Sunday, December 20, 2009


For weeks now, men of every size and hue (and some women) have been sitting in ornate chairs in the middle of shopping malls and greeting thousands of strangers as if they were glad to see them. In reality, they were not. But they had to act the part: it went along with the black boots, red suit, and snow-white beard.

Santa is always happy to see you, even if you are a tear-stained, arm-flailing, screaming toddler.

Many of the lap-sitters smile for the camera and quietly tell St. Nick of their fondest hope for the Christmas season. Perhaps it is world peace, or maybe that Daddy won’t be dipping into his secret sauce as much as he did last year. Some probably even ask for a gift, and the most astute of these new millennium greedy kids will whip out their cellular telephone to show a picture they took of that particular gift.

“I can give you the UPC if you need it,” the child says, “and the URL for the best online sites. You can probably even get free delivery if you order by the twenty-first!”

“Ho, ho, ho,” the Santa says, although it sounds rather like, “Ho, ho . . . no.”

It must be a tough job. Hours of sitting, dirty fingers clutching at your beard, children grumpy from standing in the long line. Smart mall owners (or those fearful of a lawsuit) will provide a variety of translators so that Santa doesn’t promise a cheese grater or tire chains just because he didn’t understand what the kid said.

The translators hover around the throne waiting to hear a language they understand. Then they run off to the food court during their federally mandated lunch break to scarf down deep-fried Christmas snacks. Meanwhile, Santa sits undefended, fighting the porcine scourge of the 2009 holiday season.

Yes, the swine flu.

At the same time that our fellow citizens were outraged by reports that Fortune 500 CEOs were lobbying for front-of-the-line status when it came to flu shots, conservative talk show hosts were complaining that Guantanamo Bay detainees were also in the queue before good old regular Americans. Then Kris Kringle got in on the act, in the form of the AORBS: the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.

This very real group is proud of their membership, because these are fellows who truly could pass as St. Nick. Their beards don’t pull off, and they aren’t skinny old-timers with a couple of extra pillows stuffed under their shirts. These fellows are not just play acting; they are Santa.

As such, they have sat for years, trying to avoid the tears and the snot and the hacking coughs spewing from their littlest visitors. They have to duck and lean and dodge all manner of airborne death. As I said, they’ve been doing it for years.

Suddenly, though, swine flu threatened their very existence. If they couldn’t get the shot, the AORBS said, these jolly men wouldn’t sit at your local ShopTown Mall and let your little brats rub their sticky fingers all over them. It wasn’t just a matter of not getting sick, they also didn’t want to help spread the germs. The Christmas carols piped in through tinny speakers underneath the Santa throne might have to be rewritten. “Deck the Halls (With Purell),” or something like that.

Unfortunately the Santas have fallen prey to the scare tactics of modern medicine. The common flu kills tens of thousands of people every year, and this latest strain has killed far fewer. Yet it is hyped as a bigger threat. Instead, the AORBS should be embracing this potential epidemic with other new songs, like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Swine Flu.” Laugh in the face of danger, or something like that.

I never have had a flu shot, and I won’t this year either. I come into contact with a goodly number of students in my travels as a substitute teacher, but they don’t sit in my lap and they rarely have their fingers anywhere near my face. I don’t live in fear of the Little Contagious Drummer Boy, but apparently I might if I was a mall Santa. That, however, will have to wait until my beard is longer and whiter, and my beer gut is more prodigious.

In the meantime, if swine flu was originally transmitted from pigs to humans and now travels from mall brats to Father Christmas, maybe other species aren’t impervious. Perhaps reindeer are at risk. Maybe Rudolph’s nose isn’t red just so he can guide that sleigh that night; maybe he is infected.

Oh Cough, All Ye Faithful.

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