After a long stretch chatting with kids, Jolly Old St. Nick needed a lunch break. And there was Tribune reporter Lorena A. Hickok offering to fill in. Flannel overcoat? Check. Beard, hat and boots? Check. A pillow to fill out her belly? No need: She was apparently well equipped in that department. After getting a few tips from Santa's aide, she squeezed down the chimney and spent an illuminating hour with a few hundred little ones at a Minneapolis department store. The result? Not exactly the "Santaland Diaries," but a worthwhile holiday read for those who still believe in Santa. 
 

Juvenile Unbelievers Quick
to Detect Fake Santa Claus

 
‘Never Again,’ Says Reporter Who ‘Subbed’ During Lunch Hour.
 
By Lorena A. Hickok
 
It was a mean trick, I know – but my word, Santa Claus has to take time off for lunch once in a while, doesn’t he?
 
And somehow I feel very sure that – if all those trusting little fans knew how faithfullly I reported their shyly spoken requests to Santa when he got back from lunch – they would forgive me for the deception I practiced on them.
 
For one hour Monday afternoon I was Santa Claus – Santa Claus of the toy department.
 
For one hour I wore the great man’s red flannel overcoat with white fur on it, and his red trousers, and his jolly red cap, and his high red boots with the gold tassels on ’em.
 
For one hour I wore – well, they weren’t Santa’s whiskers, of course, but they looked just like ’em.
 
One of the principal differences between the real Santa Claus and me was this:
 
Santa, who has been overworking of late and going without a good many breakfasts and lunches on account of the Christmas rush, has to wear a pillow stuffed in front. I didn’t.
 
Incidentally, fond fathers and mothers, you should have seen me trying to negotiate the chimney Santa descends so blithely before each of his personal appearances!
 
It happened this way. I dropped into the toy department along about 2:30 Monday afternoon to have a little chat with Santa Claus.
 
Santa Claus Was Hungry.
 
 
  You're not fooling anyone: A few of the children at the Northeast Neighborhood House eyed this decidedly feminine Santa Claus with some suspicion in about 1925. Love the boots, Santy! (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
I found him rather low in his mind. It was 2:30, as I said before – and he hadn’t had any lunch. Those penguin eggs and sealskin flapjacks and reindeer milk he’d had for breakfast in his nice steam-heated igloo up at the North Pole at 6 a.m. were almost forgotten memories.
 
Santa Claus was downright hungry. Mrs. Claus, he said, had a nice warm lunch waiting for him at home – but it would take one hour for him to fly up there in his new red airplane, eat his lunch, and fly back to the toy department again. One hour away from the job -- and hundreds of small boys and girls waiting to interview him! It had begun to look as though he’d have to go without his lunch.
 
Then I had an inspiration.
 
And that’s how it happened that 999 youngsters who thought they were seeing Santa Claus himself Monday afternoon were only seeing me – not even Mrs. Claus, not even a relation by marriage to the Claus family!
 
I don’t think they knew, though – at least, the faithful who believe in Santa Claus. As for those graceless little rascals who don’t believe in Santa Claus – well, when you’re that sophisticated, you don’t deserve to meet the real Santa Claus.
 
Santa changed into his leather flying togs up in the stock room. Wearing his working uniform and jingling Santa’s own sleighbells, I descended to the toy department in the freight elevator and strutted proudly through the crowd, escorted by one of Santa’s aides-de-fireplace.
 
Then we came to that chimney. Santa himself had told me about it.
 
“All you have to do,” he said, “is climb up a little stepladder, only four steps. You’ll find a rope at the top. Take hold of that and let yourself drop down into the fireplace, then stoop down and crawl out. It’s simple.”
 
Even so, I approached that chimney with misgivings. We walked through a gate and into a sort of dressing room, out of sight of the crowd – nobody could see me, for which small favor of the gods and Mr. Claus I was truly thankful.
 
That step-ladder! Sure, it had only four steps, but it was taller than I was. I hesitated.
 
“Here I’ll hold it for you,” volunteered Santa’s aide, whose head came about to my shoulder. He’s a brave man.
 
I started up to the top of the stepladder. I arrived – and stood there.
 
“Sit down and swing your legs over,” directed Santa’s aide.
 
I did – I don’t know how I did it, but I did.
 
“Now – slide down!”
 
Obediently I started – and then I got stuck. I couldn’t get down that chimney. However, Santa Claus gets down that chimney – well, all things are possible to folks like Benjamin Franklin and members of the Claus family, I suppose. They aren’t for us common mortals. I was stuck fast – I certainly couldn’t get down, and it looked as though it would take at least a steam derrick to get me up.
 
“Puff! Puff! Puff! Say – er – can’t you knock a few bricks outta the back and let me crawl through that way?” I panted.
 
Santa’s aide – well, he snickered! Then he acted on my suggestion. Exerting Herculean efforts, I managed to pull myself out – dropping one of Santa’s boots down into the fireplace en route. The aide rescued the boot. I put it on and crawled through over the coals.
 
Eyes – eyes in front of me – eyes to the right of me – eyes to the left of me – thousands of big, serious, shining, blue eyes! Rosy faces, pale faces – clean faces, dirty faces! And a shrill treble chorus: “Hello, Santa Claus!”
 
I started to work manfully – it sure was a mansize job. Perspiration stood out on my forehead in clammy beads. I thought I was scared that time when, at the age of 6, I was elected to speak “The Night Before Christmas” at the Sunday school Christmas tree celebration and forgot my piece and could only repeat over and over again:
 
“ ’Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse—
’Twas the night before Christmas –”
 
But I didn’t know what stagefright was then. Here were hundreds of children – trusting, faithful little fans, with all their illusions – and I didn’t know what to say to 'em.
 
I cleared my throat and started out, right in the middle. I began on a little girl – I guess she was about 3 – in a dark blue coat with a grey fur collar and a little velvet hat with a furry grey mouse on the front of it.
 
“Er – er –, hello, baby!” I croaked.
 
The little girl’s mother was holding her up so she could see – Santa Claus.
 
 
  Duluth, 1925: Muriel and Lorraine Gill climbed atop a reindeer for their moment with Santa. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
I held out my hand, then realized that my hand would be a dead giveaway, hauled it hastily away, and held it behind me.
 
“What do you want Santa Claus to bring you?” I asked.
 
She Wanted Baby Brother.
 
She was a nice little girl – she believed in Santa Claus. Gazing at me rapturously out of shining brown eyes, she whispered shyly:
 
“A baby brother, please.”
 
Exit – mother, little girl, and Santa Claus, in confusion.
 
That was a bad beginning, but it began to go better soon after. One after another, I greeted them – those trusting little Santa Claus fans – and somehow the faith in their shining baby eyes gave me confidence in myself. I adopted a formula something like this:
 
SANTA. “Ah there you are, dear! What do you want Santa to bring you?”
 
FOND PARENT: “There’s Santa Claus, darling! Shake hands with him and tell him what you want.”
 
YOUNG HOPEFUL: “A ’lectric train, an’ a horse, an’ a twumppit, an’ some candy, an’ – an’ –.”
 
SANTA: “And are you a good little boy? Do you do just as mamma tells you to?”
 
YOUNG HOPEFUL (with wary eye on fond parent): “Uh-huh.”
 
SANTA: “Well, I guess old Santa will have to come to see you then.”
 
Around and around the circle I went, panting and perspiring. One thought kept running sing-song through my addled brains:
 
“These youngsters must never know! These youngsters must never know!”
 
I got into trouble when I became a bit too confident and tried to vary my formula.
 
To a little girl called Virginia, I grunted amiably:
 
“And you don’t cry when you have to take your nap, do you?”
 
Virginia didn’t look at all as though she understood.
 
Sub Santa Gets Into Trouble.
 
“Great guns,” I ruminated. “Don’t youngsters take ‘em any more?”
 
There was more trouble when 5-year-old Danny – a fat little fellow in a sweater suit that was too tight for him – began to clamor for the decorations on the Christmas tree over the fireplace. I managed to get around it after a fashion by telling him that it was only a “make-believe” Christmas tree.
 
Maybe Danny will remember that later on when he finds out what a lot of the good things in this old world of ours are only “make-believe,” after all. I hope he doesn’t.
 
All the little girls wanted dolls – and most of the little boys wanted guns. That rather surprised me. I had expected they’d want all sorts of unexpected things – like sewing machines and airplanes and alarm clocks and submarines. Their fond parents placed the responsibility for this lack of originality, however, by explaining: “They’re excited.”
 
Another thing that surprised me was this:
 
You hear a lot nowadays about how grasping the younger generation is – and yet at least half of these youngsters demanded only one toy apiece! Was that due to excitement, I wonder?
 
Brown eyes – blue eyes – gray eays – shining, trusting eyes of childhood! It was hot down there, and my whiskers tickled me, and I had an awful time keeping Santa’s boots on – but I was having a mighty good time, at that, until —
 
“Aw, that ain’t Santy Claws! There ain’t no Santy Claws! That’s just a lady dressed up.”
 
It was one of those hard, stubborn, merciless 12-year-old voices. And then he chanted:
 
“Oh, lady! Lady!”
 
He caught me unawares. I looked right at him. I got confused. I began greeting the fans with:
 
“Hello, there, Santa Claus.”
 
Never was the reputation of Mr. Claus in greater jeopardy than it was at that moment. Never will it be in so great jeopardy again, I hope. I glanced hurriedly at the clock. Thank heaven, my time was up!
 
I was stooping down, just ready to crawl into the fireplace, when a sweet, shy, little-girl voice called me:
 
“Oh, Santy – wait just a minute!”
 
I went back.
 
She was a thin little girl with big, unnaturally brilliant, blue eyes. Her cheeks were red – but somehow you felt that it was only excitement. Her red stocking cap was old and ragged, and her bobbed light hair needed cutting. She looked as though she might be 8 or 9 years old.
 
“Say, Santy Claws, my name’s Mildred,” she whispered. “Do you suppose you could bring my grandma a nice handkerchief — an awful nice handkerchief?”
 
I was a bit taken back. This was the first time any of the youngsters had asked for something for somebody else.
 
“And what do you want, Mildred?” I said. Mildred looked at me seriously for a moment.
 
“I dunno,” she said softly. “I – I’d kinda like a nice pink kimono, with silk tassels on it – but maybe, if you bring that handkerchief to grandma, you won’t have much left for me. And – I guess maybe I’d rather have the handkerchief, if you please, Santy Claws.”
 
As I crawled back into the fireplace, I looked back a last time. Mildred was still looking at me – out of those trusting, adoiring blue eyes.
 
Is there a Santa Claus?
 
May I be boiled in oil, inch by inch, and never get another Christmas present as long as I live, if I ever deny him again!
 
Another large fill-in: With his reindeer apparently on strike amid the labor strife of the mid-1920s, Santa cut an impressive figure atop a nattily dressed elephant. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

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