Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Crosscut on Dec. 8, 2007.
The holidays are a great time for two kinds of people: kids who believe in Santa Claus and adults who like to drink.
I missed out on the first one due to a dad who believed in honesty to a fault. Most parents tell their kids the usual little white lies about Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, etc. Not in my house. Gifts came from friends and family – not some mythical fat guy who flew around in a sleigh. Sadly, there are no childhood pictures of me on Santa's lap or any saved "Dear Santa" letters.
I didn't think this was a big deal until I mentioned it in passing to my then-girlfriend, now-wife. She was shocked – and practically offended. Santa was like a god in her family. Her parents had a row of pictures of their three kids on Santa's lap at Nordstrom from infancy all the way into their early 20s. Apparently, their dad was up on the roof with jingle bells yelling "Ho! Ho! Ho!" on Christmas Eve.
Naturally, my wife made it clear to me that when we had children, we would be lying to them about the existence of Santa Claus. I agreed, thinking it really wouldn't be any additional work on my part or cut into my holiday drinking.
Fast forward to December 2005. Our little girl is 9 months old. She is in a beautiful holiday dress. And we are in a Disneyland-length line to get our photo with Santa at the downtown Nordstrom with the rest of Seattle. The last time I stood in a line this long was at a Bruce Springsteen concert in 1986. We could fly to the North Pole and back before we can get to the front of the line. It's a stressful situation. Other kids are screaming. Parents are changing diapers on the sidewalk. I'm thinking that maybe my dad was pretty smart to avoid the whole Santa thing.
We got our photo with Santa. But when December 2006 rolled around, we knew we needed a new plan. No way a 21-month-old was going to stand in a three-hour-plus line.
First, we tried what we thought would be a slow time – a Monday evening. We got in line just as a helpful elf came by to inform us that the expected wait was about two hours. Two hours! Should we stay? Could they bring us a hot buttered rum? Or just a bottle of rum?
Just as we made the decision to leave, something surreal happened. The same helpful elf came down the line again and had a quick and quiet conversation with each family. When she got to us, she said, "Just so you know, tonight's Santa is African American."
What do you say to that? My first thought was, "That's fine with us because we're not racist and I don't really even notice skin color anyway." What I actually said was, "OK." I looked at a nearby sign and sure enough, tonight was African-American Santa night. Asian-American Santa was tomorrow night, and Disabled Santa was next week.
Now, we are white. But I would have loved to get a picture with African-American Santa. Not for any racial harmony but to see the look on our parents' faces when they saw that photo. But we had already decided to leave, which made for a very awkward situation. We couldn't just walk away after the elf told us about African-American Santa. So we had to wait even longer and then go through this phony production, talking loudly about having to meet some friends as we got out of line. We're not leaving because of African-American Santa, I swear! I was expecting a camera crew to jump out at any moment and confront us. Talk about white guilt.
Christmas was getting close, and Santa-photo plan B consisted of me getting up at the crack of dawn and going down to get in line alone. I had my coffee and newspaper to keep me company as I sat on the sidewalk with the other parents and homeless people. As I watched my work e-mails pile up on my phone, I was sure my dad was right.
But over the next few hours, I realized the wonderful thing about the Santa line at Nordstrom. It's the great equalizer. They don't take reservations. You can't cut. Even if you're rich, if you want that photo with Santa at the downtown Seattle Nordstrom, you've got to suck it up and wait. And despite the long line, no one is really in a bad mood. A lot of people are even there without kids. Old couples, teenagers – I saw one guy get a Santa photo with him and his dog.
I called my wife when I got close to the front of the line, and she brought our daughter down for our two minutes of Santa time. Naturally, she lost it when we put her on Santa's lap, despite the efforts of us, the elves, and the crowd looking in through the store window – everyone trying to make her smile. In the photo, she is crying hysterically and trying to claw her way out of a stoic Kris Kringle's lap.
It's a great photo. One that I'm sure her fiancé will look at in our hallway in about 23 years or so and think, "I'm never taking our kids to visit Santa."
Think again, kid. And pour your future father-in-law another drink.