Santa Claus could not meet me at a North Shore restaurant for an interview. Too busy this time of year.
“Meet me at one of my workshops in Indiana,” Santa told me on the phone earlier this month. “Ever been to Santa Claus, Indiana, before?”
“No,” I replied. “Birthplace of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, right?”
“Right,” the big man said. “Oh, and would you be able to transport Blitzen? She’s rehabbing a hind leg in Wilmette. Her last session is the day I can meet you.”
You don’t say no to one of the greatest givers ever.
“Sure,” I said.
I drove the 300 miles. Blitzen, antlers and all, managed to fit snugly in the back seat of my car.
I knocked on the workshop’s front door. Santa opened it and welcomed me. He was dressed in his full Santa suit. His thick white beard covered his lips and parts of his rosy cheeks, but I could tell he was smiling. The twinkle in his eye blew his cover.
“Come, sit down!” Santa commanded.
I sat at the elves’ table. He sat nearby, at the adults’ table.
“You will understand why I want you to sit there before you leave today,” Santa said.
“What would you like to eat?” he continued.
“Whatever you’re having,” I said.
Mrs. Claus and an elf appeared. Mrs. Claus was holding a plate of cookies. The elf was gripping two glasses of milk.
“You said this article had something to do with a Sunday breakfast, so I made sure to request oatmeal cookies for this get-together,” Santa said. “I hope you like them.”
I started things off with a simple question. I wanted to know what the most popular gift requests are this year. Before I could finish the question, he blurted, “Hatchimals!”
“Most kids these days,” he added, “no longer use the Postal Service to send me their lists of toys they want. They email them to me [at listsgalore.com] instead. I prefer the handwritten letters. More personal, you know?”
A trickle of sweat slithered down the right side of Santa’s forehead. He removed his enormous coat, revealing candy-cane-patterned suspenders and a long-sleeved shirt. The shirt was light gray with red letters on the front. The letters spelled PROPERTY OF THE NORTH POLE.
“Now, where were we?” he said.
Boys and girls of all ages, I found out later, have been asking Santa for Chicago Cubs hats and sweatshirts and T-shirts and posters and books. The Cubs won the World Series in the fall for the first time since 1908, six years after L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, a children’s book, was published. The book enhanced Santa’s appeal.
“My favorite baseball team is the one in Cincinnati,” Santa admitted. “The Reds. I like the color. Always have. I like wearing red clothes. Rudolph follows the Reds, too, loves them dearly. Be sure to spell that d-e-e-r-l-y.”
He paused. He took a sip of milk. It was time. Time for Santa to express merriment.
“Ho, ho, ho!” he roared.
The hearty laugh made me laugh. It was deep and genuine. I couldn’t remember the last time I had heard Santa’s signature chuckle, up close and delightfully loud. Was it when I was a five-year-old and the days before Christmas seemed much, much longer than 24 hours? Was it that day at the mall, when he listened to the toys I wanted and made sure I didn’t fall off his lap? Or was it around the time I couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve because I didn’t want to miss the sounds of Santa’s sleigh and his nine reindeer leaving snow tracks on the roof of my family’s house?
Santa and I stopped laughing at the same time. I didn’t want to ask another question. He didn’t want to answer another question. Santa Claus wasn’t all that interested in being featured in a North Shore publication. His approval rating was holding steady, at 100 percent. Around the world.
He was interested in transporting a visitor from the North Shore to a simpler time, when it was OK to sprint down a staircase on Christmas morning, when a bulging stocking above the fireplace was the best kind of stocking, when a plate of cookie crumbs and an empty glass near the fireplace served as indisputable evidence of a jolly man’s presence the night before.
Time travel … without moving an inch.
That was Santa’s plan for me all along.
Big man, nice man.
I heard a knock on the front door of Santa’s workshop in Santa Claus, Indiana. Santa was expecting another guest, a little girl. An elf let her in. I got out of my little chair at the elves’ table to greet her. She was wearing a pink snowsuit and unbuckled boots. She saw Santa at his big table and tottered toward him, her snowsuit swish-swish-swishing every step of the way.
“Santa! Santa! Santa!” she yelled.
Santa stood up.
Santa said two words: