Last year, Santa was a very thin Vietnamese guy. It was 42 degrees in the crÃ¨che’s tanbark garden. Within minutes, Santa was sweating terribly. He looked like a long dark sweat stain lost in its ludicrous costume. The babies shrieked when they were presented to him. The bigger kids tried to yank off his hat. Now and then Santa had to duck away to loosen his elastic beard and gulp some water. Oh, how I laughed. Ho ho ho.
For some reason, last year’s Santa was unavailable for the gig. So this year Santa was me.
My Santa suit was a few yards of itchy red polyester haphazardly sewn together. It had cost someone $7.50. At the last minute, my elves ditched the belly cushion on the grounds that the children might be alarmed when Santa’s guts flopped on the floor. At least it wasn’t 42 degrees.
Here we go then. I poked my head into the room where the bring-a-plate free-for-all was taking place, ho-ho-hoed sheepishly at a couple of mothers, then took my position next to the Christmas tree in the next room.
Someone told me that when he played Santa to a group of wiseass kids one year, they’d checked his bona fides by grabbing his testicles. Word was, see, that the real Santa had no testicles. You’re joking, I said. ‘For Christ’s sake, watch your nuts,’ he told me. ‘They’re very interested in Santa’s sack.’
Remember, I told myself, fear is blood in the water for toddlers. All it takes is the confidence to stare them down.
The older kids came in first. A tiny girl sprinted into my arms. ‘I love you,’ she said, hugging my armpit.
‘I love you too, eh, er … what’s your name?’
The next one was a girl too. ‘You’re not real Santa,’ she informed me.
Oh yes I am. Ho ho!’
I felt my eyes narrowing. If anyone was going to punch me in the nuts, this miniature Grinch was probably it. Santa’s sack of presents went onto his lap.
There was a ring of them now. ‘You’re pretending to be Santa,’ a serious child suggested.
‘No, I’m not.’
‘You’re hair is black,’ she continued. ‘If you’re the real Santa, why is your hair black?’ She laughed, not unsympathetically, at silly pretend Santa.
I had big boots to fill. If skinny Vietnamese Santa had looked a bit comical to me, he obviously hadn’t to these kids. Most of them come from the Vietnamese community around Richmond’s Victoria St, where the Moon Festival, not Xmas, is the main game. What can those kids make of Santa? What does any kid make of Santa? Santa is one of the weirdest characters in our culture, with his sinister divining abilities, wheezy patter and stifling get-up.
But as I stared out from behind my facial hair, I didn’t feel like I was inhabiting, say, a construct of commercialised patriarchy. I just felt terrified.
I’d always known logically that the appalling pay of childcare workers is the ultimate argument against letting the free market determine value. I’d marvelled at the energy and passion of the women who run our community crÃ¨che, who hold it together on no money, create a brilliant atmosphere of safety and wonder, of games and fun improvised out of string and plastic cups, and do it all in about five languages. Now I just wanted one of them to come and rescue me.
As the crowd settled expectantly, I suddenly felt that I should be giving a Santa speech, to explain some of the complicated, sentimental affection I suddenly felt for everyone, to give voice to my conflicted Santa self.
‘Santa,’ a little girl said gently. ‘Get on with it.’
Ah, yes. Presents. Presents are, of course, the lingua franca of childhood. Last year, I recalled, Santa’s prezzie-giving pace was judged too dilatory by a pair of pint-sized bruisers who had tackled him to the ground. Oh, how I’d giggled then.
When I started calling out the names, it all started to work. There were prezzies for Vietnamese kids called Bruce and Janet, Irish kids called Siorsee, ex-Taiwanese kids called Toro. And suddenly, they were all eating out of my hand.
So, sure, it’s pandering to avarice. ‘Children, with their shallow, violent eyes’, wrote Philip Larkin, arch disdainer of children. But I don’t hold with that. I can’t bring myself to feel the widespread despair for the fate of kids raised in these faithless and fearful days.
I sometimes take my kids to a play cafÃ© down the street so that I can bunk off with a coffee and the cryptic while the kids roam among the plastic forts and eat other kids’ biscuits. It’s like being in a bird enclosure: all squawking, colour and movement. Children alight on you, toddle up to stare, grin, or try to tip your coffee dregs on their heads. A baby in the corner discreetly munches a bit of chalk. There’s an atmosphere of chaos, forgiveness; the possibilities of random mischance and random pure delight mixed together. Kids dock at their parents’ tables every now and then, when injured, slighted or just to be refuelled with milk and bananas.
For me, one of the great pleasures of being a parent is reacquainting yourself with the world of very small children. It’s amazing to see, this primordial stage of human life, the age before parents have a chance, as the cheerful Larkin puts it, to fuck you up.
Once at the play cafÃ© I noticed a tiny boy circling me like a timid shark. He kept it up for several minutes. Then he broke his orbit. He tottered towards me at manic speed and launched himself at me for a hug.
‘You look a bit like his dad,’ said his mum, peeling him off me. ‘Sorry.’
Perhaps he doesn’t see his dad as much as he’d like. We all worry about the world we’re giving 21st century children with its endemic obesity, violent computer games and child porn scares. We parents work too many hours, don’t read to our kids enough, occasionally drop them, fob them off with convenient lies. Perhaps the biggest fear is the lack of community: more and more, it seems, the world of small children is sealed away behind the doors of crÃ¨ches and alarmed homes.
But at the crÃ¨che or play cafÃ© our toddlers the future of the race seem to be in good hands. Their own. Toddlers improvise their own communities in minutes. Everything is all equally amazing to them. The look on my boy’s face, as he studies a plastic rocking aeroplane, of wary astonishment: now what’s this crazy thing going to do? Kids toddle up to one another and stare without any self-consciousness, for minutes at a time. When a four-year-old peels a toddler’s stubby fingers off a trike and rides off with it, the toddler, who may have been haplessly trying to mount the trike for ages, will watch the stolen vehicle being ridden away, not bitter so much as deeply interested, storing up this new information on the ways of the world.
I suspect that short of outright neglect, we’re not going to Larkin our kids with the commercialism and stress of modern life. They wouldn’t let us. We should worry more about being worried. Small children take a healthy approach to whatever’s around them: everything’s amazing, everything’s worth a go, and a lot of stuff is broken before you get a chance to play with it.
The exhilarating thing about tiny kids is that they’re up for it, this life business. All of it. So if a patently fraudulent Santa is going to give them something new to bite, mock or believe in, then the least I can do is to sweat it out, even at the risk of having my nuts inquisitively kicked.
The presents done, the crowd thinned to a hard core of Santa lovers. A couple more hugs. A few small children popped onto my knee, most of them staring at Santa’s mouth, which was, by now, full of toxic cotton fluff. Santa beamed anyway.
The little doubter girl was still there at the end.
‘What a great Christmas we’re having!’ Santa boomed, relieved, chuffed, sweating heavily.
‘Mm,’ said the little girl. ‘Where’s the other Santa?’
‘Which other one?’
‘The nice one we had last year.’
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