Portrait

She thought she'd been nice, but maybe she'd been naughty. Why else would Santa refuse to see our writer? By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Doorstopping St Nick

The woman on the department store switchboard is enthusiastic about my request. “I just have to double check with the external publicity firm that we use to manage this stuff,” she says. “But it sounds good.”

Hours later, after they’ve read some of my work, she calls back. Her tune has changed. “On this occasion, we are going to decline the use of Santa.” Indignance sets in. Santa Claus is public property. Santa Claus is for everybody. How is it possible to deny access to Santa? 

Several days later, among five-year-olds in mini-graduation gowns and overtired little carollers, a sashaying size-10 Saint Nicola enters my daughter’s Christmas concert. Her ash-blonde lady-beard cascades down her jaw. Mascara-lengthened lashes lid the doe-eyes peeping through between her curly white-blonde wig and neatly trimmed moustache. She offers a gentle ho ho ho to 50 or so staring children. “It’s a beautiful young lady-Santa this year,” one of the fathers observes approvingly. His partner rolls her eyes. 

The kids stare at Saint Nicola: sack over shoulder, swimming red Santa suit hanging to knees, spindly legs poking through underneath. “Ho ho ho. Merry Christmas!” she says, in her ordinary voice. The children make an unspoken collective decision, move closer in, accept candy canes. Later, the centre manager gives a speech thanking the TAFE student who’ll soon be leaving the centre, staring directly at Santa.

Bulging belly

Melbourne city Santa sits in a small open shack under the looming sandstone triangles of St Paul’s Cathedral, surrounded by emerald green synthetic grass, baubled Christmas trees and striped candy cane installations. Entrances to the Santa viewing area are guarded by three-metre-tall soldier statues: gold buttons glistening on tomato-red jackets. “I’ll come with you so you’re not scared,” my four-year-old condescends when I beg her to visit Santa with me. “But I’m not sitting on his lap.”

Santa sits on a Narnian golden throne, peering over spectacles. His top bulges at the belly, but his knees are thin underneath the red cotton. He carefully accepts a sleeping newborn, smiles gently as her mother takes
a photograph.

My daughter’s wary. “Let’s stay over here.” We watch a line of kids and parents file past. Mothers step into photographs to calm the crying, or move back in order to get stand-offish children and smiley Santa into the same frame. “Write that they’re all crying,” my daughter says helpfully. An elf walks past in lime-green short shorts and a white short-sleeved shirt with black suspenders over the top, striped socks pulled up to knees. She hands us an “I’m On The Nice List” fake tattoo. “Aren’t you going to see Santa?” “No.” “But Santa’s lovely!” A skylarking group of teenagers gather around Santa, hand their cameras over to a giggling elf.

Santa's Cave

Inside the fancy department store, Santa’s housed on the fifth floor: up past the make-up and accessories, around the lingerie and designer wear, through the thousand-thread-count sheets and packed shelves of kids’ toys. “You can go in and see Santa’s Cave, but you’ll need an appointment to get a photograph with him.”

Inside, mechanised elves are busy in the kitchen or workshop. Three Shetland pony-sized reindeer peer out of a barn, gently nodding. The plastic Christmas trees are adorned with purchasable merchandise: jellybeans, chocolate drops. The Best Before date on most of the sweet packets reads November 2015.

A group of kids is chatting to a large tree sculpted into the back wall. She has blue eyes, a slightly gnarled nose and a twiggy beard and eyebrows. Sheets of felt snow lie at her feet. “What’s your name?” she asks the boy leaning over the railing. “Tom.” “Hello, Tom. Have you seen Santa yet?” Tom seems bewildered. 

After the kids move away, the tree tells me one little boy, wielding a plastic sword, threatened to chop her down. “Did he go on Santa’s naughty list?” “I think Santa has a good sense of humour,” she replies carefully. 

Only one Santa

“Is there only the one Santa?” I ask the woman at the front of the Santa line, trying to peer past the red velvet curtain. “Of course there’s only one Santa! What’s wrong with you?” she hisses, eyeing her daughter to see if she heard. “Of course. Silly me.” I ask the worker guarding the curtain if I can see Santa. “Just for two minutes,” I coax. “Well, I do have a Santa about to come on a break. I guess you can come in here and wait for him.” I stand nervously next to a turquoise-blue organ, its music stand holding the sheet music to “Good King Wenceslas”. 

Another store worker walks in. “What are you here for?” I explain again. “Go back outside the curtain,” she bristles. Outside the curtain, she lets loose. “You have to get official clearance. I’m getting my manager.” A little boy stares up at us. “Why can’t that lady see Santa?” he asks his mum. “Is she a Bad Lady?” His mum looks at me, raises an eyebrow in disapproval.

I’m escorted out of Santa’s Cave. Another man arrives, jaw clenched. “Can you please come over here?” he ushers me 30 metres away to a purchase counter. I explain my request for the third time. “You can’t go in there. You need clearance from our publicity firm.” “Why?” “I can’t comment on that.” “Well, what if I write down my questions and Santa can email me the answers?” He reluctantly takes out a pen. A fourth worker strides over, decidedly furious. “What are you doing?” she snaps at her co-worker. “Writing down her questions to send through,” he says. “Well, don’t.” She turns to me. “I’m the deputy store manager. You can’t just walk in here and see Santa. You have to get clearance.”

I make my way down the escalators: past the sparkly decorations, away from the fluorescent lighting, into the mass of shoppers bustling about outside in the warm summer evening. 

“Did you find the Real Santa and tell him my list?” my daughter asks later.

“I couldn’t find him, honey. Maybe we should post your list?” Or maybe your mother’s the Bad Lady who stalked Santa. Maybe she ticked off his extensive team of minders and publicists and got kicked out of the Cave of Wonders. Maybe she ruined your present prospects for life. Merry Christmas, darling.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 20, 2014 as "Doorstopping St Nick". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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