I have an almost infinite list of Things I Will Never Do. I will never run for political office. I will never again do karaoke (I did it once, I count it as the Wild Thing I Did at University). I will never bungee jump, as that is jumping off a secure platform with an elastic band around your ankle, and what has to be wrong with you to make you want to do such a thing? Being a store Santa would probably have been on the list if I’d thought about it.
A pet-store Santa would be on the list twice.
If you’re not a people person, if you’re not fond of other people’s kids, or pets, then why would you be a pet-store Santa? Unless being all itchy, hot and padded is your idea of a good time.
And yet. And yet.
My friend, L, emails me to ask if I’d be a Santa for the charity she volunteers with. It’s a charity that finds homes for homeless cats. So, they’re looking for someone to be a pet Santa. I remind myself about my list. It’s not a negotiable thing. There are just some things I do not do.
I’m uncomfortable with dogs, cats don’t like me. It’s a no-brainer.
Obviously, it’s a no – a polite no, a thanks-for-asking, wish-I-could-help no, but a no.
And so I say, “Yes.”
Soon after, I tell another friend what I am doing. She says it’s the least-me thing she has ever heard me do. Someone else notes, with a polite suppression of surprise, that it’s a long way out of my comfort zone. And that’s when I’m certain I need to do this. It’s not jumping out of a plane, or leaping off a bridge with only a rubber band for support. It’s sitting on a box, dressed as Santa, holding someone’s dog. I can do this. I’ll be doing my friend a favor. It’s for charity, dammit.
Come the day, and I’m surprisingly calm. I make it to the store nice and early. Nearly two hours early, as it turns out. The store manager shows me the changing room. Piles of red clothing, white hair and padding lie before me.
He waves at it. “Your people left this mess,” he says. He seems not to have woken in the festive spirit this sunny Sunday morning. I pick up the beard, the Michael Jackson gloves, the thick belt with the gold-colored buckle. There’s only one way to lighten the situation. I dress my son up and take pictures.
“Better too early than too late,” I say, practicing my Wise Santa voice. “I’m going for some coffee,” I then say, in a less magical tone.
Two hours, and one fast-food-coffee-heartburn later, I’m back.
I walk into the store, and the check-out guy waves, calls me “Santa”, laughs. That’s how I know he’s a funny guy. He remains a funny guy the next two times he does the same thing. He is, without doubt, hilarious.
It takes me only five minutes to become Santa. On go the trousers, the boots, the padded-cushion tummy, the jacket, the belt, the beard, the wig, the hat. “How do I look?” I say to L. “Like Santa,” she says loyally.
The hardest part of the day is the big entrance. I stand at the threshold of the changing room, hold back, breathe deep, grit my teeth and stride into the store…to general apathy and lack of interest. Only M, another volunteer who will be taking photos this morning, notices. She smiles, so I do a Santa twirl. I begin to feel different – like I’m hidden behind all this fakery, and it stops feeling quite so embarrassing. All anyone who comes into the store this morning will see is Santa. They won’t see me at all. Anything that happens from now, I’m not here. It wasn’t me; it was Santa.
Customer #1 is an older guy with a shivering little dog. He really wants a picture, but says that his dog gets bitey if he’s nervous. We try a few shots, the dog sitting near me, but not too near me. Just out of shot, his owner stands nervous, ready to leap in if mini-Cujo goes for Santa’s throat. The dog just sits, looks at me like he’d look at a slow-moving cloud, and lets M take his picture.
They go to print the photo out on the instant photo printer we have. And it doesn’t work. Changing cables, changing printers, nothing works. “We could try taking some more with a different camera,” says M.
Back we all go, by now well-rehearsed. Santa on one end of the box, mini-Cujo at the other, like a bickering couple on a small sofa. Flash, click, done. This time it all goes well, and the patient man and the nervous dog walk away happy. After that – jittery animal, technical failures – I think we are all less nervous. Bring on the next one!
Being Santa in a pet store, at least on a Sunday, is no wild ride of constant camera flashes and smelly animals. It’s a lot of waiting around, wandering the aisles, pulling funny faces at customers.
All behind an itchy, scratchy beard.
Next customer is a cute toddler with a cute dog. She stares at me like I’m Santa, so I am Santa. I say “Have a lovely Christmas”, and she waves as she walks away. I feel like a god.
The next toddler with a dog won’t come anywhere near me. She feels about me like I feel about clowns. She looks like she thinks I might eat her. She is not going to sit anywhere near this evil, cannibalistic Santa. She looks incredibly relieved when her dad leads her away. My feeling of omniscience is short-lived.
Nothing then happens. For quite some time.
Adults will not make eye-contact with Santa as they walk past. Waving at grown-ups who are pretending not to see me is not a bad way to spend 20 minutes in a generally quiet pet store.
An old guy with a University of Texas t-shirt strides by. I give him a wave. He shouts, “Can I sit on your knee, Santa?”
I’m starting to feel a responsibility to the mythology – the beard must not slip! The magic must be maintained!
So, although my mind shrieks, “Dear god, no!!!”, through my new Santa filter, it becomes a disturbingly enthusiastic, “Yes!” L looks at me, startled.
“I was afraid of that,” says the guy, and he disappears down an aisle
Not everyone loves Santa. I make a mental note to check the guy’s status on my naughty/nice list. He needs a review.
A woman with a small child and a dog struggles to keep both sitting still for the camera: “She’s nervous because Santa smells like animals,” she says, her gaze aimed firmly at my beard, not my eyes.
What then happens is more long periods of nothing. On the table beside my posing box are pictures, examples of what your dog will look like sitting with the various Santas who have come before. One shows the store manager, no longer grumpy, sitting on Santa’s knee. The thought goes through my head: maybe he tries out all the Santas who work in his store, like a festive casting couch.
He should be so lucky.
And then nothing happens some more.
A lady with three beagles is circling. On the third pass she says, “I am coming, I just need to get them quiet.”
It take a couple more laps of the store before she stops circling and swoops. These beagles will not sit still, although they’re old-hands at this. For one of them, the lady tells me, this is his third year of getting his picture taken with Santa. We get one beagle settled, two settled, then as the third is lifted on to the posing box, the first will slip slightly and fall off, creating a beagle avalanche. There’s hardly a queue, so we take our time, carefully crafting the beagle pyramid. I ask the nearest beagle what it wants for Christmas. Eerily, I pick up a very strong sense that it really wants to be not sitting on this box. Oh, and something to chew.
The beagle lady is met by another woman who has also brought three dogs, two medium-sized balls of lightning and the world’s smallest Chihuahua. This is a highlight, holding the tiny shivering dog. As we’re working with these two groups, a couple come up with another Chihuahua and his “brother”, something that looks like a bulldog but is about the size of a leopard. They are both wearing hoodies (the dogs, not the people. Of course). It’s intimidating. The big dog likes to shove its nose in my face. I’m less keen. By now, I’m doing an accent when I talk to the dogs. I don’t know what accent it is, but it’s something. The spirit of Santa is in me.
It takes some balancing, patience and split-second timing from M, but, in turn, first the beagles, then their friends, and finally the hoodies are up, snapped and off. I look at my watch: it’s a Christmas miracle! It’s clocking-off time.
L leans in and says, “Someone’s brought a goat.” An actual goat. God, I want to see the goat. I want to see the goat get his photo taken with Santa. I do not, however, want to be the Santa involved. We can’t go until the replacement Santa shows up. So we wait, and the goat doesn’t materialize. It might be a rumor.
The replacement Santa and photographer arrive and I make a slow, dignified dash to the changing room. I’m relieved there’s more than one Santa costume as the one I’m taking off is damp and probably smells of hoodie dog. To my replacement, I pass on the wisdom I have learned in my three hours as Santa – “There might be a lot of sitting around” – and leave the changing room, lighter and just a little damp.
And there, in the queue, is a woman holding a Labrador and a goat. The goat’s leash is studded and leather.
“My husband buys me a goat for Xmas every year,” the woman says to M.
The goat is pooping on the shiny pet shop floor. In a show of inter-species unity, the Labrador starts peeing. In the distance, the familiar, grumpy figure of the store manager looms into view.