It is still a miracle, and he really is St. Nicholas
If grown-up responsibilities begin to weigh too heavily on your shoulders between now and Christmas, drive over to Monroe Crossings Mall. Take a seat beside the giant revolving teddy bear. Watch unadulterated childhood wonder, unsmudged by life's inevitable hard lessons, unfold.
Whether you believe in him or not, Santa Claus exists. He sits on a large, gilded chair between J.C. Penny's and the mall's decorated tree most every day during the Christmas season. He is tall and broad and jolly with half-moon glasses and a long white beard.
"It's real," he says, tugging at his whiskers. "See?"
This Mr. Claus's ninth Christmas visiting Monroe Crossing. The nice people and sweet tea keep him coming back each year, even though his schedule is packed with important duties.
"Once I'm done here, I check my list. And my elves are taking care of the toys," he says.
And refrain from asking his real name or what he does for a living when not playing Santa in the mall. He is adamant that, though a long commute, he lives at the North Pole. And he oversees his elf toy makers when not visiting girls and boys. His real name? There are several. Kris Kringle. Saint Nicholas. Father Christmas. Père Noël. Dun Che Lao Ren. Kerstman. Weihnachtsmann. Babbo Natale. They all mean the same thing.
But in all seriousness, being Santa is not a three-week stint. Santa keeps his long white beard all year. Why, it is not uncommon for children to recognize him outside his signature red suit. To truly be Santa is to live it every day.
"You keep the spirit in you all year long," Santa says. "I do this for the kids. I do it to watch the gleam in their eye when they're talking about the toys they want or ask me where my reindeer are. It's that magic."
Not every child who visits him is well under the legal drinking age. In fact, quite a few older children sneak in their Christmas wishes when their peers are looking away.
"The other day, a 65 year-old man come by to take a picture with me," Santa says. "It was for his 92 year-old mother."
Not every child comes to Santa willingly.
"Kids either want to sit on my lap or they don't" Santa says.
Some are against it from the beginning. A little girl in black patent shoes and a red velvet dress bursts into tears as her father lowers her toward the jolly old elf. Only when her father holds her and leans near enough to Santa for a photo does she stop sobbing.
Some start bold, but change their mind when they encounter the living, breathing legend. A tiny man marches across the open area toward Santa's set. But when Santa himself comes into view, the boy hesitates and lingers behind his father.
Once lifted onto Santa's lap, the boy freezes with his eyes open wide. Santa asks if he wants toys for Christmas. The boy is silent. Santa asks if he has been a good boy. Silence again.
"Do you want Santa to bring you a remote control truck?" Santa says.
For a brief but transformative moment, the brave little man brightens. Yes, he declares before settling back into a worried silence.
Minutes later, another boy brazenly admonishes Santa for not delivering the requested toys from last year's consultation. Santa stops to consider his accuser's words.
"I remember now. Do you remember me telling you to be a good boy and listen to your parents?" he asks.
"Yes," the boy says.
"Did you do it?"
"I tried to," the boy says.
"Maybe, if you've been very good this year, you'll get everything you ask for. But you have to listen to your mommy and daddy" Santa says. The boy's mother giggles.
But not every child asks for things. A little girl in a pink polka-dot dress timidly approaches Santa, sits on his knee and asks for toys. Then, she leans in and whispers something in his ear. Santa looks thoughtful for a moment.
"Alright, dear. I'll keep you in Santa's prayers," he says.
So, on days marred by tragedy and doubt - days like we have seen lately - go. Remind yourself that people start out innocent and full of wonder.
And if we were once, we can be again.