You have to really love Christmas if you want to be Santa Claus. I know because I've been Santa. In a mall. And I never really got over it.
Years ago and on assignment, I spent four hours in a borrowed beard and suit listening to the demands of children and parents in a line that stretched 50 yards and around a corner.
It was exhausting. And painful. Hours of hysterical or catatonic children trampling Santa's tender bits takes a lot of the joy out of the season.
To get even, I told every little child I would bring them exactly what they wanted for Christmas except for the kid who wanted a real grizzly bear.
Me: "What the h…why do you want a bear?"
Kid: "To eat teasers at my school."
That made perfect sense to me. If I could have gotten the kid a bear myself, I would have.
I made sure the parents of other kids heard me when I said, "OK, Billy. There will be a motorcycle under the tree when you wake up. Ho, Ho."
Later I found out that as a "pretend" Santa, I wasn't supposed to promise the kids anything specific. It could set them up for major disappointment Christmas morning.
But it made the kids happy. Not the parents, though. Judging from the annoyed looks they shot me as they led their giddy kids away, Christmas had just gotten a lot more expensive.
If case you don't know it, that Santa thing was part of stage three in the natural progression of my personal Claus.
According to a list sent by a reader, there are four stages of Santa Claus in a guy's life. Here they are in order:
1. You believe in Santa Claus.
2. You don't believe in Santa Claus.
3. You are Santa Claus.
4. You look like Santa Claus.
Practically everyone remembers Stage 1, that magical time when anything was possible for Christmas if you could just be good for a few days.
By the time I was 9, I had Santa figured for either a liar or an idiot. I was bad and I still got stuff. That's when I started getting suspicious. And that's when I graduated to Stage 2.
Stage 2 was the most depressing. If Santa wasn't real, what else wasn't real? I became suspicious of everything I was told was real but hadn't yet seen for myself: Sasquatch, Disneyland, gravity, etc.
Then I got married and went immediately to Stage Three. This is the best stage of Claus. You're the one controlling the magic then. I loved getting my daughters what they wanted for Christmas. It was Christmas my way.
"You better be good because Santa is watching" was never heard at our house. My girls grew up with a greater Christmas imperative. "We better be good else Dad will shoot Rudolf." They knew I'd do it, too.
I've reached the final stage. My girls have kids of their own.
If I haven't shaved for a while, other people's kids sometimes give me double-takes in the store. They're still in the first stage, and I can see them wondering in awe: "Wow, Santa sure has let himself go."
Robert Kirby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.