Matthew Keenan

The Day I played Santa to 400 children (published 435 South, December, 2011)

by on Dec.09, 2014, under 435 South Columns

Television these days is featuring programming about tough jobs. You have the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs with Mike Row,” a huge hit. Then came oil workers in “Black Gold.” Tough guys all over the country sit on their couch, holding the remote, eating their chili cheese dogs and declare, “I can do that.” But none of these shows depict what is, in fact, the toughest job on the planet—playing Santa Claus to hundreds of toddlers. I know. Ten years ago I did just that, and I’ve been in therapy ever since.

You see, for years my law firm — Shook Hardy & Bacon — has had a “Santa day” when all our firm’s employees (more than 1,000) are invited to bring their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to come see Santa. For years the role was held by my senior partner John Dods. John, now deceased, was the classic grandfather — a model of composure, patience, civility and professionalism. And since most parents don’t like their daughters sitting on the laps of strangers, this tradition was enormously popular. Here, for once, parents knew Santa was not someone on furlough from Leavenworth.

What happened the day I took over, I cannot forget. When I arrived only 30 minutes early, not yet in costume, the organizers were on the verge of calling police reinforcements. I faced a crowd of anxious soccer moms not unlike those seen in the serving line at any Starbucks during the holiday season.

For the next four hours, each child paraded up and sat on my lap. How often does an adult get to listen and ask questions of 400 toddlers? Answer: never.

This was a pediatric clinical trial no psychologist could ever replicate. Every child had common features. Nine varieties of the common cold and flu, plus another dozen viruses not yet cultured by the world’s finest hospitals. This was a small price to pay to conduct my own pediatric Rorschach test. At the end of the day, I learned that the world contains four kinds of kids.

The first group—the “I want it all” kids. Santa’s authenticity is nowhere on their radar. If an adult is willing to listen, they will gladly spout their wish list. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m betting these kids do not aspire to work in the Peace Corps in Darfur. These kids already have the Nintendo DS and the Xbox. They’ve been to Disneyland, Disneyworld and had first-class treatment courtesy of Carnival Cruises. Their request can often come in an Excel spreadsheet, coupled with an affidavit of good behavior from their kid brother.

Frequent question: “Our house has five chimneys. Which one are you coming down?”

The second group is the toddlers. Typical age, 4 days to 4 years. For them, meeting with Santa is strictly a photo op.

Their brains are wired to mistrust the four horsemen of scary icons—clowns, jugglers, Sluggerrrr and that oversized Chuck Cheese rat. Add bad Santa to their list. Their brain says, Santa may live in the North Pole, but this guy lives in a van down by the river. I’m not buying it.” They start screaming once they get to the front of the line, and it reaches a fever pitch when mom tosses them on my lap.

The next group is the older kids. Typical age, 8 to 12. These are the nonbelievers and are here only because they have a younger sibling. It’s all a fraud, and their goal is to expose the faker for their little brother. The taunts come early and often.

“Hey Santa, can I pull on your beard?” “Where is Rudolph — in the parking garage?” “Do you know obesity puts you at risk for diabetes?” As the day wore on, I started to push back, but some of the best one-liners came to me later that evening after I was sipping on something cold.

“Hey kid, try something new — mouthwash.”

“The earth is full. Go home.” “I’m busy now, can I ignore you some other time?”

“Your braces are picking up radio signals. Plus last week’s pizza.”

The final group is comprised of the “chosen ones”—the sweetest, kindest, most loving children on the planet. Typical age, 4. The image of a halo sets them apart. They are most often girls. Santa is real, and this face-to-face is on par with meeting Snow White, Cinderella and God. Their requests sound like a prayer: “My brother wants a teddy bear, and he is trying to be nice. My parents work really hard, and it would be nice to give them some time off. I only want to make my grandpa get better. He is sick.” These toddlers offer the hope of redemption for an entire generation.

And when it was finally over, I stumbled down the office hallway, far away from the screaming crowd, shed the costume in a pile and started on my own wish list for Christmas—that John Dods would return as Santa the following year.

A substantial request that, I’m happy to report, came to fruition.


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