At the elf station, there was only an empty canister of Wet Ones, a box of Kleenex and a plastic bottle of hand sanitizer. Elves were scarce, and Santa’s gilded throne was unoccupied. A novelty clock indicated he would be back soon.
“Maybe he’s at Smitty’s,” said my daughter, Avia, who was just about to turn five.
We had entered Bonnie Doon Mall near Smitty’s to avoid the crowds at the Santa’s Castle entrance. Only there were no crowds. It was 4 p.m. on a Monday, so school had been out for 45 minutes. I could accept that Santa and his elves were having veal cutlets and rhubarb pie, but where were the children?
When Santa did arrive, we were first in line. We were the only ones in line. The elf was dressed like a woman in her 20s.
Avia wiggled out of her snowsuit and sprinted to Santa. Esmé, who is three, danced and hopped about nervously. It took some convincing, but eventually she sat atop Santa’s left knee and looked off in the direction of the cellphone store, glancing back coyly at the big man.
The Bonnie Doon Santa’s beard is authentic and his belly doesn’t appear to be stuffed with pillows. He wears a high-quality velvet suit. His elf was all business. We had prepaid for a $14.99 photo, and she had text messages to send. She shook a bell and yoo-hoo’d at the kids.
Santa asked Avia what she wanted for Christmas. She shrugged and said something about a dress in a small voice only I could hear. But the Bonnie Doon Santa is a pro. He launched into a series of leading questions about a bear. It ended with Avia wanting a white bear with a red bow. Esmé, who had lost the ability to speak altogether, found herself wanting a Princess Barbie.
“Oh great,” said my wife, Gina.
The girls got down and Santa directed them to a large basket of candy canes. They were allowed one each. “I got them at Zellers,” Santa said.
“You mean North Pole Zellers?”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “That one.”
Since the kids hadn’t eaten dinner yet, I did that thing parents sometimes do.
“Maybe we can hang them on the Christmas tree. Or eat them for dessert.”
“Oh come on, man!” Santa stood up from his throne, with surprising swiftness. “Don’t do that to them.”
Some teenage girls came by, and their boyfriends took iPhone photos of them with Santa. They pretended to kiss him on each cheek, somewhat luridly.
Gina went to Safeway, so Avia and Esme sat on a bench and looked at Santa, who stared off in the direction of the food court. The elf texted. Avia and Esme waved to Santa, with their sticky candy cane hands, but he didn’t notice. A few minutes later, they forgot he was there.
The Internet is alive with Santas doing un-Santa-like things, like fist-fighting and smoking marijuana cigarettes, because we think it’s funny. It is funny, but it’s still a loss. Santa is accessible, ubiquitous. He’s in-store credit. To little kids today, who are denied little, a friendly Santa who represents their desire for toys, video games and candy is about as magical as Visa.
Belief, in our culture, is effortless. Missionaries offer home delivery. Churches advertise on bus benches and billboards, offering us the possibility of instant conversion miracles. But if something comes so easy, is it worth dreaming about?
Since visiting Santa, Avia and Esmé have decided he can skip our chimney-less house. They have enough toys, too many, and he’ll be busy with other kids. None of this came from their parents; we want them to believe in Santa and then, someday, to secretly grieve over their unbelief. Like we did.
If Santa is simply a conduit for a Barbie Fairy-tactic Princess, which is worth slightly more than a pack of smokes, is he worthy of lost sleep on Christmas Eve?
Ideally, he fills a void — wondrously. So what’s our void? Are we so lucky, in Canada, that we don’t have one?
At this time last year, I lived with my family on the west coast of Brittany. Our city, Douarnenez, like a lot of villages and cities in France, had several empty and neglected stone churches that would be national heritage sites in Canada. The Catholic religion, a foundation of French culture and society until the wrecking ball of doubt that was the Second World War, is more alive in museums and art galleries than in places of worship.
In December, Douarnenez also had several cheaply produced posters advertising the arrival of Père Noël; I had always translated Père Noël, Father Christmas, as Santa Claus.
There were differences, both subtle and profound.
Père Noël was not pulled to Douarnenez by reindeer. He would sail into the bay in a pretty boat. People talked about him for weeks; both children and adults spoke of his coming visit with sincere, curiously ominous joy. French humour takes longer than a year to comprehend, so until the big night I never knew if our friends and acquaintances were being ironic.
There were no parking spots anywhere near the marina; everyone in the city had come. A carousel had been set up, and a truck was selling ice cream. We spotted our landlords, Jean-Michel and Angèle, near the water. As soon as he saw the kids, Jean-Michel picked up Esmé and hauled her like a battering ram toward a small metal fence. He shouted at me to follow with Avia.
“If we’re not close, they won’t see anything.” Jean-Michel jostled his neighbours. “It’ll be a failure.”
We stood making small talk about the price of champagne, in Canada and in France, and fending off Douarnenistes who sought to muscle us out of our prime positions. None of this made any sense. France is, officially and unofficially, a rigorously secular country. Belief and the trappings of belief, since the middle of the 20th century, have fit anywhere on a continuum from unfashionable to illegal.
Why had so many people come out to see a man dressed up as a cartoon?
Just as Avia and Esmé began to yawn and struggle impatiently, red floodlights popped on in the marina. A mist rose up out of the bay. A yellow star appeared in the distance. Everyone fell silent, even the sugar-spiked 11-year-old boys who had resolved not to believe in Santa, as the phantom boat, decorated like a Christmas tree, docked.
“Ça c’est Père Noël?” said Avia.
“Shh,” said Jean-Michel.
Music began to play, the haunting French Christmas classic Petit Papa Noël by Tino Rossi, first recorded in 1946. Men in robes walked up the pier, out of the red fog, bearing long smoking candles; it was a Catholic procession. The song, a little boy’s plea for Santa not to forget him, is in the form of a hymn. It begins with cathedral bells and progresses with a grand church organ, leading to a sweet and modest chorus.
Angèle and Jean-Michel were silently weeping. So were other adults, old enough to remember the comfort that came with a national religion. The children were not screaming for Père Noël like he was a rock star, or shouting that they wanted Barbie Fairy-tactic Princesses. They were absolutely silent, obedient.
Finally he appeared. He was thin and walked slowly, nodded gravely at the children. He wore his hood like a bishop so his face was too shadowed to see. There was no bag; he carried toys in a lobster trap fashioned into a backpack. As he passed, he shook some hands. He reached for Avia’s hand. This was a silent negotiation; if she were good, pure of heart, she would be touched, somehow, by this magic man.
Père Noël was no jolly, happy soul. He didn’t represent simple want or desire, not like Santa. He was the spirit of the empty churches and cathedrals of France, the lost comforts of God and faith and community and mystery. In the postwar rush to be different than we had been before, more vigilant, less superstitious, something beautiful had been abandoned along with the cruelty and stupidity. He was the Ghost of France Past.
The mayor, senator and regional councillor welcomed Père Noël on stage, ceremoniously, the way they would welcome the president of the republic — though without any of the artificial backslapping and small-talk that accompanies a political rally. He was asked how the sea had been.
The sea had been calm. Blessed, said Père Noël.
We believed every word he said.
(first published by Postmedia)