Santa Stories: Arthur and His Coat of Many Colors

by M.C. Antil on November 24, 2018

The following is yet one more in a treasure trove of stories based on a lifetime of Santa Claus calls to kids at Christmas.

Some 20 years ago, I got an email from a good friend requesting a Santa call. She said she’d been worried about her eleven-year old stepbrother, her father’s only child by his second marriage. It seemed Arthur was being teased unmercifully at his school in Florida. As a young boy who liked to dress in women’s clothes and – I kid you not – sing show tunes, he’d fallen prey to a tidal wave of ridicule by other kids in class, particularly the boys.

Even though he used to love school and had always been a passionate reader and learner, he soon began crying uncontrollably each morning when his mother would wake him to get ready for the bus, pretending to be sick with symptoms that would fluctuate wildly, many time within minutes of one another. By December, little Arthur had grown so despondent and had developed such a dark and brooding mien that his family began to fear he might, at any point, melt down altogether.

It was still two weeks before Christmas when I called. I remember I was at a small get-together with friends, so I went to an upstairs bathroom and locked the door. Everything was quiet as I dialed. “Is Arthur there?” I asked my voice bubbly with Christmas cheer and general, paint-by-numbers Santaness. “Who’s calling?” a voice at the other end asked, a smile coming through the line. “Tell him it’s Santa Claus,” I said with a hearty chuckle.

It took a while, but finally I heard a thin, frail voice in my ear. “Santa. Is this really you?” said the young voice with a mix of sadness and hope.

At that moment a realization hit me broadside, and an instinct I was not even aware I had suddenly kicked in. As I spoke into the receiver, I realized I was still Santa, but not the over-the-top cartoon Santa I’d always been. I was now a concerned Santa; an empathetic Santa; a Santa who loved this child deeply and who hurt for him in ways I cannot, even now, fully express.

“Arthur, is that you?” I asked him in a soft, reassuring voice.

“Yes,” Arthur whispered, as though speaking too loudly might unleash the emotions bubbling just beneath the surface of his quiet, somber facade.

“Arthur, it’s me, Santa. Look, Mrs. Claus and I were just going over our good list tonight after dinner and she told me you’re having a hard time at school. I wanted to call to see if there was anything I could do to help.”

Still quiet, Arthur said after a moment, “Santa, could you hold on a minute?”

“Sure, Arthur,” I said.

About 30 seconds later Arthur came back on the line. And when he did, all the pain he had been burying for who knows how long suddenly gushed forth. The young man sobbed uncontrollably as he told me how much it hurts to be different than other kids and that he wished he could just be normal so everyone wouldn’t laugh at him. As I listened, my heart broke. And while one side of me wanted to just give him the emotional equivalent of mommy kissing a boo-boo, I knew Arthur needed more.

He wasn’t opening up to Santa because he wanted sympathy, or because he wanted someone to magically make it go away. He was opening up because, if anyone in the world understood the incredible pain he was in, it was his friend in the white beard and funny red suit. Santa wasn’t just another adult in Arthur’s life, you see, or just some random authority figure. He wasn’t a paid professional. He wasn’t his mother or father, or his teacher, or even one of his kindly grandparents.

He was Arthur’s friend. He was his confidant. And there was no one better suited to talk to about his problem than Santa.

I found out later that what Arthur had done in those 30 seconds was to escape all those eyes and ears of his parents’ Christmas party. He’d covered the receiver with his palm, walked upstairs and, like myself, found an unoccupied bathroom to act as a cone of silence. Before the rush of emotion had overwhelmed him he’d confided to me in a half-whisper, “I had to lock myself in the bathroom because I didn’t want them to hear,” emphasizing “them” as though those revelers downstairs were people who just wouldn’t, or couldn’t, understand.

What I told Arthur was that Mrs. Claus and I loved him just the way he was. We didn’t want him to change at all. I told him that life is full of people trying to fit in and be like everyone else, and that boys and girls like Arthur, who dared to be different, made the world a richer, fuller place for the rest of us.

I said too it was not easy being picked on. I knew because when I was young I was always the fat kid in class who everyone made fun of and who was never invited to anyone’s house. But of all the things that Mrs. Claus and I admired most about Arthur, I told him, above all was his courage.

“Mrs. Claus and I were talking about you a lot tonight, Arthur, and she was telling me how strong you are, and how brave you’ve been all year long. And you know what I told her? I told her that I wished I was more like you when I was your age. I wish I was funny and talented like you,” I said, my voice now in full-on whisper. “But more than anything, I wish I had the courage to be who I was and to not worry so much about what all those other people wanted me to be.”

After a moment, he sniffled and said sheepishly, “Really?”

“Absolutely, “I replied, my voice easing back into a gentle grin. “In fact, I just told Mrs. Claus tonight that I’m still hoping to grow up to be just like you, Arthur.” With that, my jolly Santa reemerged and I laughed the kind of good, full-bodied/soul-cleansing belly laugh that for centuries had been Santa’s calling card.

Arthur and I then proceeded to talk as two old college or war buddies might, bouncing from topic to topic, including families, friends, food and, of course, a quick review of his colorful and rather exotic Christmas list.

Later, I heard that Arthur was so excited that he spent the rest of his parents’ party bouncing off walls, telling and retelling the story of his call earlier that night with Santa. He would, of course, embellish a little each time, eventually adding the post script that he and Santa have been really good friends for a long, long time and that they talk every now and then – you know, just to catch up and see how things are going in each other’s life.

That call was, I’d like to think, as eye-opening for Arthur as it was for me. Because that call opened my mind and heart to something I might not have ever realized, even if I had been blessed children. What I realized for the first time that night was that, to countless young people in this world, there is no person less judgmental, more understanding or any wiser than Santa Claus. And because of that, children are far more willing to be honest and open with Santa than any adult they know. What’s more, they often accept Santa’s wisdom and counsel in ways they’d never accept the very same advice from parents, teachers or even friends.

Now, I know what you may be thinking: this guy’s not a trained psychologist. What does he know about what goes on in the mind of a child? And you’re right. I am not a psychologist. Nor do I have children. But I am a writer, and I make my living observing people and studying the things they do and say. And not only that, but I’ve spent over thirty years watching children open up to me as Santa Claus in ways I’ve never seen them open up to any other adult, regardless of the situation.

And because I’ve learned that children will bare their souls to Santa, I have also learned to treasure that confidence and think of it as a gift. I’ve since learned to never baby children, to never coddle them, and to never, ever scold them. Because, you see, Santa doesn’t need to do those things. Kids already listen to and respect him in a way they don’t other adults, at least not all the time.

I’ve learned too to treat children like anyone might treat a close friend; with love, and respect, and just enough gentle humor to keep the laughs coming freely.

In fact, as I intermittently hired and trained actors over the years to play Santa for my little seasonal business, the first thing I used to try to impress upon those young men was the fact that Santa doesn’t really say, “Ho-ho-ho.” Ho-ho-ho is just how some writer long ago determined Santa’s laugh might appear on the written page.

Instead, I used to tell them, Santa’s laugh is merely an outward manifestation of the steady undercurrent of joy he feels every time he gets to talk to a child, all of whom he loves dearly. I used to tell them to think Santa as a bubbling cauldron of happiness that somehow spills over at the mere idea of talking to a child.

I used to tell my actors that Santa should never have to work to find places to drop a ho-ho-ho into a conversation. To the contrary, it should be as though he is doing all he can not to laugh because he is so overcome with joy. That’s how you can make Santa real to children, I used to tell them.

The long and the short of it is this; playing Santa Claus on the telephone for nearly four decades has taught me to never underestimate the power of a child, regardless of circumstance, or regardless of the emotional baggage. Because children – for all the growing and learning that still may lie ahead – remain far more capable of humanity, wisdom and depth than most of us adults will ever be blessed enough to understand.

And come this time every year I get humbled by that understanding more than I can express in words, an understanding that I first achieved almost a quarter century ago, and an understanding that, to this day, I owe to a remarkable little boy named Arthur.

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