunately, I married a gentile, making this move legal for a practicing Jew. As long as Jim’s in my life, I’m not a hypocrite; I’m just multicultural!
My daughter was 10 months old her first Christmas. We were living in Michigan, and we dressed her in a cranberry velvet dress trimmed with ivory eyelet and ribbon roses and took her to the Westwood Mall.
As we approached Santa’s roped-off throne, I noticed he wasn’t wearing his iconic red coat with the white fur trim. He had on a white flannel shirt that looked like a pajama top, decorated with tiny reindeer and Christmas trees. His famous coat was hanging on a hook on the wall.
None of the other parents seemed to mind, but flannel wasn’t going to cut the mustard for my photo. That’s a tragic flaw of mine. I often envision scenarios in my head, only to be disappointed when reality doesn’t match my dreams. But this was an easy fix. I planned to ask the big guy to put on his coat when it was our turn.
So we got to the back of the line and waited. And when we made it to the front, I politely asked the on-duty elf if Santa would please put on his coat for my picture. She walked over to Santa and whispered my request. Santa mumbled something back, and the elf came over to relay his message.
“I’m sorry, but Santa doesn’t wear his coat in his workshop,” she said.
So I pleasantly asked her again.
“Can he just put it on for a minute for my photo, then take it off? It’s our first picture with Santa, and I’d like him dressed in his traditional outfit.”
Again the elf whispered to Santa. Again, Santa didn’t budge.
“I’m sorry, but Santa doesn’t wear his coat indoors,” she reported back.
Santa was hot, she confided. He didn’t want to wear his fake fur.
I smiled sweetly at Santa and said, “Please, Santa? Can you put it on for just a minute? We’ll snap the picture, and then you can take it off again. I really want a photo with you in your famous suit.”
“It’s hot in Santa’s workshop, young lady,” he said, throwing in a “ho, ho, ho,” in case the children in line were listening.
“Please? It will only take a minute.”
“You don’t wear your coat inside your house, do you?” Santa asked me.
This was just great. Of all the Santas in all the malls, I got passive-aggressive Santa.
I smiled sweetly again (which was getting harder).
“Santa, it’s just one photo,” I said. “Come on. Be a sport.”
Little did I know my request would be met with such unSanta-like hostility.
“Santa takes his coat off in his workshop,” he gritted through his fake smile.
That’s when Santa and me started going at it.
“Santa looks like he’s in his pajamas,” I said. “If I’m paying $24.95 for this picture, I’d really like it if Santa would put on his red coat, please.”
“Santa’s workshop is very hot today,” Santa said. “Santa doesn’t wear his coat inside his house.”
“Listen, Fake Mall Santa: You don’t have a heck of a lot in your job description, but I’m pretty sure one of the requirements is wearing the red suit. Put ice packs in your pits if you have to, but put on the frigging coat.”
Okay, I didn’t actually say that. But I did politely point out that I didn’t want an overpriced picture of my kid with Lumberjack Santa, and could he please make himself look more like the guy in the Coke ads.
At this point, I’m ready to flag down a mall cop, and my mild-mannered, non-confrontational husband is getting a little embarrassed that his wife is picking a fight with Santa. He agreed with my position, but thought we should take our business to the competitor mall. But I wouldn’t leave.
Why couldn’t Santa understand that this was my kid’s very first picture with him, and I wanted that perfect pose of her on his lap, with him wearing his iconic red coat? His pajama top was, frankly, a little pedophilesque. Who wants pasty, wrinkled Santa skin and chest hair in their Christmas photos?
So I continued arguing.
Toddlers started asking their mothers, “Why is Santa fighting with that lady?”
Realizing he was ruining his jolly façade, Santa finally decided to put on the coat and get me out of his life as quickly as possible. Ha! I won!
But now Santa was pissed off, which also doesn’t make for a memorable Kodak moment. Now, instead of coaxing my baby to smile in the picture, I was trying to coax Santa.
“Smile, Santa,” I urged. “SMILE!”
We finally got a passable picture and left the mall. And as we did, I thought I heard him mumble, “You better watch your back, lady.” I turned around and he said, “Ho, ho, ho,” and I thought I discerned an un-jolly threat in his tone.
“Jim,” I said. “I think Santa just called me a ho.”
“He did not,” Jim said.
“I think he might have,” I said.
I went to exit the mall through the back door and Jim said, “No. We came in by the cookie place.”
“I want to go into J.C. Penney, then exit through the back,” I said. “… to throw Santa off our scent.”
By this point, if he didn’t know it already, Jim was sure he was, indeed, married to a lunatic. He refused to exit through the back and march around the mall in the slush. He walked me through the front door of the mall, assuring me that we had nothing to worry about.
But Angry Santa scared me. I was sure he was going to follow us home and burn down our house. For weeks, his words haunted me: “You better watch out, lady.”
I was creeped out by the lyric: “He sees you when you’re sleeping; He knows when you’re awake.” I lived in silent fear, wondering when the Santa mafia was going to pounce, terrified that crazy Santa was lurking in my bushes just waiting for me to let down my guard while I decorated reindeer cookies or unwittingly sipped hot chocolate under my tree.
To this day, mall Santas give me the willies. I’m five states and a 20 hour drive away, but I can still hear that menacing, “Ho, ho, ho.” And when I’m in a mall, I still look over my shoulder.
Maybe that’s what happens when nice Jewish girls try to dabble in the commercialization of other people’s holidays. Perhaps mean mall Santa was God’s way of saying, “I gave your people the menorah.”And I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight, Happy Chanukah to all, and to all a good-night!”