Richard Meltzer dresses up and plays Santa

Far fewer Santa partisans than Elvis partisans are terminal scuzz

I step lively to my deskchair throne in the northwest corner of Kobey’s Swap Meet, Sports Arena parking lot.
  • I step lively to my deskchair throne in the northwest corner of Kobey’s Swap Meet, Sports Arena parking lot.
  • Image by Dave Allen

The Times reported that Steven Jones, an assistant professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University, proclaimed Santa Claus a sexist fertility symbol. "There is an aura of expectancy surrounding Santa's arrival, and he is rotund in the same way as a pregnant woman." Jones said Santa gives things and comes down the chimney, a characteristic of the stork of another myth. “Santa is a male character who has usurped a female's role.” —Ishmael Reed, The Terrible Twos

St. Nicholas, in addition to protecting sailors, children, travellers, and merchants, is also the patron saint of pawnbrokers.

—Henry Vollam Morton, In the Steps of St. Paul

Santa is Satan spelled inside out.

—Rev. Dick Casey, “Keeping the Pornographers Away from Christmas”

Meltzer getting dressed. “You’ve lost weight, Santa,” says more them one wiseass.

Meltzer getting dressed. “You’ve lost weight, Santa,” says more them one wiseass.

Really, I’ve got no answers 'bout Santa. Or if not none let’s call it few. Is Santa symptomatic relief for the seasonal hand-as-dealt, f'rinstance, symptomatic relief within the hand-as-dealt, or simply (in a nutshell) the hand-as-dealt? Can’t answer that one, I would really kinda love to but no, cannot — not even after scorching my weenie on the pyre of empirical knowing.

The sacrifice, the offering: to be Santa, if only for a day. Less than a day actually, but those hours really drag. In some ways it was worse than a trip to the dentist.


“You’ve lost weight, Santa,” says more them one wiseass as rigged to the shorthairs like the famed northern fatty I step lively to my spot, my chair, my deskchair throne in the northwest corner of Kobey’s Swap Meet, Sports Arena parking lot, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Even with all I et two evenings previous, even with leftovers and a deepgrease breakfast at Burger King, I am no fatso myself, not this week — “Whatsamatter, Santa, Mrs. Claus watering your eggnog?”

“Ho huh ho," I snap back, adjusting my pillow. If I'm gonna play this asshole I might as well play him right. Probably should’ve grabbed a belly bundle, so-called, along with

the rest of this shit: the zipper top, the drawstring pants, the 4” belt, the beard, the hair, the hat, the specs, the bottomless, toeless boots, the suspenders, the, that’s it, I passed on the gloves. And a sack. All for 65 bucks (plus tax), crushed velvet. Ten bucks more you get upholstery velvet; ten less, a ratty corduroy. No bigspender, no rat, I take the median, the mean: hold the gloves (five more), hold the belly bundle (ten), though in hindsight I probably shouldn’t've. This is just to rent, of course. To own you might as well own an upholstery.

Slouching furtively against a booth selling lampshades, I unzip the coat, adjust the 'spenders, fluff the pillow up towards my chin: a fat chest’ll fool ’em. Girth ... height...'s a good thing I won’t be standing (call me Shorty). Fluffed and seated, howev, I'm a credible Claus, down to the Nikes poking out from my bootthings. I reach in my bag for a candy.

Peppermint canes, I have three kinds, I’ve got Xmas-wrapped chocolates, two kinds of those, hundreds of each. For variety (and ballast), I’ve also brought some matter from home, worthless objects from my closets and etc., Goodwill-bound anyway so might as well unload ’em one on one: chartreuse ceramic piggy bank, matching dogshead pencil sharpeners, eight promo 45s by unsung and/or inept C&W vocalists, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (a glib waste of paper you should never read), Douglas Kiker’s Murder on Clam Pond (tiny type; ditto), Absalom! Absalom! with the last 10 pages missing, issue #6 of Kicks (“The Bobby Fuller Four Story"), string tie with a murdered scorpion, large bag of broken glass (ONLY KIDDING!), six dozen felt-tip markers found in the trash, three plastic cocktail forks, sample-size Royal Copenhagen stick deodorant, slightly dried 4 fl. oz. Elmer’s Glue-All, formerly adjustable San Francisco Giants cap, and a tin of Portugal Pride sardines (no salt added). But no pennies. I did think of it but nah, 800 cent-pieces are heavy, too heavy for whatever limited kid-joy they might trigger. Kids don’t want pennies, nobody wants pennies, pennies on swapmeet pavement — I count seven ’tween car and Santa chair —sez nobody wants ’em. (Speaking of valueless.)

So I reach down, come out with matter fresh or stale, wave it overhead: come & git it! And they do.


A warm red will prove exciting, another shade of red will cause pain or disgust through association with running blood.

—Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Behind a beard, one belongs a little less to one’s bishop, to the hierarchy, to the Church as a political force; one looks freer, a bit of an independent, more primitive in short, benefiting from the prestige of the first hermits, enjoying the blunt candor of the founders of monastic life, the depositories of the spirit against the letter: wearing a beard means exploring in the same spirit the slums, the land of the early Britons or Nyasaland.

—Roland Barthes, “The Iconography of the Abbe Pierre”

He knows when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you 're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good but I don’t frigging care if they’re bad or good. I don’t. For the objectives and purps of the transaction, of our transaction (boys & girls!), bad is as good as good (if not better). This sword-of-vengeance Santa biz has got to go. I’ve got no truck with such hooey but I’ll do the ritual, do it emptily (the best way) for the sake of you know, so when this little girl about four comes up and before I realize it is just goddam hugging me—“Ooh, Santa," squeeze, cuddle, tiny yellow sweater sleeves on my person —I wait till she’s through clinging and tell her, “I know, heh —don’t even gotta ask — I know you’ve been a good little girl,” to which she whispers, v. coyly (the little coquette): “No, I haven’t.” Original guilt!! Or something. (But I dunno, is it ABSOLUTION she’s tryin’ to score with the hug, a conscious attempt to whore her way into my frail, forgiving heart? Playing me for a sap, is she? Nice try... I don’ know.)

Then I’d get these criers and weepers, wailers. Some kids burst when they came within a couple-three yards of me. A female 2-year-old sees me, whimpers, her ma’s embarrassed, pushes her closer: WAAAAAA! (Ma takes a candy cane for later.) Male 2'/2’er in a stroller don’ like me, goes BAZOONY. Screams, flails, thrusts at my beard, tries to escape but he’s strapped to the stroller, looks to mommydaddy for assist ’n’ support but they ain’t budging: “Look — Santa! It’s Santa." Who offers him a larger cane, two canes, three canes and a toy — same deal.

Maybe it's simply the brat has not been primed to meet Santa; prepare him for the meet (the argue might run) and he'd be all googoo—

Irremediable bratbastard misery. And I don’t think (one theory) it’s the knows when you're awake program that’s got him spooked, y’know moral fear ’n’ trembling before an allknowing/alljudging Topical Etc. The li’l guy seems a tad too young for such a number, for it to’ve already been coded in the hokey mythic form of some whitebearded fuck.

Or maybe it’s simply the brat has not been primed to meet Santa; prepare him for the meet (the argue might run) and he’d be all googoo — genuine or otherwise — all smiles. Santa as surprise changes the setup, but what in the setup — worst-case scenario — could be so monstrous, could scare (so possibly literal) a load out of ’em? I can’t imagine it’s the velvet, the red, so it must be the beard, the actual beard (qua opti-primordial etc.). HEY: this is no Jerry Garcia whisker module we’re talkin’, no Gary Blackman (you don’t know him) or Kenny Rogers avuncular tuft. There’s nothing benign or grampslike ’bout the Laocoon special which extends past my belt, the Mesopotamian rectangle-thatch which... you get the picture. SANTA (PER SE) AS MONSTER. Santa is monster! Or maybe it’s me — do I smell bad? [Sniff, sniff.]

Easily the greatest short-run series of all time, CBS’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker brought a different monster to Chicago for each of its 13 installments. First a vampire, then a werewolf, a zombie, a mummy, a dinosaur in the sewers, a robot, a variation on Bigfoot, then they ran out of mainstream spookems and hadda go with stuff like this giant from the Middle Ages who used a crossbow and, I dunno, I think there was some sort of “living electricity" — the kind that thinks (and is evil) — in a new office building... the pickings got lean (and leaner). So HOW, I’m wondering now, could they have missed these two beauts: self and Santa? Kolchak seeks monster, the monster is him. Next week: Santa. Or would sponsors have objected to this corporate ‘deconstruction’ of the old winter fughead? Santa’s market ‘message’: spend that ye may give to expectant urchins?? Receive that ye may expect/demand more of same??

(Is shit I am thinking as rain starts to fall.)


When I rented my Claus suit the haggard folks I rented from were, they said, “just getting over the Halloween rush.” Obviously, from certain obvious p.o.v.’s, Christmasinamerica has become in recent years something of a secondary Halloween, no, not secondary, second: a second take on trick or treat in less than two months. Maybe it’s Halloween itself whose relative stakes have been upped, but whatever. If Actual Santa (idealized, Himself) is the promise of an upped trick-or-treat ante, of a higher bounty soon to shake its buns, then mall Santa and department store Santa and swap meet Santa (as present-tense, immediate-gratification stand-ins for Himself) are the dregs of Halloween: trick-or-treat pickings ante’d down. (Would you eat candy canes? / wouldn’t eat candy canes. Even as a child I abstained.)

From Halloween to Christmas there’s a v. crucial reversal: at Christmas it’s the giver not the receiver who dresses up, who plays (and must play) if not monster then clown. Buffoon. Or whatever it is that Stand-in Santa ideally (i.e., conventionally) is. A child-compliant, parental-user-friendly comic jerkington. And it ain’t so much that parents posit in this bozo ultimate responsibility for placating their little darlings, for momentarily keeping Christmas (qua screaming Demand) at bay — that part’s easy — it’s simply they aren’t the ones donning the IDIOT SUIT, suitplaying the dipshit (not for their own!): a dirty biz but someone’s gotta do it. Comic costumed servitude is comic costumed servitude — right? — and c.c.s. can’t help but render even the Santa “impulse” ludicrous, or if not ludicrous then (tamer wd.?) bathetic.

The only mega-role ‘lower’ is that of Elvis. Ronald McDonald — is he multiplayable? (Does every town have a Ronald on hold?) (A Ronald uniform?) Elvis and Santa: some comparisons. Santa’s validity as concept, as function, is most readily undermined by age, Elvis’s by history — his own history. The last incontrovertible echo of his initial viable GASP, for inst, was “Teddy Bear” — spring ’57 — after which he essentially became his own first (if not best) impersonator. Santa, meanwhile, having no personal history, is merely, normally outgrown & abandoned. [NOTE: while a case could be made that the oldtimer is “currently” employed by Scrooge (among grimy others), just as Elvis once worked for the Colonel, didn’t he “always" (in an ahistoric sense) show no preference for employer, the ultimate freelance grub?] Elvis, far too often unabandoned (in a Time that cares not for History), counts as nondetractors countless feebs, dupes, self-deluders and diehard simps — i.e., far fewer Santa partisans than Elvis partisans are terminal scuzz.

Now, if we consider the ongoing mass response to that relatively finite number who don the costume of President...


And so, apropos of my opening dentist line, how, why, in what way(s) izzit torturous? Well, okay, I’ve got a cold, a cold sore and I hate crowds, especially shopping crowds, and well-behaved children mean about as much to me as show dogs or trained seals or bears that ride bicycles. It’s the infantile unconscious, so-called — the source of all Life, Meaning and Whoopee — that appeals to me, that I seek living instantiations of, but aside from a few panicky toddlers I’ve barely encountered much juvenile outpour. All I’ve seen is kids accepting bad candy or a mutilated Faulkner, telling me they want a skateboard for Xmas (“What color?” “Green”) or a Barbie (“Just one?” “No, two” — mommy loves that one). 1 wanna meet some young anarchists, sonsdaughters who say Yabbadabbadabbadabbadoodydoodooweeweefuggadugga-wugga, Jack or at least For Xmas, Santa, I would v. much like a ton of squid with spider sauce, make that skyblue spider sauce. If they don’t, who needs ’em?

Actually, two kids say goodstuff. A perky 5-year old asks: “What color are your eyes?” “Red,” I tell her, but she knows better: “No, what color are they really?" “Brown.” “I knew it.” An hour later, an observant 6-year-old, spotting the Philadelphia Flyers watch peering out under my Santa sleeve, tells me: “That’s a dumb-looking Santa watch.” For which I’m truly grateful. Precious mem’ries I’ll retain for at least a week or, should I reread this, longer.

Anyway, a cold. Got one. My mustache is a wad of mucous and sheepdog hair, and the rain’s really coming down now, wetting (and weighing down) my cap and coat. Pillow, pants and feet’re already sopping from all the sweat. This suit was made for suff’ring: discomfort designed, factored, in. Chin cloth tight on jaw, restricting speech. Hair over eyes, glasses foggy — if some kid came at me with an Uzi 1 wouldn’t see jackshit. As Christ’s secular bodydouble I guess it’s my lot to suffer. (A neglected reading of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”: Christ exists to be iconically abused; to be eternally, perpetually abused; if not, He's abdicated half the role of being

Christ.) Santa w/an umbrella: dig the distress!

Or maybe I’m just a grouchy old cuss, an old crank, a cranky old fart (Yes, I admit it: not a young man!) and I’m proud. Or whatever.


Faith is the opposite of love. Love recognizes virtue even in sin, truth in error. It was faith, not love, not reason, which invented Hell.

— Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity

Disbelief — healthy; neurotic; merely rational — has always been a piece o’ the pie. Nearly four decades past, when I was 5 or 6, there was this Thanksgiving telecast from a couple of cities simultaneous, back and forth with crosscuts and stuff, each one featuring a parade with a Santa. What the deuce? I wondered (the seeds of doubt). And today at Kobey’s, ripples of suspicion from the peanut gallery: "What's Santa doing here?" Good question but is that here, San Diego?

Here, Kobey’s (as opposed to Horton Plaza)? Or simply here, where-we-now-happen-to-be? Ripples.

Nobody ever really tries that hard to maintain the ruse, and why should they? Kids find out, fuck ’em, they’ll live, right? — and if not now, next year — 's an e-z way of shuffling in benign disillusionment. It’s also, in the meantime, generatrix of an oddly casual (& oft cavalier) blend of parental caution and caution-to-the-wind, a mixed strategy of forcefeeding faith while toying with a tyke’s goddam psyche — which is par for prob’ly any parental course (what the hey), no harm, no foul. What’s cheesy is it too often ends with Santa, never gets extended to ritual forcefeedings of more substantial import, like God per se (or Country). Too few ruses are age-coded if y’ask me; far too many are portioned and ladeled in life doses.

THE PISS SANTA — My candies and trash all gone, I head for the Sports Arena men’s rm. Along with men are boys, and a boy no more than 6-6 1/2 follows my progress. The gig complete, my cold in overdrive, I'm of no mind to continue the masquerade, observers notwithstanding. Junior eyes me first with curiosity (gee: so Santa tinkles too), then, as I remove the beard, confusion, and finally, as I swig “Santa tonic” (a cognac miniature): what, anger? Yup. The kid is not benignly disillusioned: he is pissed.


Though his toes stick out just as far as mine did, the Horton Plaza Santa is a tall sonofabitch in white gloves and upholstery-velvet suit who sits on this actual ersatz throne, quite regal (or let’s say: Horton Plaza regal) amid seasonal chintz beyond swap meet capability. Kids do occasionally cry (so it wasn’t mere surprise, and it probably wasn’t me) but they line up long and straight (my only lines were two deep, lateral, and moving) and, finished with the encounter, they receive stiff paper fold-a-buildings which resemble, at the safe distance from which I observe, architectural modules of Horton Plaza itself: this (inotherwords) is a Santa, a Santa concept, a Scrooge-generated Santa ruse, which should be napalmed. (Or something.) Compared to this Death Santa, I was one guiltless, guileless Li’l St. Nick, and though I will never be him/play him again ... th’ fuck do / know?

Next: I play dentist for a day ... with YOUR teeth! □

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