It was 40 years ago this Christmas season that I became the first bilingual Santa Claus at the Winrock Shopping Mall in Albuquerque, N.M.
Serving in the Peace Corps in Colombia had improved my Spanish. And when the word got out that Santa could speak and understand their language, little kids flocked to Winrock from the pueblos around Albuquerque. They would make their Christmas requests and, for a couple dollars, even have their picture taken with a Spanish-speaking Santa.
I also did some innovative things. After having five young children lose control of their urinary functions all over me because they were afraid getting up on the knee of a big stranger with a long white beard dressed in a bright-red outfit, I bought two toy phones. The young ones who were shy could call Santa from a safe distance.
But this $15-an-hour job for a struggling graduate student took an unexpected turn late one Saturday.
First, I need to set the scene:
A large, heated Plexiglass trailer held Santa's throne; a large barrel of candy-cane gifts for each visitor; three female elves in short red skirts, their outfits topped off with bell-laden hats, and a young rent-a-cop who managed the long line of children and guarded the camera and money collected from Santa's photos.
The head elf prided herself on being a conservative southern Baptist. When there was not much business in Santa's shop, she would angrily point to young people with long hair walking in the mall and tell the other elves that these people were lazy, did drugs and sympathized with the communists in Vietnam. Let's just say she didn't always display the jolly Christmas spirit.
Fortunately, she had never seen me out of costume. I was one of those long-haired students, and had actually helped lead a major antiwar protest at the University of New Mexico earlier that year. But I was well-disguised, with large foam pads covering my torso under my Santa suit. This was good because, it being so hot in my throne room, I did not wear any underwear.
One day the candy-cane barrel next to my throne was running so low that I was getting a blister on my inner arm from reaching down to get a candy cane. I mentioned to the lead elf that when I came back from my next break I was going to bring a couple boxes of candy canes back from my dressing trailer to replenish the barrel. She told me that she would say when the barrel needed to be refilled. On the way out for my break, I told the young, uniformed guard that I'd had it with this overbearing elf, and that I was bringing back more candy canes.
The tension was building.
Returning from my break, I awkwardly reached the door of Santa's throne room, trying to balance three boxes of candy canes. The guard opened the door, and the head elf came quickly in my direction. Hundreds of parents with their children were anxiously awaiting Santa's return, and had, as it were, ringside seats to what proved to be a momentous North Pole confrontation.
The elf said, "Give me those boxes." I said, "They are going in the barrel." She grabbed me from the side and we tussled over the boxes in front of a disbelieving audience. I was able to push her away from me and she ended up banging against the Plexiglass.
The sound of elf meeting glass made all the parents quickly pull their children away. The next thing I knew, she gave me a bull rush and pushed me up against the wall immediately behind my throne. The candy canes went flying.
But what happened next made Winrock Santa Claus history.
When I hit the back of the Plexiglass wall, my Santa suit trousers fell to the ground. Horrified parents quickly covered their kids' eyes as the young guard tried to cover Santa -- who couldn't reach down and pull up his pants because of the large foam wrapping around his stomach.
The holiday spectacle ended when the guard turned out the lights and told parents and children that Santa and his elves were urgently needed at the North Pole.
I kept my job, but the season was never the same. This retired Santa now wishes you a happy holiday. Adios.
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Jim Gambone, of Orono, is an author and entrepreneur.
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