I guess I’m playing Santa this year.
Some people say this whenever they hand out gifts, but I mean it literally. My mom has invested in a suit and beard and wants me to play the jolly old elf for my 2-year-old niece. That’s the upper age limit of anybody who will be fooled by my imitation, to be sure.
Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been preparing for the role all year. Over the past 12 months, I’ve packed on about 20 pounds. While I have a way to go before I’m truly in Santa’s weight class, I still should require fewer pillows to create Claus’ trademark plumpness.
In terms of Santa’s characterization, I’d like to say I’m from the Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis school of method acting. Those two gentlemen get into character and stay in character — past tense in the case of Brando, who died in 2004 — whether the cameras are rolling or not.
If I followed their lead between now and Christmas Eve, I’d be Santa full time, booming out a baritone “Ho! Ho! Ho!” to students on exam day, yelling encouragement to Rudolph when accelerating my Neon down the street and giving out candy canes to stray passers-by.
However, with only one suit, I’m afraid I might start to smell a little ripe before Christmas, like a fruitcake gone horribly bad. And playing Santa without a suit is like playing Tiny Tim without the crutch or Little Ralphie without a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with the compass in the stock. It can’t be done.
Instead, I’m steeping myself in the classics in hopes that the characterizations will rub off. Last weekend, I watched Tim Allen in “The Santa Clause,” a movie about a down-on-his-luck schlep who magically transforms into Santa after his marriage goes sour and he loses custody of his kid. A real upbeat holiday film, that.
Then there is “Miracle on 34th Street,” about a department store Santa who thinks he is the real thing. He ends up in court, trying to prove he’s not insane. Another heartwarming hit.
Maybe I’d have better luck sticking to Santa stories in print. L. Frank Baum, the creator of “The Wizard of Oz,” wrote a novel called “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus,” but I’ve never been able to get past the first couple of chapters. Imagine Santa as delineated by J.R.R. Tolkien after a night of heavy drinking and you’ll get the general drift.
Then there’s Dr. Seuss’ classic “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” about another crazed character who gets his Santa fix by dressing up as Anti Claus and stealing an entire town’s Christmas. Yeah, sure, he gives it all back and the Whos even invite him to carve the roast beast, but I’m sure that on Dec. 26 they arrest him for multiple B&E’s and throw the book at him. Because they’re white and he’s green, he probably gets choked out for “resisting arrest” or spends the rest of his life as Charles Manson’s cell mate.
Hey, what is it with all these Santa stories and delusional, tragic characters? Is my mother trying to tell me something?
Maybe I should stick with Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” It’s probably the most quoted poem in the English language, which doesn’t say too much for America’s taste in verse. But at least the Santa it presents is of the non-postmodernist, non-ironic, Victorian variety: He’s really St. Nick, and nobody carts him off to the asylum halfway through or threatens legal action when he slips down their chimneys and eats their cookies.
He’s also mostly silent, other than a few shouts to his reindeer. In many ways, this is good news. I don’t have to disguise my voice, learn any lines or, worst of all, offer any extemporaneous comments, like railing against crass consumerism (which Santa represents) or criticizing the military-industrial complex. When I go off script is when I get myself in trouble. Santa as the strong and silent type. That’s the ticket.
As long as I don’t get him confused with Brando and start screaming, “Hey, STELLA!,” halfway through handing out presents, I think I’ll get through this without permanently scarring any children.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on Dec. 18, 2014, in The Alliance Review.