It was the late 1960s in department store in Saint John, New Brunswick. I was 4 or 5, dressed up in my green velvet dress with a white lace collar, standing with my father at the end of a long line of rowdy kids and frazzled parents. The line looped back on itself three or four times before reaching the platform where, one at a time, kids were escorted up to Santa’s throne to sit on his lap, whisper their secret wishes and have their annual photo taken for the grandparents.
We were a little different than the other families in line. Firstly, all of the other families were being herded by a mom – pretty ladies in their skirts and heels trying to juggle packages, bags, mittens, hats and kids.
Secondly, Dad was one of only four men in the line, the only one there as primary kid-wrangler.
Thirdly, other than the man we were all there to see, dad was the only person there with a beard, a big black beard and thick military-style black-rimmed glasses.
Finally, while the adults in line kept taking sidelong glances at us, I stood quietly holding my father’s hand staring openly at their kids.
I’m an only child and it was absolutely fascinating to see other kids jacked up on sugar, squished all into a line and coping with the excitement and 30-minute wait to seeing Santa up close. Kids were ducking back and forth under the ropes. Swinging from their mother’s purses. Kicking each other. Screaming. Pulling off their winter clothes and dumping them in a piles all over the place. There were even a couple of kids crying.
Near the front of the line there was one little girl in tears. Her older brother, who was only eight or nine himself, was trying to reassure her. When it was his sister’s turn to go up, she was still terrified and hanging white knuckled to her mother. Her brother pushed in front of her, walked right up the stairs to Santa and just before he was about to sit down, he stopped. He looked Santa square in the face, and then he reached out and tugged on Santa’s beard.
There was a gasp from the line-up as the beard came completely off leaving a clean-shaven man, dressed as Santa, sitting on the throne looking a bewildered and foolish.
Everyone turned to look where he was pointing. I looked up at the man holding my hand. Dad looked nervous.
We rushed out of the store leaving a trail of kids yelling out their Christmas wishes and parents yelling out other things.