The year is 1981. December 1981, to be precise. The place: Berlin, Germany. I was but a young lass of 19 then. Thin, leggy and pregnant to bursting. At that time I did not work. I was a proud wife of a military man. Berlin was a divided city, with an ugly grey wall marking the boundary between freedom and tyranny.
As I was fluent in German I took it upon myself to volunteer with ACS, nascent do-gooder, I. The American Community Services agency welcomed newly arrived soldiers and their families to this unique city and saw to their social and psychological needs, among other things. My responsibilities included showing the wives around, helping them shop ‘on the economy’ – meaning in local stores, teaching them bus routes and just generally getting them acclimated to being so far away from their home and families.
Besides being away from everything and everyone one loves, being deprived of tradition and celebration rituals is one of the most demoralizing things an expat can be subjected to. Therefore we at ACS did everything we could to make sure Christmas was done right in the Berlin Brigade family: gifts for unaccompanied soldiers and men who have not already found girlfriends, shopping trips for the wives and community parties, complete with food, drink and, of course, Santa for the kids.
Santa had a spot of honor in the PX lobby. For those unfamiliar with military terminology, PX means Post Exchange – the shopping center that caters to the military. You want to see a mob scene? Go to the PX in the weeks prior to Christmas. Unbelievable! And the line of tots wanting to sit on Santa’s lap? Well, I’ll tell you: that Santa player had to be one patient and enduring individual. I know of this because Santa was an ACS volunteer. He was a friend of mine, even though I disremember his name after all this time.
I do remember Bernie’s name, though. It was Bernie – a colonel, or was he a major? Another detail that escapes me now. It was Bernie, the ACS director that clomped down into our office, located on a sub-floor of the Berlin Brigade compound. Bernie flung open the door, let in some cold air and a few snow flurries, while exclaiming that we were surely in a pickle now!
Santa had passed out. The ambulance took him to the military hospital. Later, we got word that heat, dehydration and stress had done him in. But that was later. The pickle was now. Where were we going to find another Santa?
For those of you who have never filled that suit, playing Santa can be a very demanding role. The suit is hot, the beard itchy. Little, squirmy children climb all over you. Some pull your beard and others poke your belly – presumably to see if it really would shake like a bowlful of jelly. Nervous tots tend to wet and more nervous ones tend to cry and slide right off Santa’s lap. Most were too shy to say anything. Those that were not shy were sly.
Mostly, Santa benefits the parents. Little children really don’t care where they are at as long as their family unit is stable and they can make friends with other kids their age. Santa’s being in Berlin meant a lot to the parents, able to take that snapshot of Little Billy, Susie, Bobby or Sally to send back home. Remember, this is 1981: no personal computers and no instant upload. Video chat dwelled in the realm of science fiction. These cameras that captured Santa and Tot were called Instamatic, or Polaroid. They took real film that had to be wound between shots and required flash cubes. Santa’s patience had to be near inexhaustible while restless bottoms squirmed on his lap, so that Mom or Dad could capture that perfect holiday picture.
How do I know all about what Santa had to endure?
When Bernie came clomping down those step, flinging the door open with one hand and pulling his hair out with the other, I was in the office. As he dramatized around, wondering where an 11th hour Santa could be found, I was wracking my brain. As the minutes leaked by, an idea came to me.
“Bernie,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
“You’re a girl.” He practically decapitated me with the incredulity in his voice.
“Well, I know that. But I am built for the part right now, and with the beard and being seated most of the time, who is going to know?”
“Give me a ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’”
Me, possessed of a rather deep voice anyway, tucked my chin into my breast and dutifully intoned.
“Well, you’ll do, I guess. You’ll have to; there is nobody else.”
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how I celebrated my first Christmas with my daughter, now 31.
When I tell you the children like to poke Santa’s belly, I was not kidding. By no means was it a joy to have countless sharp elbows driven into my expectant belly. It is even less fun when the baby that belly is incubating gets irate and starts moving around. More than one child yelped in surprise and leapt off my lap as my daughter rolled around inside me. I guess kids don’t expect Santa’s belly to fight back.
One of the more sly children hung back, presumably disbelieving in this purported Santa. As I had to do with so many others, I reached forward to coax him onto my lap. Pull him onto my lap, if it came down to it. Per Bernie, my instructions were to be a good and welcoming Santa. Perhaps Bernie had an idea I would turn out to be a curmudgeon later in life? I was truly doing my best to be a welcoming, friendly Santa but that one tyke… he tested the very limits of my patience.
Leaning forward when hugely pregnant is not an activity I recommend. This devious little… child deliberately hung back, forcing me to reach out to him. Just as I grasped his wrist, he stepped backward. ‘What are you going to do now?’ his look communicated. Well, there wasn’t much I could do with a 10-pound baby sitting on my bladder that felt ready to let go about 45 minutes ago.
Precious, darling child. I remember him well.
But the one I remember best is the little boy who inadvertently jogged his elbow into my side, causing an involuntary groan of pain. Immediately contrite, he started crying. OH, NO!! What kind of Santa am I to make children cry? I did my best to console him. Unfortunately I totally forgot that I was wearing a red suit, a beard and that I was supposed to be a man. My voice slipped into its normal upper register as I cooed soothingly, hoping to calm him down.
Well, I got him to shut up but only because suddenly, Santa sounded suspiciously female. He had been potty trained – something I was grateful for, but he had not been trained to assimilate a Santa gender confusion. He looked at me in disbelief, slowly slid off my lap and crabbed sideways toward his mother, his eyes never leaving my face. Fortunately this lovely woman had already gotten the shot she wanted, so she was more than happy to take her tot in tow. As they were leaving the Official Santa Enclosure – the mock up ‘North Pole With Armchair’ that is the bane of every fake Santa the world over, I heard him tell his mother, voice filled with awe: “Mommy! Santa is a LADY!”
That was it. End-of-pregnancy heat flashes and having my baby play football with my bladder apparently wasn’t torture enough in repayment of my kindly and selfless Santa act. This kid had to make me want to laugh hysterically, to boot! I told a nearby ‘elf’, also an ACS volunteer that I needed a break. She hung out the shingle that said Santa would be back in 30 minutes. I took myself to the nearest bathroom, making sure I unbuttoned my costume so that people could see I was a woman going into the ladies’ room, not some twisted Santa pervert.
Of course, in those days we didn’t have to worry about Santa being a pervert. Or anyone else, either. It seems those were gentler times, when kindness was a matter of course and community meant people gathering together.
Nowadays, community seems to imply some sort of social media. Many other things have changed since my stint as Santa. Digital photography and smartphones pretty much guarantee that family everywhere will get to see pictures the minute a tot hops onto Santa’s lap. Most likely, some elderly relative would be on the other end of that phone, with Mom or Dad encouraging Terrified Tot to ‘Say Hello To…”
The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, just in time for jubilant citizens of Germany, so long divided, to reunite for their fist Christmas together since 1961. That may well be the best, and greatest change of my little Santa story.
Well, maybe the best after my daughter’s arrival, a few weeks after my turn as the Man (Woman) in Red. Jennifer was born a few days before Christmas. I had never before, and have never since received such a beautiful, meaningful, life altering Christmas gift.
And I have never shared this story with her. So this year, my Christmas gift to her and to you, Dear Readers, is this story. One that, for some reason I’ve never seen fit to make a part of our family Christmas lore.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all! And especially to you, my Bug.