I drive by Santa’s House in downtown Belleville several times a day, every holiday season.
Each time, I think about Monday night, December 13, 1982.
My own, “Monday Night Miracle.” Or “Miracle on East Main Street.”
That night, as a young feature writer at this newspaper, I was asked to fill in as Santa’s Helper and write a story on the experience.
It’s ironic, I told my editors. I wasn’t fond of visiting Santa Claus as a kid. He had bad breath. I didn’t like getting my photo taken. But I visited Santa’s Helper in downtown St. Louis every year with my Aunt Marie. She promised me a cheeseburger and milk shake afterward.
My first and only experience as Santa’s Helper started at a local firehouse. I was greeted by a fireman. He pointed to a backroom and told me the red suit was ready for me. He chuckled. The bright red pants were too large, but the suspenders were adjustable. The scuffed black boots were too narrow and the buckle was permanent. Outside of occasional bowling, I’ve never been big on wearing someone else’s shoes. I’d never seen Santa wear high-top Chuck Taylors, so I knew the boots were mine for the night.
The biggest surprise of getting dressed was the white whiskers. They were smelly, wet and gross from the previous day’s Santa. Very wet. The whiskers covered my face with a peep hole for my nose and eyes. I strapped on the pillow and tight black belt across my belly. “Ho, ho, ho” I said for practice. That allowed another dose of wet, smelly whiskers to touch my mouth.
Yuck. They didn’t teach me this in journalism school, I thought to myself.
As Santa’s newest helper, I carried a black bag of candy canes in my left hand as I walked to Santa’s House. I waved with my right hand. All cars honked. Merchants beat on display windows. A few kids stood on curbs, pointing at me with stargazed eyes. I was advised not to give out candy canes until I arrived at Santa’s House. I really wanted a candy cane for myself, as a distraction from the wet whiskers and to ensure that I didn’t have bad breath like the Santa’s Helpers of my youth.
I was greeted at Santa’s House by a line of kids and their parents in their winter coats and huddled together for warmth. They cheered when they saw me creep around the corner in my black boots better sized for an elf. Parents patted me on the back as I unlocked the door. I was surprised they were cold because I was sweating like it was July in the bleachers.
I wished I’d had just one dress rehearsal because I immediately noticed the first thing kids look at is Santa’s eyes. They stared at my eyes while I talked. They watched as I looked at their parents, or my eyes darted around the room.
I stared; they stared back. I blinked; they blinked.
Some kids froze as soon as they were sat on Santa’s lap. Smiles became frowns. They didn’t say a word. It was up to Santa’s Helper to get things rolling.
“Have you need a good boy?”
“And what do you want from Santa?”
“Hey, come on. Give Santa a high five?”
In hindsight, I’d rank myself about a 6 (on a scale of 1 to 10) as Santa’s Helper. The bad: Inexperienced. Nervous. Weak ho, ho, ho. Too young. The good: Sincere. Good breath. Eyes clear. No creepy jokes. Smokeless. Chubby hands.
Santa was entertained by the moms as much as the kids. Moms smiled, shook their heads, made funny faces, jingled keys, stuck out their tongues — anything goofy to make Junior smile or not cry for the $3 photo on Santa’s lap.
A few high school girls stopped by Santa’s House, too. They wanted photos to show their boyfriends and parents. They giggled. Popped their gum. They asked Santa his real age. Poked me and asked if that big belly was my own.
About three hours and 150 kids later, this Santa’s Helper was done for the night. Before walking back to the firehouse, I directed a group of carolers through “Jingle Bells” on the steps of Santa’s House. Carolers cheered, shook my hand and offered high fives. I gave them a weak, “Ho, ho, ho!” A few carolers joked at the weakness of my tired voice. Natural reaction would have been to joke back that their voices were nothing to brag about, either. But I was Santa’s Helper. Not smart aleck Santa.
As I walked along East Main Street, cars honked and teens yelled out of car windows.
It felt good to get out of Santa’s Helper’s outfit.
I learned a lot about Santa Claus that night. I remember it 34 years later, every time I drive by Santa’s House. The tight boots. The gross, wet, smelly whiskers. The pillow belly. The carolers. The mesmerizing, magical powers of being Santa’s Helper, eye-to-eye with the innocent eyes of a child.