I'm still not sure how I was able to convince the marketing company to hire me. I'm not exactly a shining example of someone with a fuzzy heart during the holiday season, plus I am short and not quite portly.
But there I was last December, looking in the mirror as I climbed into that polyester red suit symbolizing the dreams and wishes of children. That's right, for the next nine days I was a department store Santa Claus.
Right away I became acutely aware of all the extras that come with playing St. Nick. First there are the jokes from friends and acquaintances, playful jabs meant to spotlight my already nervous disposition. The old adage is true: Kids are the toughest audience by far, unfettered by etiquette and ready to express dismay if Santa is scary, unrealistic or unwilling to promise them an iPad.
Second, I was warned that having more than 1,000 children climb onto my lap would require a level of patience I had never reached in my 34 years. Then there was the emotional gauntlet I would be forced to navigate each day. Santa is privy to more than just kids' material wishes. Dreams, confessions, worries – all wrapped and ribboned for the one adult who still holds some sway in a child's life when Mom or Dad just won't do.
Day 1: "Santa, can you bring Mommy back from heaven?"
And here we are. Is there a more efficient way to test the fortitude of a man in a Santa suit? She was maybe 4 and her father wasn't in earshot. It was just her and Santa.
"Your mommy is always with you, right here," said Santa, pointing to her heart. "And she loves you very much."
I wiped away the tears welling in my eyes when she climbed off Santa's knee. At this moment I knew the job was more than just a paycheque – it was a privilege.
Day 2: "Santa, I don't think I was good this year. Does this mean I won't get any presents?"
This from a seven-year-old boy being honest with Santa, so Santa felt he should be honest with him.
"It's very brave of you to say that. It means you are a good boy. I think Santa will have something for you Christmas morning, don't you worry."
Seven-year-olds get a pass on sounding overly materialistic.
Day 3: "Santa, is it true that you ate your reindeer?"
It took me a moment to gather myself before asking the four-year-old girl where she came up with this question.
"My teacher said Santa ate reindeer!"
"Oh! No, my child, Santa has eight reindeer."
"So you won't eat them?"
"Of course not! How would I get to your house to deliver your presents?"
She was more than pleased to know Santa was not a fan of venison.
Day 4: "You're not the real Santa, you know. Your beard is fake, you're too skinny … and I don't like you."
This is the stereotypical conversation between a mall Santa and a precocious kid. There is only one thing Santa can say to such an astute if not arrogant child: "Merry Christmas, now off you go."
Day 5: "I want a princess."
While the request itself seems unimpressive, it came out of the mouth of a young girl from the terminal-cancer ward of a local hospital. Her wish became a moment of discovery for me – that through even the most heartbreaking realities some kids are forced to endure, they are still kids. I had to take a five-minute break when she left Santa's chair.
Day 6: "Santa, you just made my little brother cry. This means he's bad, right? Can I have his gift?"
Truth be told, Santa made at least 20 kids cry every day. Santa's image surely wasn't designed with the same feel-good aesthetics as Barney or Kermit the Frog. Santa is a large, old bearded man wearing a bright red suit and an unsettlingly large belt buckle.
"Santa will make sure you get your gifts, but you should be a good big brother and make sure your little brother is happy too, okay?"
Day 7: "Santa, did you get my e-mail?"
I knew Canada Post receives letters for Santa each year, but now I find out that parents and teachers are encouraging kids to send e-mails to what, Santa's laptop? Sorry, but I think some traditions are best kept alive.
"Santa likes to read handwritten letters from children."
"But Mrs. Claus e-mailed me back and said she would send it to you."
Bristling, I said what any old man would say: "Well, sometimes my wife doesn't know what she's talking about."
Day 8: "Santa, how many elves are there?"
Never try to answer questions like this. "There are 1,000 elves!" I said with a wink at the curious child.
"Really? What are all their names?"
Day 9 (closing time): "Can you take just one more photo?"
I didn't want it to end and stayed until the last kid was gone. It was nine days of the most humbling, eye-opening, moving moments I had ever experienced.
Maybe I am a sentimentalist, but to act as the stand-in facilitator of kids' dreams and wishes went from daunting and demanding to infinitely rewarding. I got to see my niece and nephew, Skyla and Drew, look into Santa's eyes and believe in something I hadn't known since I was their age. I think I have found what has eluded me for more than 20 years – the spirit of Christmas.
James Di Fiore lives in Toronto.