A friend sent me a dozen photos of various fake Santas tolerating a raft of screaming, squirming, terrified children reaching piteously for their parents. Why do kids cry at the sight of that man in red? When I was little I didn't want to find out: I clung to my dad's leg and never let go.
My dad, who had been mad that very morning because I poured maple syrup into his snowblower, stood grimly in line, promising Santa Claus. Then came the very unconvincing bait-and-switch.
The tipoffs were glaring: I knew well that Santa only comes once a year, in the night, while you sleep, and only if you're asleep. Now, suddenly, Mr. Secretive is hanging out in the middle of the mall surrounded by blinking lights and paparazzi while three stone-faced clerks, serious as mafiosi, collect payoffs from the adults? Dad tried to coax me into the red stranger's outstretched, gloved hands as I realized I didn't know what happened to all those kids who were in front of me in line. I scanned the room. They were gone.
It's a trap!
I didn't think for one second that this impostor was Santa. That cheap suit, his saggy false beard that smelled of pastrami—flying reindeer couldn't have convinced me he was for real. In my hometown, Santa Clops was double-parked on seedy downtown Central Avenue, his "workshop" a crooked plywood house on two wheels, with a trailer hitch for a front porch. This itinerant hustler was obviously ready for a quick getaway. Slick Nick.
"Don't talk to strangers. They might snatch you," warned everyone from my mom to my teachers up until now. Well, no one could be stranger than this guy: obviously in a disguise, no verifiable address, and he wouldn't fit down my chimney if I tamped him with a ball bat.
This was my parents' second attempt. Just two months ago, after a short lifetime of being told it was dangerous to accept candy from strangers, they dressed me up as a bunny—the world's most irresistible prey—and tossed me outside into the dark Halloween night with instructions to go door-to-door extorting candy using vague threats. What "trick?" Was I, yellow bunny-boy, really going to instill dread among the witches, zombies, and French maids?
Still, the strangers gave me lots of candy, and having just read Hansel and Gretel I figured they were only fattening me up for next year.
Kids are highly sensitive. They are aware of ghosts when you aren't. They have friends you call imaginary only because you can't see them. Of course these kids scream when handed to Scam Santa. It's the random clueless happy kid that you want to pull aside and groom for a future on the city council.
I'm grown now, tall and strong enough. One of these days I'll get up the courage to face that fat liar. "Okay, Whoever-You-Are Claus," I'll say meanacingly, "come clean—what did you do with all those children?"