I have no photo of Santa...
But here is a picture of the kids who went to visit him on a December morning in 1983 I only remember 2 things about the magical Santa at the St. Louis department store. One thing was the color of his skin. The other is the reaction of the children when they saw him.
Famous-Barr Department Store
I recently visited St. Louis and saw the old Famous-Barr store decorated for Christmas. I remembered the big trip years ago when 60 children of University City Children's Day Care Center boarded a school bus and headed downtown for a Santa visit.
Now the store is a Macy's, but the windows were decorated lavishly when it was Famous-Barr. I'm sure the kids squealed and jammed up close to the glass to stare in before we headed inside the festive building.
How Many Floors?
I didn't count the other day, but there must be about 8 stories, which was a pretty thrilling sight for the kids, since most had never visited a department store. Most of these kids came from low income, stressed households with little time left over for Santa adventures.
For many, it was their first escalator ride!
The store opened in 1924...the first department store in the US with air conditioning! These streamlined stainless steel and aluminum masterpieces were spectacular in their day. It was hard to tell which was more thrilling to the kids, the idea of riding these big metal monsters or seeing Santa?
Some were scared of the moving stairs.
As we rode higher, the elevators changed to polished wood. The kids grew giddier with anticipation. The 8 teachers grew more stressed at how we would control them. By the time we reached the Santaland floor, the children and teachers were jolted at the sight of masses of children, parents and teachers standing in long fidgety lines leading to 3 separate doorways. The sound of Christmas music could barely be heard over the roar of high pitched voices and crying babies and reprimanding adults.
It took only a moment to see that one line was less than half the length of the others. One teacher shoved through to investigate. She came back with the news about the Santa in the middle room. "He's black." She said. We pondered only a second before moving our children to the short line.
(An Internet Search to Find a Santa that looks like the One I Remember)
I really don't know how long it took us to reach the door where the children could actually see the Santa sitting on his large chair with his white beard and dark skin. It seemed forever as I fretted over how they might react. After all, half our children were African American. Should it matter? But I also had witnessed both black and white students in my four year old classroom reject the dark skinned dolls and fight over the white. And in 1983, there were very few cards and books that featured Santas with dark skin. Would the children care? I wasn't prepared for this "teachable moment".
How did the children react?
Finally my class of 15 moved far enough forward to peer into the fantasy world of fake snow and glittery trees. Their eyes moved directly to "Our Santa" perched high on a red throne. I held my breath, then quickly determined their gasps were simply reactions to Santa... not Santa's skin. "There he is!" "Look, it's Santa!" I don't remember specifics of each encounter. I just know the children were in awe as each took a turn on Santa's lap.
Not one child, black or white gave a clue to suggest they believed this Santa wasn't the real Santa. I wish I had captured photos of all the expressions, but I think I was too caught up in Santa's magic to think about the camera.
But if you look a the one photo I have and zoom in on one face and turn that expression up 10 notches...you'll get the idea.
So Thank you, Santa! I work with kids and I know it can be a tough job. And being a Santa must be about the toughest! I would have been nervous to be you, anticipating a few comments from a parent or even a child. You are the most enchanting Santa I've ever encountered. Maybe it was the big smile you greeted the kids with... or your confidence. But it was clear, the only color that mattered to these children was the red of your suit! Thank you for taking on your job with such enthusiasm. I think of you and those children every year!
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers