Do you hear what I hear? Lending an ear as Santa's shadow - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Do you hear what I hear? Lending an ear as Santa's shadow

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Mike Sakal’s column runs on Fridays. Contact him at (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com, or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

Posted: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 5:23 pm | Updated: 6:22 pm, Wed Nov 26, 2014.

And what do you want for Christmas this year?

As always, the lines of children waiting to tell Santa Claus their requests for Christmas before having their pictures taken with him at malls around the East Valley are long.

Since Santa arrived at Mesa’s Superstition Springs Mall on Nov. 9, more than 10,000 children have sat on his lap to tell him their requests, according to Melissa Buxton, marketing manager for the mall.

Thank goodness most of the items on the wrinkled wish lists these youngsters pulled out of their pockets were short, sweet and suprisingly simple during these hard economic times: Moon Pogo sticks, Slinkeys, Play-Doh and LEGO. A Hot Wheels set. A new pink bicycle.

A couple of weeks ago, I had contacted marketing representatives at a few East Valley malls to see if they would let me stand in for the Man in Red; I would don the big suit so I could hear some of the requests first hand.

However, because companies who contract Santas to the malls require Santa’s “seasonal helpers” to attend a school to learn Santa etiquette and grow a real beard, I wasn’t able to play the jolly old elf. Instead, I was relegated to being “Santa’s Shadow.”

Increased demands for Santa to appear at certain malls around the country in recent years have created such a busy schedule for St. Nick that he simply can’t be everywhere at one time. So, Santa relies on helpers in certain parts of the country — and secret elves to report back to him serving in different cities who inform him who’s been naughty or nice.

To say I was a little disappointed in not being able to step into the role of Santa would be a bit of an understatement. But in all truthfulness, I wouldn’t have made a convincing Santa anyway. Losing 40 pounds since January, I no longer have a round belly that shakes “like a bowl full of jelly” when I laugh, and my “Ho, Ho, Ho!” would’ve been awful.

Plus, I still have more pepper in my hair than salt, and I’ve never grown a beard in my life. In so many words, I was being told that I could wear Santa’s suit and boots, but I could never fill them.

On Monday — twelve days before Christmas — I indeed agreed to be “Santa’s Shadow,” at a holiday photo area at the mall.

Wearing a green elf’s cap and with pen and notebook in hand to write down the items kids were asking for, I tuned in with an attentive ear.

Now, children sitting on Santa’s lap and telling him what they want is a proprietary thing bordering on sacred, but most of their parents understood — and approved of this Tribune reporter listening in. Their approval was partly because some of the parents didn’t know what their children were going to ask for this year, either.

“I’m THE MAN,” Santa told me as I was introduced to him by Laronnica Brogen, manager for the mall’s Santa Set — an area featuring his workhop, releasing snow out of its chimney every 30 minutes. Brogen bears the burden of making sure that the kids experience the magic of the Christmas season and that Santa is happy; Santa is, after all, the one who makes the world go ‘round, she said.

“I think this is the best job in the world,” Santa added. “I come to Mesa because there are so many children here. You never know what the kids are going to throw at you and ask for. I get letters with pictures glued on paper of items that kids want but can’t quite pronounce. Kids 3- and 4-years-old ask for iTouch phones and computers. I tell them they gotta be good and listen to their parents because those things are expensive. I tell them, ‘How ‘bout a toy?’ They say ‘those are toys.’

But then I ask them, ‘What are you going to do if all the power goes out? You won’t have anything to play with on Christmas.”

Standing in as “Santa’s Shadow,” these were among the requests I heard:

  • Makayla Keene, 4, of Mesa, asked Santa for a new pink bicycle and a new scooter. Braden Buxton, 3, asked for cars and trains, while his sister, Brianna, 2, asked for princesses.
  • David Robbins, 11, of Mesa, asked for an electric guitar with amplifiers and an electric scooter.
  • Austin Lybbert, 12, and his sister Ashlynn, 10, of Mesa each asked Santa for a Kindle, while their 7-year-old sister Savannah asked for a violin.
  • Seth McCarty, 8, of Apache Junction, asked for an iPad.
  • John Sabbagh, 13, of Mesa, had an unconventional request: He asked Santa for “A’s” on all his finals at school so he could get his Xbox back.
  • Another little girl asked Santa for all the needy children to have a good Christmas.

Although times and technology have changed through the years, it was refreshing to see that the youngest of kids passing through the line and even the older ones asked for traditional — if not simple — gifts.

But Santa said that he also has had to deal with some sad requests.

“One girl had asked for her daddy to come home,” Santa said. “Her father had been killed in a drive-by shooting. There’s really no answer for that. I just told her to hold him close in your heart and pray.”

Santa said he also gives similar answers to children asking to see their parents, especially those serving overseas in the military.

“Another little girl asked for her daddy to be home for Christmas,” Santa said. “He had just left her mother. There are some real tearjerkers.”

I come from an era where our favorite department store Santa — when I interviewed him for stories years after it was my turn to share — dated himself by telling me that the popular items girls and boys used to ask for were Chatty Kathy Dolls and G.I Joe’s, respectively.

During my time writing for newspapers near Dayton, Ohio, where I’m from, I interviewed Emery Conrad, our former department store Santa Claus. One time, in 1991, I talked to him about the traditions of the store, which was closing its doors for good that year.

Mr. Conrad played the Man in Red at the downtown Rike’s (later Shillito-Rike’s, then Lazarus) from 1959, the year before my sister was born to 1985, my freshman year of college.

In his second year as Santa, Conrad replaced longtime Santa Joe Keller, who played the jolly old elf from 1925 to 1960. Keller, a former actor on the Vaudeville stage who had patented some tricks as a magician, passed on his old pair of black riding boots to Conrad to wear as Santa.

“I could wear Keller’s boots, but I could never fill them,” Conrad would say years later.

The 1960s were a sad time to be a Santa, Conrad would say.

“Children were asking Santa to bring their daddies home from the Vietnam War,” Conrad said. “I would never promise, but I would say, we’ll see what Santa can do.” 

My mother was a seasonal worker for the Rike’s Santa Land, a Candy Land-like maze set up with Christmas and Santa Claus scenes every year where hundreds if not thousands of children would pass through to sit on Santa’s lap to tell him their requests. My family also had the treat of seeing Conrad year after year. My mom already would be working, so our dad would dress us up, bundle us up and we’d make the short drive in our gray 1953 Chevy or later our black 1973 Monte Carlo to the department store where we would wait in line to sit on Santa’s lap.

To us, Conrad was the real Santa. On his 5 foot, 5 inch frame was a little round belly that shook when he laughed.Although he wore an artificial beard, his Santa suit was the real deal — a Coca-Cola Santa suit patterned after the ones Santa wore in the Coke ads during the 1950s.

When it was our turn in line, I always wondered how Santa knew my name, and my sister’s; as we approached him as he was sitting on a throne-like chair.

Even on Christmas Eve, Conrad would don his Santa suit and walk door-to-door in his neighborhood to pass out candy canes and make sure the kids were settling in for the “Big Night.”

After Conrad died in 1997 at age 87, his wife, Reba, passed on his boots to me.

I cherish them. They are filled with history and overflow with memories of part of my family’s tradition during a rustbelt city’s holiday heyday years.

Like Conrad said about Keller, I will say about Conrad.

I could wear his boots, but I could never fill them.

So, after hearing the requests of children at Superstition Springs Mall and seeing the twinkle in Santa’s eyes when the children approached him with wonderment in theirs, I better understood why I merely was Santa’s shadow.

I could wear Santa’s suit and boots, but I could never fill them.

After all, there’s only one Santa Claus.

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