One of my favorite childhood memories involves an early brush with fame. I was 4, gussied up in a red ruffled dress and cotton stockings, hair parted into severe pigtails on either side of my head. My mother clutched my shaking hand as my Sunday shoes clicked across the polished tile floor of a local mall. We joined a coiling line.
I was nervous. I had a poor track record when it came to celebrities -- I'd met Snow White at Disney World a few months before and frozen like a Popsicle -- but I didn't want to blow it this time. Because this was big. This was major. This was Santa.
Full disclosure: I couldn't keep it together when my turn arrived. I was both gut-wrenchingly excited and terribly shy, so while I sat on Santa's lap, all I could do was stare. Instead of listening for clues, my parents had to remind their star-struck toddler to ask for her favorite She-Ra dolls. I don't recall much else: I'm sure someone took a picture; an unenthused elf might have given me a candy cane. But that initial rush, the power of seeing Santa Claus in his element, is something I'll remember for the rest of my life.
When news broke last month that a Santa advocacy group wanted to qualify its members for priority receipt of the swine flu vaccine, I couldn't help but recast my childhood scene. I wondered if I would've noticed that Kris Kringle wasn't wearing his iconic white gloves because the fabric was a breeding ground for germs. I thought about what would have happened if, as I made my way onto his lap, he had pulled out a bottle of hand sanitizer and lathered his arms with it. The volunteer group Santa America encourages members to occasionally run Purell through their beards. How magical would my visit have been if St. Nick's chin had reeked of rubbing alcohol?
I don't want to sound ungrateful or out of touch here. As a grown-up I realize that Santas are regular people who need to protect their health in the midst of a very serious flu scare. And since obesity might be linked to an increased risk of severe infections, organizations like Santa America are smart to proactively encourage their members to take care of themselves with very specific precautions. These actions will keep a lot of adults -- and kids -- safe.
It just makes me sad to think that the world is so drenched with complications that the tide is overflowing into something as simple as the myth of Mr. Claus. The U.S. Postal Service also announced that it may discontinue its "Letter to Santa" service in North Pole, Alaska, because a sex offender tried to join a similar program in Maryland. A particularly jolly group of volunteer "elves" are hoping to save it, but for the first time since the 1950s, children who generically address wish lists to the North Pole may not get a reply.
What's next? Will Rudolph get laid off? Will Mrs. Claus file for divorce? Our society has changed a lot in the 20-plus years since I stood in that line, mesmerized by the man in the red suit and round boots before me. But we can't let our adult realities dim the sparkling imaginations of those who still believe in magic.
I have another childhood memory: It involves sitting in a second-grade classroom, letting a precocious friend know that Santa told my father he wanted Italian cream cake this year instead of cookies. She nodded her head and politely informed me that her sister had told her Santa didn't exist.
She might as well have slapped me with a sanitized hand. It was the first moment I ever thought to question whether any of the wonderful, fantastic, childish things I believed in might not have been true. This, of course, is one of life's most poignant lessons, but I didn't need to learn it at age 7. I think we'd all be better off believing in magic a little longer.