Santa & Me

He Sees You When You’re Shopping …

Santa never did me no wrong, and so I’ve never had a complicated relationship with him, even after I learned — accidentally — of his true nature.

hanksanta1This picture of us was taken in 1974, when I still believed. I was in first grade here. I’m sure if my mother had told me we were on our way to John A. Brown’s to see Santa, I wouldn’t have tried to upstage him by wearing so much red. From page 112 of Tinsel:

Here is one last photograph, in the very last shoebox I searched. It is December 1974. A pallid department-store Santa in a crooked beard, wearing a cheap, loose-looking wristwatch on his left wrist. His right arm is squeezed around a six-year-old, blond-banged boy in a red coat and blue striped sweater. I look at this picture now and see a boy doing everything he can to play along.

Thirty-two years later, I came to Frisco, Texas, to look close at Christmas in the new American exurb. As I reported the book, I always kept a close eye on whatever Santa was up to. I encountered him at country clubs, school fundraisers, charity drives, office parties, and of course, shopping malls. I barely missed getting to see him arrive at Frisco City Hall by parachute. In Stonebriar Centre, the big mall in Frisco, I was there on the Saturday morning in mid-November when Santa Claus arrived to much fanfare and screams from children and grownups. From page 77:

Santa comes closer, catches my eye. Then he winks and points to me — silently, presciently. He is close enough now to touch. Know this: As a newspaper entertainment journalist, I have stood on red carpets. I have talked to Meryl Streep and Jude Law and Kate Winslet on Oscar night. At parties, I’ve made small talk with Beyonce and Helen Mirren and Jake Gyllenhaal. I have thought of something to say to Natalie Portman, Prince, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry and George Clooney. Now Santa seems to be peering into my soul, and I’m stricken, mute. …

hanksanta4Here is a picture (or four) of Stonebriar’s Santa and me. I visited him many times — but you’re strongly encouraged to buy a picture-set each time. (He’s not just sitting there for free, you know. What do you think this is, kid? Christmas?) This Santa bills himself as “the Big Guy” and he was Stonebriar’s Santa for eight Christmases in a row. Some parents in Frisco have collected annual portraits of their children with this Santa, from infancy to grade school, and they love him because he is gentle, with a very low cry-rate. He also handles “pet night” with aplomb.

In 2008, Stonebriar switched photo vendors, who in turn hired its own Santa Claus, and “the Big Guy” was replaced. This was shocking news in Frisco. He moved to a new outdoor mall in Allen, a nearby suburb, and a lot of customers followed him out there. (Nobody much liked the replacement Santa.) I failed as a reporter to learn much about “the Big Guy.” A reliable source told me he lives in another state. Based on what “genuinely bearded” Santa Clauses typically earn with big mall contracts, I would guess he was grossing about $20,000 per season at Stonebriar. It could be higher — and maybe it should be: by Christmas Eve, his shifts are seven days a week, for 12 hours a day, with only a few short breaks. The mall’s general manager told me he’d never seen “the Big Guy” out of character, and he claimed to be as in the dark as I was about Santa’s real name or other details.

hanksanta5Much more is known about the Santa Claus at NorthPark Center in Dallas. Here I am with him. His real name is Carl Anderson and he’s a psychology professor at the University of Texas in Austin. He’s been the NorthPark Santa for 20 years — kids who sat on his lap now bring him their own kids. I tried to keep the entirety of Tinsel’s story set way north of the LBJ Freeway, but I did venture down to Dallas one day in December 2006 to see Anderson as Santa on the recommendation of so many of his devotees. And it’s true – he’s pretty loveable. (By the way, so is the mall. Unlike most cookie-cutter malls owned by corporations, NorthPark strictly adheres to its original mid-century look; there’s an understated, modernist feel to everything about it, from the food court to the sculptures to the bathrooms. It kept its “cool Dallas” feel even as it doubled in size in 2006. Neiman Marcus is there, and so is Barneys.)

Onward. After NorthPark that afternoon, I drove up the Central Expressway back toward Frisco, and stopped at Collin Creek Mall in Plano. This mall is the exact opposite of NorthPark Center — it was built in 1982 and seemed, by 2006, to be on the risk charts for mall cancer, which eventually leads to mall death. All the signs were there: brown concourse tile; too many Dead Sea nail-care kiosks; a store that sells weird Asian furniture and swords; and a messy Dillard’s. People were going to better malls. It happens. hanksanta2Collin Creek is one of 200 American malls owned by the debt-ridden General Growth Properties LLC, a Chicago-based conglomerate that also owns Stonebriar Centre in Frisco and the Galleria in Dallas—and filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009.

Collin Creek’s Santa was perfectly nice, if just a tiny bit haggard. He goes with the mall; they almost always do.

hanksanta3This last picture was taken in an insurance office on the afternoon leading up to Frisco’s Merry Main Street festival on Dec. 2, 2006. This is what you would call a not-genuinely-bearded Santa. Compare him to the 1974 Santa. I came full circle. I’m still smiling like a happy idiot, but note that Santa and I are not touching one another. I was made to wear the reindeer ears by Janis Jackson, who ran the Extravagant Necessities jewelry and fashion boutique next door. One of my little brown ears is missing, though; I think it’s tucked under my headband. I thought about photoshopping it back on there, but then I thought, no, Tinsel is a book about getting at Christmas truth, not make-believe.

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