Thursday, December 23, 2010

Santa's Hands

For several years during the holidays, my dad worked as a Santa Claus for Goldsmith’s Enchanted Forest. The Enchanted Forest was an indoor winter wonderland, a family attraction that featured hundreds of extravagantly decorated Christmas trees, thousands of lights, kid-sized gingerbread villages, and a metric ton of fake snow. Murals featuring Christmas characters covered the walls; scenes like elves standing on each other’s shoulders to place a wreath around a reindeer’s neck. But the elves were sinister-looking and had a Nightmare Before Christmas quality to them. It was festive in a creepy sort of way.

But children and parents were willing to overlook the weird art and stand in line for an hour to see Dad. I mean, Santa. And he made a great Santa. He could be extremely jolly when the occasion called for it, and he loved the kids. Of course, neither of my parents told me at the time that he was playing Santa, but in retrospect, his coming home smelling like peppermint and urine should have raised some flags.

One Saturday, Mom promised to take me to see Santa. Like the hundreds of others there to see him, we waited in line for what seemed like days. As the line snaked around the North Pole Village, I could see children climbing onto his lap to make their requests. Some smiled shyly and whispered their Christmas wishes in his ear, while others screamed bloody murder until their parents apologetically whisked them away.

When my turn came, I climbed up on his lap like a pro. His right arm instinctively slid underneath my right arm, his left hand resting on my right knee. It felt familiar, but before I could put my finger on it, he launched into his Santa spiel, booming out a Ho! Ho! Ho! and asking me what I wanted for Christmas.

I knew exactly what I wanted — the Fisher Price airport, the one I had seen on TV a million times — but I was too distracted by his hands. Like his lap, they were strangely familiar, and not at all like what I expected Santa’s hands to look like. Santa’s hands would be white and pasty from doing nothing but eating cookies and ordering elves around. But these hands were brown and weathered, with small scars from past cuts and scrapes. They were strong, yet gentle, like iron wrapped in leather. I knew these hands.

These were the hands that kept me out of the reach of our cousins’ hateful German Shepherd. The hands that brushed soapy foam on my face so I could pretend to shave, and guided my hands as I learned to polish my shoes. Hands that would keep me steady as I learned to ride a bike, and hold me up in the waters of Sardis Lake, teaching me to swim. Hands that folded in prayer for me every night of my life, then and now. These were my father’s hands.

As I climbed down off of his lap, I gave him a knowing look, one that said, “I know who you are.” And I think he understood. As Mom and I walked back toward the parking garage, she asked me how my visit with Santa went.

“That wasn’t Santa,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Sure it was,” Mom said nervously. Mom was always a horrible liar.

“No, that was my daddy.”

Later that same Christmas season, Santa visited my kindergarten class just days before we were to be out for the holidays. He burst through the door and issued an authentic, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” All the other children shrieked and rushed to surround him. I simply put my hands on my hips and rolled my eyes.

“Daa-aad,” I whined, as if embarrassed by his presence. “What are you doing here?” Instantly I was swept out of the room like the president being whisked away by the Secret Service after a failed assassination attempt. I was encouraged (read: threatened) to play along. Which I did gladly after Mom and my teacher Mrs. Simms explained that Dad was here as a favor to the real Santa Claus, who couldn’t make it because he was, of course, busy making toys.

Merry Christmas!