author's note: This piece was originally published on the Editorial Page of the Wall Street Journal as an Editorial (NOT as a Letter to the Editor). The incidents described are true and the quotations are word for word. I offer it as an alternative to "Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus," that insipid holiday bromide.
Except perhaps for the violence of the "games" nothing much has changed in the years since its first publication a few days before Christmas, 1994.
Earlier this month St. Nick made a storefront appearance in the heart of one of the poorest urban areas in the country. Although the notices in store windows around the area had said Santa would be here from 3PM to 5PM, the line started forming at Noon.
A cold steady rain gusted into the lines that snaked along under the flaking marquee of the long-defunct movie theater used as a staging area for the overflow crowd. The children's responses to Santa implied few were true believers.
"Ah, Power Ranger," Santa said in reply to one little boy's request. "Well now - ho, ho, ho, I'll see what can be done."
"Yeah, do that."
"A Sega game?" Santa asked. "Keep being good and Santa will try. No promises now. The stores are all out of them, but I'll try."
The docility of their despair made Santa's job easier. He had trouble only with those who still believed in his powers.
A seven year old asked for a gun.
"What kind of toy gun do you want from Santa?"
The look the boy gave Santa was the look a rational person gives an idiot while trying to decide if this fool is just a fool, or is trying to be insulting.
"I mean a real gun; one that shoots real bullets."
"But guns hurt people," Santa objected. "Why do you want a real gun?"
The look intensified and the tone was exasperated. "I want a real gun like Daddy had. He had one but they took it."
"Who took it?" The ground beneath Santa began to shift as he realized he was into an adult conversation; grimly adult.
"The damn cops." The little boy didn't exactly use the word "damn" but a certain 12 letter adjective that contains a maternal reference. "They took it when they put Daddy in jail. I want to shoot the damn cops and get Daddy out of jail. If I had a gun I could get him out."
One of the hovering elves handed the boy his free coloring book and candy cane, then lifted him down. As he walked away, Santa called after him, "Merry Christmas."
The boy did not look back - waste 'a time talking that ole fat fool.
It was a relief that the next dozen or so kids each wanted only a heavily advertised electronic game infamous for its violent images and screams of pain, something many of them apparently found familiar and comfortable.
That respite ended with a little girl, about age nine. Her dirty blonde hair was wet from the cold rain outside, and she wore a thin, garishly colored jacket that held no warmth. The side of her face and neck was blue, tinged with green - a fresh bruise.
"I want a police car outside my house."
"Real cops?" By now, Santa knew the score.
"Yeah, so they'll be right there to stop mommy and her boyfriend from hitting each other and - "
Santa could see the tears forming in her eyes. As he hugged her, she pressed forward into Santa's beard and whispered, " - and if the cops are out there, maybe that will stop them from hitting me, too."
It was back again to Power Rangers and Sega toys. Not once all afternoon, did anyone ask for anything else that required creative input. Eventually, there was one request for a Barbie doll, clearly an aberrant desire, as was the request from one girl, perhaps ten or eleven, who wanted "a real microscope so I can see things really clear."
Of the hundreds in line, only five or so were adult males. One had an attitude and reputation that preceded him. Santa's helpers carried a warning up to the throne. "He's been trying to jump ahead from one line to the shorter one as it winds back and forth and he's gotten into name-calling with four different mothers. We'd throw him out but then we'd have to evict the two kids who are with him."
The man finally passed through and away, muttering, "That flier said 'Free Gift.' I sure as hell didn't want no damn colorin' book." Until he left, one of Santa's helpers was a temporary visitor from the nearby mini-precinct, in a blue suit with a chromed badge.
The parade shuffled on. There was only one request for books, but there were a few pleas for "a quieter apartment, or at least a room of my own." Six different children asked that Santa come home with them to be Daddy. One mother climbed onto Santa's lap and asked what time he got off work. "I need you to come take care of me and these three kids. I'm so tired." She was serious.
For the next week or so, until Christmas, and through the foreseeable seasons for as long as he can, Santa will keep asking the children to tell him their hopes and wishes. Those who still believe in the power of Santa will have an innocent trust to sustain them for a few weeks, or even few seasons, but sooner or later they will catch on. Santa doesn't have what they want, or even more important, what they need.