I became a professional Santa Claus not because of high-minded seasonal spirit. As a high school freshman, I needed spending money, and winter meant that my meager earnings from lawn-mowing were at an end.
So I agreed to play Santa during a two-week gig in Burlington’s business district. Santa was to divide his time between the five and dime and the grocery store across the street. Both were locally owned, the proprietors familiar to me as fellow members of McCalla Avenue Baptist Church.
The Santa suit was property of the five and dime owner, who I’ll call Mr. Cash. I was to be paid $1 an hour and would start at 4 p.m. and work until the 9 p.m. closing time.
I would alternate between the two stores, though the five and dime soon began to dominate my time simply because kids tended to linger among the toys there. Mr. Cash, not surprisingly given his reputation for penny-pinching, would encourage me to delay crossing the street to the grocery, finding reasons for me to stay at my post in his emporium.
When the grocer, Mr. Wright, realized why Santa wasn’t present around his check-out lines, he had words with Mr. Cash and I found myself spending more time across the street—there are always customers in a grocery. Even at age 14, I could appreciate the irony of such a conflict during the “Peace on Earth” season.
Mr. Cash didn’t like to see me idle, either. So, when there were no kids in the store, I became the area’s only Santa-suited shelf-stocker.
Not that there weren’t grocery-store episodes that did not fit with Christmas-season ideals. Both involved mothers who saw me as a useful tool to quiet rowdy children, who would be told to behave or Santa wouldn’t leave them anything under the tree.
I was then expected to glare menacingly at wide-eyed toddlers.
But my biggest problem came from older kids—my friends. The first afternoon of my duties, a couple of them came into Cash’s when I was seated in my Santa chair and started to harass me, one attempting to sit on my knee. Fortunately, Mr. Cash saw what was going on and chased them out.
So they waited outside until it was time for me to move across the street, providing me with a heckling entourage. Mr. Wright, whose people skills were much better than those of Mr. Cash, suggested that they suit up in elves’ costumes and work as my helpers. They didn’t come around after that.
I survived, though I was certainly glad to see Christmas Eve, knowing that my gig was just about up and that I would soon be paid $60 for my 12 days under the beard. That was more money than I had ever had at one time.
But Mr. Cash had a surprise for me. An hour or so before I was to turn in my Santa suit, he called me into his office and told me that since I had not been Santa all the time, and that I had worked half the time as stock boy, he could only pay me 75 cents an hour.
Obviously, I was not happy. And I still had an hour to go, an hour requiring a jolly demeanor.
So I took up my seat with my sack full of holiday-colored ribbon candy to hand out to the children. Mr. Cash had emphasized that each child was to get only one piece. But I had been more generous when he wasn’t around. Now, I decided, it was time to get into the spirit of the season. The few children who were still out late on Christmas Eve got handfuls.
Finally, with about 10 minutes before closing time, a family of five came in. I recognized the children, a boy and girl of about 10 and 8, and a youngster of about 4. They were residents of one of the tar-papered houses on the wrong side of the ridge where I sometimes delivered newspapers.
Mr. Cash was busy in his office and his wife was running the cash register out of sight of my station. I loaded up the two older children, cautioning them to put the candy in their pockets, out-of-sight. But the youngest was shy, peeking around the counter at me, not sure what this bearded character and his “ho-ho-ho’s” was all about.
Finally, his sister convinced him that I was okay, and brought him up to me. I quickly stuffed his pockets full of candy, and told his sister to make sure he didn’t bring out the goodies until they were outside the store. The mother then came to get them.
“Santa’s got to start his deliveries,” she said. “It’s time to go home.”
When she saw all the candy they were toting, she looked at me wide-eyed. I winked. She smiled, and the family headed out the door, my turn at being Santa Claus at an end.
That night, when I told my dad about Mr. Cash’s short-changing ways, he decided that he would not set foot in his store again. As far as I know, he kept his word. And, thanks to my mother, the story quickly spread through the church, further darkening Mr. Cash’s reputation.
Chris Wohlwend’s Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s.
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