"C'mon! He's not real. He's just one of Santa's helpers."
All I did was pose a simple question to the little girl standing behind me in the Santa Claus line at Lloyd Center.
"So... think this is the real Santa?"
Her annoyed response was exactly what I deserved for asking such a naïve question. Of course he wasn't the real Santa. The actual Santa is probably freaking out right now, locating hard-to-find toys and updating his Excel spreadsheet to make sure every kid gets what they deserve (good behavior pending). No, the real Santa has an army of look-alike emissaries he dispatches to every large retail outlet in America—as well as some Third World countries, such as England. And each of these Santas is given one task: Professionally mimic Old St. Nick, and report every child's wish back to the main office.
However... who's actually checking up on all these local makeshift Santas to see if they're doing justice to the trademark?
Wm. Steven Humphrey. That's who.
As everyone knows, there are certain requirements to which every "Santa" must strictly adhere: (1) Is he "jolly"? (2) How real is his beard? (3) Is his costume convincing? (4) Does he scare children? (5) Is he morbidly obese? (6) Does he smell? (7) Will he promise to bring you whatever you ask—no matter how unrealistic or ridiculous? And most importantly, (8) HOW'S HIS LAP?
This last point cannot be overstated. The lap is everything. A child (or infantile adult) must see Santa's lap as a welcoming area; a place where dreams are explained and realized. Santa's lap cannot be bony, nor can it be so plush that one gets lost in his fleshy creases. Santa's lap is the ground zero of Christmas—if you will—where one wrong smell or movement can scar a child (or me) for life.
I visited four local Santas in the Portland metropolitan area, and "test drove" every single lap. And while it's certainly not a competition, there can only be one "BEST SANTA IN ALL OF PORTLAND"—so... uh... yeah, I guess it is a competition. MAY THE BEST LAP WIN!
"Santa looks tired."
That's what I heard one kid in line say... and he wasn't wrong. However, it was the end of the day, and after an eight-hour shift of pretending to be happy and interested in greedy children's wishes, I'd be exhausted too. But I must say, this Santa was the jolliest of all St. Nicks I've seen this season; his voicing booming through the promenade, "HO! HO! HO! MEEEEEERRY CHRISTMAS!" His beard was also right on the money, though his costume was a little too "North Pole nouveau" for me—plaid pants? Please. Santa's at work, not playing the back nine at Pebble Beach.
But now came the real test: the lap. Nestling upon his knee, I did not feel the expected comforting cushion of obesity—that was rock-hard muscle beneath his trousers! However, the effect was not unwelcoming; the firmness of Santa's lap left me with the impression it could support the dreams of children the world over.
"So... what do you want for Christmas?" he asked.
Now, it should be noted that for every Santa I pitched different requests. THIS WAS A TEST. I would judge Santa's response by making one reasonable request, and the other? Not so much.
"I want a divorce..." I said with a straight face. "And an iPhone."
"Um. Santa doesn't... err... get involved with either of those things," he said. Then he got a twinkle in his eye. "But! Santa and his elves are preparing a special package just for you."
And I swear to Christ I felt his thigh muscle twitch under my buttocks. Maybe my weight was making him uncomfortable... aaaaaaaaand maybe not.
Regardless, he didn't give me any stinking candy.
(HOURS: Mon-Sat 11 am-8 pm, Sun 11 am-6 pm, Christmas Eve 9 am-5 pm. PHOTO PRICE: Two 5" x 7"s are $20.)
Far north in the hinterlands of Portland, skating dangerously close to flesh-eating inhabitants of Vancouver, Jantzen Beach may not be the most posh of shopping experiences, but it can claim a very realistic Santa—especially if you believe Santa is around 300 years old.
Geriatric or not, I liked this guy. His costume was classic Claus (though it smelled a bit of moldy reindeer), and his beard was 100 percent real. But what I liked most was that he had kind of a jovial kindness about him, like an ever-patient grandpa that would happily offer you a piece of his 18-year-old hard candy that had become inseparably fused together in a dish by the couch. The kids seemed to like him, and you can bring your pet by ANYTIME for a photo in his lap. But for full-grown husky adults like myself? I could tell that lap was going to be a problem.
Due to his advanced age, his lap was obviously in a weakened state. I feared I'd snap it like a twig. Then somehow I'd find myself explaining to the flesh-eating children of Vancouver why I had broken the hip of dear Old St. Nick. So I sat... very... gently.
"What would you like for Christmas, young man?"
"I would like an iPhone," I said. "And another iPhone I can sell on eBay."
"That's pretty smart," he laughed. "I'd say that wish is a real possibility."
Big points for that response. Plus, he gave me a candy cane. I like him so much better than my real grandpa. He drank.
(HOURS: 11 am-7 pm daily, PHOTO PRICE: $8 for one 4" x 6".)
Okay, first of all, I'm no racist. "Chocolate Santa" is what HE calls himself. I was driving down MLK, and when I saw the sign for "Photos with Chocolate Santa" on the side of the building, I almost careened onto the sidewalk. Visions of Isaac Hayes (circa 1973) in a Santa Claus suit danced in my head, and if you want to know how excited I was, just take a look at my picture with him. It's on the cover this week. As you can clearly see, I was practically apoplectic. But I had to be fair, right? Chocolate Santa had to pass the same stringent test I had so harshly inflicted on Grandpa Santa and Thigh-Muscle Santa. First of all, I'm pretty sure that beard was not real, and his costume was purchased at Fred Meyer.
But his lap... oh, that marvelous lap! It was strong and supportive, and yet my buttocks sank eagerly into his soft, pillowy thighs. And while I wouldn't jump to call him "jolly," Chocolate Santa was super affable, and gung ho to have his picture taken with Vanilla Steve.
"What would you like for Christmas?" he asked.
"I would like the screaming in my head to stop," I replied. "And an iPhone."
"Well!" he exclaimed without missing a beat. "Let's just see what we can find in Santa's bag!"
There wasn't an iPhone or Zoloft in the bag—but there were KING-SIZE candy bars, toy rings, fake teeth, a Jammin' 95.5 sticker, and a Fantastic Four coloring book. Chocolate Santa was making the Honky Santas look pretty stingy by comparison.
"Tell your friends," I heard him say as I left. "Santa poses with pets, cops... we even had some college kids posing with fake guns and an empty bottle of Tanqueray!"
See? That's what I like about Chocolate Santa. He does "naughty" and "nice."
(ADDRESS: 407 NE Mason [corner of MLK & Mason]. HOURS: Sat-Sun 1-6 pm. PHOTO PRICE: One 5" x 7" is $8.)
"C'mon! He's not real. He's just one of Santa's helpers."
He sure did look real, though. Look at those ruddy red cheeks. That lustrous white beard. A perfect amount of obesity: Plush, but not like you'd get swallowed into his crotch... tumbling helplessly into the sandworm's pit. And that costume—classic, well tailored, with just a hint of chimney soot on the cuffs. Nice touch.
He wasn't jolly... what was he? Happy. Laidback. Content. Like he'd worn that outfit every day of his life, and couldn't wait until tomorrow to climb into it again. He beckoned me to his lap.
"What do YOU want for Christmas, little boy?" he asked with a laugh.
"I want black people to accept me for who I am," I said. "And an iPhone."
He laughed again. "That doesn't sound very unreasonable. Tell you what: Santa is gonna HOOK YOU UP."
Omigod. THAT'S ALL I WANTED TO HEAR. No Santa had ever told me that. And then the strangest thing happened. He... he kind of "cuddled" me. NOT in a sexual way—just pulled me back a little into his arms, laughed and gave me a tiny shake. Like he really liked me.
That's when the years melted away, and once again I was a skinny eight-year-old who was convinced his father hated him, and who wanted nothing more in the world than for Santa to bring him a Hot Wheels racetrack, and just... just let him know that he was a good kid. Somebody to tell him he was a good kid.
I paid for the photos, and walked out of the mall feeling all right again. That was a good Santa. And even if he wasn't "real"?
He was real enough.
(HOURS: Mon-Sat 11 am-8 pm, Sun 11 am-6 pm. PHOTO PRICE: Two 5" x 7"s are $20.)