opinion: Magic surrounding the holidays worth passing around
Photo by Dick Kinsey
In the summer it would have been light and late afternoon, but in the winter it was full dark when I got into my car to drive home. The same guy who warns others weekly to “Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors,” was startled to the point of an immediate adrenaline dump in my system. It happened when I adjusted the rearview mirror and saw the stranger reflected in the bluish glow of my dash lights. It was another moment in my life that is burned in my memory. I feel fortunate to be able to tell the tale.
It all started about a month earlier when a friend and co-worker I had shared many laughs, stories and some terrifying “I hope we live to see tomorrow after this call” moments with asked me for a favor. "Buzz" is the ever-smiling and laughing guy I worked with who always is there, if someone needs help.
You might have known "Buzz" as “Officer Brian” at Main and Stadium. We knew each other by a multitude of colorful nicknames depending on the circumstances. Buzz’s apparent favorite was “The Lead Magnet.” I awarded Buzz — who was a highly decorated police officer — this nickname because of his propensity to attract lead projectiles and huge hurdling pieces of metal. Buzz sports a magnet tattooed on his shoulder in honor of his nickname.
Buzz asked me to be a Santa’s Helper and pretend to be Santa Claus at a family party he was hosting. Apparently Santa Claus was booked for that weekend close to the holidays. Buzz and his wife had found an inexpensive Santa Suit and thought that perhaps “Rich — Ever the Ham” might be willing to play the jolly old elf.
I jumped at the chance even though I knew I was not Buzz’s first choice. His first choice would have been the Ann Arbor Police Department’s All Time Greatest Officer—Santa’s Helper, “Fred,” who unfortunately had passed away several years earlier. Fred set the standard for Santa’s Helpers.
Fred had rosy cheeks and blue bespectacled eyes that lit up when he smiled which was often. Fred had taken his red hunting suit, added Velcro and white fur and absolutely looked like Santa Claus.
I feel confident in this bold assessment of Fred’s rendition of Santa Claus, because at the age of 5, my parents took me to J.L. Hudson’s in Detroit where I had met the real Santa Claus. Fred was the spitting image of Santa and could never be outdone!
On the day Buzz asked me, I accused him of being a bit frugal and only asking me because his cheap Santa suit did not have enough padding. Buzz did not deny that my portly stature had entered into the decision making process placing me on the “short list of finalists” he and his wife, a petite former assistant prosecuting attorney, had developed.
Regardless it would be an honor to play Santa. On the day of the big event, I showered, shaved and put the white grease paint on my eyebrows and already partially gray mustache. When I put the white wig on I was transformed. Involuntarily I put my lips over my teeth to feign toothlessness and in my best Walter Brennan impression told the mirror, “One of these days I’m gonna climb that mountain.”
When the suit and especially the hat went on I tried a number of different "HO, HO, HO"s including of course the evil Santa’s Helper from A Christmas Story, before landing on the perfect HoHoHo.
My sons were away that afternoon. Mom did not want them to see me in the Santa suit, because she did not want to spoil the magic for them. I had to test “my Santa” on someone, so I drove over to mom and dad’s house to visit as St. Nick. I received the fitting amount of laughter—one of the great joys in my life is seeing my mom laugh so hard she cries—I did not quite get that. I did however get a shaking head and “Richie, Richie, Richie,” from mom. I was off to Buzz’s party.
I arrived and was briefed in the garage for my entrance. The children were assembled and I made my grand entrance. I can see why celebrities get addicted to the spotlight and adoring crowds. It was incredible to see all the smiles on young and old children in the room.
For the first seconds, even the adults light up with smiles, look you in the eye and I could feel their instant excitement and recollections of Christmas’ long past. The adults soon look away, to smile, laugh and gaze at the unbridled delight and excitement in faces of their children. I even saw a few trembling smiles and misty eyes from parents and grandparents as they soaked in the wonderful sight. Even tough, skeptical, serious, mature adult Scrooges and Grinchs melt when they look at the faces of smiling hyper-excited children when Santa Claus walks into a room.
I found that the children who spoke were so excited they were either tongue-tied or chattering. Most babies who can not speak, but are put in Santa’s arms for the photo op, begin by gazing wild-eyed at all the white hair and red hat of the stranger that is holding them. Many of those gazes turn fearful and babies may start to cry—so mom and dads be warned and make sure those cameras are properly adjusted prior to handing baby to Santa.
In any event the love and joy Santa Claus represents stir huge emotions in both the young and old. If anyone ever gives you the honor of being Santa’s Helper, take it because it truly is magical.
Perhaps you have already guessed, but the stranger who startled me so, as I adjusted my rear view mirror that evening, was none other than the real Santa Claus. Santa said not a word and in an instant he was gone. My initial fright was replaced by a warm calm feeling as I sunk back into my seat. I readjusted the mirror quickly to try to catch another glimpse at Santa, but he was gone. All that remained was Rich in Santa make-up and Karen Carpenter singing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas on the car radio. The moment was unforgettable and magical.
If you enjoyed this column, I urge you to pass along the magic to those less fortunate and drop a double digit greenback in the next Red Kettle of the Salvation Army you pass or give generously to your favorite charity.
Happy Holidays to you and God Bless our troops, both past and present, who provide we Americans our greatest gift .FREEDOM.