The Santa Chronicles for Christmas Eve 2011

- December 26, 2011

"The woman in the burka and I just stared at each other..."

Always a special time for me, Christmas Eve had me heading out, not to amble up Canyon Road for the Farolito Walk in Santa Fe, but along the River Walk of Oklahoma City's Bricktown – a refurbished warehouse district just blocks from the National Memorial for the Oklahoma City bombing of the mid-'90s.

Much has changed in this decade and a half since the Murrah Building was destroyed. What hasn't change are the looks in the eyes of the children when they see Santa. The AAA baseball stadium erected for the Red Hawks in a retro style reminiscent of Camden Yards in Baltimore and other stadiums that hark back to the early days, when baseball really was our national sport, becomes a tube-sledding attraction in winter, with large, ice-covered slides from the various stand levels down to the grass of the outfield. The slides provide fast sledding for the little ones and older kids, alike – a perfect spot for Santa. I had wonderful encounters with kids, who, to the exasperation of their parents, dropped the oversized tubes they were dragging to give me a hug and tell me what they expected from me just a few hours later. I hope there were no surprises for the parents at that late hour, with very little last-minute shopping possible and fewer choices on the shelves.

There were, of course, the heart-rending wishes I always get. There was less of the hope for daddies and mommies to return from war, thanks to the winding down of at least one of our long-running wars. But there was the little guy, whose searing, pleading eyes will be in my heart forever. He left his father's hand to tell me that: “My mommy has cancer.” Those are the moments that never leave me. I feel so inadequate in my pillow-stuffed belly and long white beard. Only my eyes peering out from this yearly masqarade can convey what I feel for this young man and his family. I only hope I gave them hope and solace when I said that their mother/wife would be in my heart and prayers. I did see a little spark in the boy's eyes and hope that will be enough, at least for now.

As I said above, eye contact is what I make from inside my solitary perch of red velvet and fake hair, and another contact on this afternoon was all the more startling because of it. I try to be aware of the very different approaches to Santa Claus exhibited by children and adults of different faiths and cultures. I try to approach people with this awareness and let them decide how we might or might not interact. I was, therefore, totally unprepared for the adult Muslims who approached me, without a child, the the woman in a full burka and her husband/male friend/lover standing to the side. The woman in the burka and I just stared at each other. Only our eyes made contact, both of us imprisoned in our personas. I could have been imagining it, but the eye contact was one of the most intense I have ever experienced. We never spoke. She wanted my picture and indicated as much with the cell phone she was carrying. I struck a classic pose and she was gone moments later, disappearing into the crowd. I stood for a moment trying to take it all in before returning to the familiar ritual of kids and families.

With one large group picture in front of a Christmas tree, I counted 10 kids and wondered if they were, as it seemed, all from the same family. When I asked the father, he said yes, then explained that, “We didn't have cable.” All in all one of the more memorable excursions as Santa. I can't wait for next year, with all the joys, sorrows and wonderment.