It was one of those dark days we've had lately when every piece of news seems to contain the words "sagging economy" (or for variety, "tanking" "falling," "melting down," or "crashing and burning economy.") Or the words "suicide bomber." Or "Illinois governor," accompanied by other colorfully descriptive phrases. Oh, wait, those I added in my head.
So I went to see Santa. It seemed the thing to do.
I found him ensconced in an elaborate wintery scene mid-mall between Saks and Chik-Fil-A at WestShore Plaza, where he has worked pre-Christmas for 17 years.
He is the real deal, white gloved and velvet trousered, with kindly eyes behind rounded specs. He is what they call the Real Beard Santa, or RBS. Apparently there is an RBS convention in Vegas, if you can picture that.
"You know, more adults pull it than kids," he says of his admirable beard, though I find myself itching to reach for one of those amazing tufted eyebrows.
It is a weekday afternoon, a little slow, and Santa invites me to sit with him. In the months when he's not working on Christmas, he calls himself Jack McElhinney. He used to have his own TV fishing show and says the missus enjoys her sailboat. Of course, he has traveled the world. Well-rounded, this Santa.
He has seen Christmas through the Barney, Furby, Beanie Baby and Elmo years. (Barbie never missed a step, he says.) Now kids want Wii, Xbox, cell phones, all manner of electronics.
I ask him: Have kids changed? Has the world hardened them? Hardened us?
"Nah," Santa says. "Kids are pretty much the same."
They start trickling in with their parents, bold or scared, wearing velvet and shined-up Mary Janes or jeans with playground dirt at the knees. They come for pictures or just to visit. Doesn't matter. Santa's open for business.
A tiny girl who looks like Cindy Lou Who comes up slowly and allows herself to be placed on the outermost edge of Santa's knee. She does not smile for the elves behind the camera. "At least she wasn't crying," Santa says afterward, ever optimistic.
A boy scrambles up on Santa's lap to announce what he wants. "A rocket," he says, breathless. Apparently, boys still want rockets.
And kids still bring wish lists, some lavishly augmented and glue-sticked with pictures scissored out of Toys R Us ads, lest Santa get confused. He shows me a letter he got. The last sentence reads, "So it would probably be more prudent to bring me gift cards."
Santa's got a schtick. When a kid wants a Wii, he tells the parents, "So Johnny's taking French in school." (Wii, oui, get it?) When he sees an elderly person in a wheelchair, he asks if they've been good. Never fails to bring a smile.
Be good, he tells kids as they leave; Santa's watching. You can see it in their faces. They're thinking: Don't I know it. A couple of parents give him a big thumbs up.
As I'm going, shaking his big gloved hand, Santa is explaining how it feels, this year and every other. "You see the joy in these kids, how excited they get," he says. "It's just a good time of year."
And as I leave the mall, I find myself thinking: Wii.