I'm not a big fan of token gestures that conspire to obscure our attention from all the entrenched inequities -- the over-feeding of homeless people on Thanksgiving, for example, or TV-network-funded home makeovers.
I try to train my students to see through this kind of feel-good fraud and recognize the difference between slick charity and exquisite justice. So when I was approached one December afternoon, by two aids from a daycare next to my high school and asked to be their Santa Claus, I nearly uttered the words "opiate of the masses."
But the desperation on their faces halted me. They said they had a room full of anxious children and that their scheduled St. Nick, someone's brother-in-law, was a no-show.
I'm not even sure I actually agreed to do it -- or whether I just didn't refuse quickly enough -- but I found myself, moments later in a men's room toilet stall climbing into their Santa suit wondering what in the world I was going to say to these inner-city children who needed so much -- who needed in-tact families and better nutrition and an end to the crack epidemic and the gang violence ravaging their neighborhood and the social alienation that not long before had led to three days of civil unrest. They needed economic opportunity in their community, better schools and stronger political leadership.
Outside the daycare bungalow, the aids introduced me to their director, a man in a dashiki, from whom I thought I might receive a word or two of encouragement or advice. He looked me over and said, "You're not Santa Claus. Santa Claus is black." Then he half smiled, gave an affectionate yank on my beard, and went into an office. One of the aids took me by the elbow and guided me inside the daycare center where I was greeted by the collective scream of small voices: "It's Santa Claus!" "Hi, Santa!" "I love you, Santa!"
The children were all around me pulling at my belt and grabbing the back of my suit. Their tiny faces burned with expectation and runny noses. Daycare aids encircled me and pushed the children back. Any myth-bursting aspiration I might ever have had evaporated and I realized suddenly that I would have to somehow produce a Santa Claus voice. If I could get myself to speak at all.
But I hardly had to say anything. Order was restored and I was installed in the room's only adult-sized chair. The children were lined up and one-by-one they climbed on my knee. A few of them asked for things so simple, so basic, that I had to hold back tears -- "I want a doll." "I want a toy." "My daddy coming for Christmas?" -- but mostly they just wanted to look at my face, and yank on the fake beard and hear me repeat their names back to them. They wanted to be seen. They wanted, for a moment, to know that someone really important really cared about them.