Being Santa: Heading Through Snow in the Sleigh Along the Downtown Parade

On the morning of Saturday, November 5, I got a call from Marina Van, the director of the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce about the upcoming Santa Christmas parade in that town.

“Can you check and see if Santa Claus would be available on December 3?” she asked.

It was an odd way of putting it. She’d asked me about being Santa last year and I had done that. Why be so coy about this year? I asked her.

“It is a big commitment,” she said. “And last year you went to all that trouble, renting a Santa suit and everything. I wasn’t sure you’d do it again.”

Marina doesn’t know me that well. She was talking to a man who for 23 straight years took his four young children to Disneyworld, at one point, on the 20th year, asking the suits at that place by mail that inasmuch as I’d done this for so long could they foot the bill for my 20th anniversary? They said no.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked Marina. “I didn’t rent a suit last year, I BOUGHT one. It’s the most expensive one I could find. Cost me $350.”

And so, at 9 a.m. last Saturday, I walked out my front door to my Tahoe dressed in full Santa regalia and headed down toward town to the tallest structure in East Hampton, the East Hampton Presbyterian Church. On Main Street, I passed the hordes of adults and children already waiting patiently on the sides of that road for the parade to begin, and then found myself having to jockey the Tahoe from the right lane to the left, thus cutting off a man driving a Previa so I make the left into the church grounds. He looked over to see who was doing this.

“Move over, bozo,” I mumbled, “it’s Santa Claus coming through.”

The church lawn was teeming with elves, reindeer, uniformed firemen, float attendants and other North Pole citizens. I parked on the lawn, got out of the car and quickly sauntered over to the big sleigh, the same one from last year, there at the end of the parade line. Hey, it’s Santa, we’re good to go now. I smiled. I loved it. I’m such a ham.

By the sleigh, I met Mrs. Claus, Beth Davidson, the daughter of my Mrs. Claus from last year. You know how it is these days with all the divorces and remarriages and everything. We shook hands. She told me her mother had sewn her costume. She also told me when I asked that she and a partner owned the Complements lingerie stores in Southampton and Bridgehampton, into which I have been on occasion. She wore a bonnet and had these really authentic-looking granny glasses perched on the tip of her nose.

The pre-parade situation went on for about half an hour with everybody talking to everybody else. Apparently, many people see one another once a year at this thing, dressed up as a reindeer or a pumpkin or some other thing. Me and the wife climbed up onto our sleigh as parade time approached—shouted out to us in a bullhorn from somewhere as “FIVE MINUTES.” From our perch, we could look down at the crew in front of the sleigh—eight full grown men and women in reindeer costumes wearing brown furry suits with the zippers down the back from neck to wiggly tail and helmets with antlers either on their heads or under their arms as they waited for the signal to begin. I also was able to test out the reins that went out to them— big ropes with jingle bells on them. What a rig!

Sitting up there, contemplating what was to come, I felt proud of the fact that I had remembered not to screw up something I screwed up last year. Midway through last year’s parade, I had realized that up there on top of the sleigh, the lenses of my fancy wire rimmed glasses were turning darker and darker to protect my eyes from the sun. It was way out of character for Santa. This year I was wearing glasses that did not do that.

And so, we were off, rumbling down Main Street at a stately two miles an hour bringing up the very end of the parade. I looked forward out at the rear ends of the reindeer and jiggled the reins. In front of my reindeer was a float filled with a gaggle of elves. In front of that and going on and on, well, you get the idea.

There was something further behind us though. It was an enclosed box truck from the police department with the word EMERGENCY on the side. It was THAT which was the real end of the parade.

“That’s where they put all the drunks and rowdies they round up along the parade route,” I told Mrs. Claus. I had taken to talking to her as a mentor. This was her first time, this was my second.

“You will not believe how the kids react seeing us,” I told her. “Some are terrified. Some are in awe.”

We had to talk loud to one another, not only because of the cheering but because of the music, which consisted of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and other favorites, sung so beautifully by Bing Crosby and coming out over loud speakers.

“There is nobody more famous than us this morning,” Mrs. Santa said.

“When we reach the left turn going onto Newtown Lane,” I told her, “we’ll stand the rest of the way.”

I thought, for those on Newtown Lane, this would be a certain gesture of respect and high drama on our part, perhaps an Academy Award performance.

In the back seat behind us in the sleigh was a 10-year-old boy dressed as an elf. Besides attending us, he was also the operator of the snowflake-making machine, a switch for which he had on the seat next to him. When he pressed the switch, a flurry of snowflakes would be blown up out of a tube at the front of the sleigh to sprinkle down on us as we moved along.

Well, I thought as the first blast hit me, I had remembered the glasses, but I had forgotten about this. The snow gets all over you, on your costume, even behind your glasses and into your eyes. It makes your eyes blink and you need, on occasion, to brush the flakes away. It’s a non-Santa like gesture you try to do as little as possible.

Indeed, last year, this had alarmed me.

“I think these flakes are Styrofoam or something,” I said to Beth. “Whatever they are, they are not good for you.”

I turned to the elf and asked him to tone it down, it was the idea of the snow, a few flakes would do it, you didn’t need a blizzard. He said he would comply and he did.

“The flakes are potato flakes,” Mrs. Claus told me.

“What?”

“They come in a box. You add water and they make mashed potatoes. We had to round up dozens of the boxes.”

Oh.

We grinned and waved to as many kids as we could down below on either side of the road. There were so many children. I not only waved, but sometimes extended my arm to point to one or another of them, smiling broadly, in the way that politicians or entertainers do to people in the audience when they come on stage to the cheers of the crowd.

“Ho, ho, ho,” I shouted. I took one side of the street. Beth took the other.

Here’s how these kids reacted to seeing Santa Claus.

“It’s really him, oh my God.” (This comment is followed by being frozen to the spot, then by either a dangerous zombie-like walk out into the street to try to touch Santa thus getting the parent rushing out to prevent that, or a scurrying back to the safety of the lower leg of the parent.)

“This is not real. It’s a fake. They can’t fool me.”

“What’s he doing HERE? Shouldn’t he be up at the North Pole making toys?”

This year I saw a reaction I had never seen before. It was from an apparently very smart five-year-old boy.

“Hey, what the hell is this? Nobody told me about this guy before? I need some sort of explanation.”

Now, as we passed under the traffic light at the crossroads in the very center of town to turn onto Newtown Lane, as planned, we dramatically stood up to take full command. We continued on, wiping the potato flakes, and smiling and waving as we passed the hardware store, CittaNuova Café, Babette’s and then on to Bucket’s Deli where, I thought, as we had done last year, we would end and disassemble.

But we didn’t end there. There was more. We turned left onto Race Lane, guided by traffic police officers and passed the dozen or so day laborers looking for work while sitting on the split rail fence of the town railroad station, (two waved) then turned left onto Lumber Lane to go down to the YMCA building, where the parade line did finally end. We hopped down from our float and milled around briefly, joining everyone talking to one another about the events of the past half hour.

A man carrying a three-year-old boy came over to me. The boy handed me an envelope.

“For you,” the man said.

“Thank you.”

I shoved it into the pocket of my Santa suit. An entire gaggle of elves, red rouge on their cheeks under green and white elf caps, came running over to me to shake my hand or just touch the hem of my red Santa jacket.

I saw the big box truck with EMERGENCY on the side and saw that inside, a police officer was waving me over. He was there, as I had been told he would be, to take me down to the Huntting Inn to meet my fans. I climbed up and in.

Two motorcycle policemen in full battle regalia now pulled noisily in front of us on their motorcycles and the officer in the truck started his engine.

“We’ll get you there safely,” he said.

Now we headed down the parade route the other way, me and my entourage, and I did wave again to some of the people who were still there by the side of the road. The cop and me up front, the rowdies and drunks in the back.

“It must be great fun being a policeman,” I said.

“It is,” he said.

“What’s the best about it?”

“I think it’s helping people out at their worst moments.”

At the back of the Huntting Inn, I thanked the officer for the ride, then hopped down to some people waiting for me there. Then I was escorted inside to a little parlor where, as I said earlier, I had been told I’d find this long line of kids and parents backed up out the door waiting for me.

I took my position, settling into this big red easy chair. And so, one at a time, the kids approached.

“And what is your name? And what do you want for Christmas?”

Some were struck dumb and speechless by this question. Others told me their names proud and loud. Some sat on my lap. Some were told to turn around and have their pictures taken with me. As for what they wanted, they’d whisper to me confidentially.

Overwhelmingly they wanted things made by Apple—an iPod, or an iPad or an iPhone. Slightly less often, they asked for video games, particularly one called a 3GS.

“What’s a 3GS?” I’d ask.

“It’s like a GS, but it’s a 3GS.”

Here I was, somebody from the Fourth Century. What did I know?

And so it ended. And I went home, weary, happy and very proud to have done what I did.

In our kitchen, I opened the envelope, which was addressed to SANTA CLAUS, NORTH POLE.

“I have been a very good boy throughout the year. I have a new baby brother named (name withheld). I promise to be good and generous. I will share my toys with him and I will take care of him always. Here is a list that me and (name withheld) would like for Christmas.”

It was an extensive list. It included a toy dog, a forklift toy, a crane, a log truck, a snow sled, a walkie-talkie, a Playmobil fire engine, a motorcycle.

Is this kid’s dad reading this?

After that, still in my Santa suit, I took a long nap by the fire in the living room.

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