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Monday, December 24, 2018

My favorite memory of Christmas in NYC


Santa Spoilers Ahead.

I am a big fan of Christmas. I enjoy the trappings of the holiday. A good meal shared with people I love, giving gifts - receiving gifts makes me a little uncomfortable - and the joy the season brings. I have several traditions that are important to me. Every season I read A Christmas Carol, and Christmas morning I enjoy a champagne cocktail. I have also always enjoyed what I can only describe as the production design of the holidays, particularly in NY. I am sure there is a real term for what I am describing, but my background in photography calls it this. The decorations, the soundtrack, the glasses on the table. They all come together to tell a story, and it is one I enjoy. Having lived in Manhattan for over a decade I found it easy to avail myself of the beauty that is Christmas in the city. I generally avoided the big tree at Rockefeller Center, though I did ice skate there once, and though I am not much of a shopper I used to take a walk down Fifth Avenue at the beginning of the season to get myself in the spirit. Get a light dusting of snow in the West Village and was always game for a walk with a spiked hot chocolate.

But my favorite Christmas memory is none of these. When I worked in photography I ran a photo studio for an small stock photo agency. We produced a lot of imagery, and maintained a staff that fluctuated from five to eight. A couple of us were jack of all trade types but we had a guy who worked with us whose specialty was casting. He cast people that could fulfill any role from banker to craftsman to sports star. He truly had a talent for it. His name was Ken. Ken had been an actor, and after working with me moved on to some fame on a reality TV show, which will remain nameless.

But it turns out that Ken had a side gig at the holidays. Ken worked during the holidays at Macy's as a Santa. He was Santa Ken. This memory came rushing back to me this morning because I was listening to David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries, in which "Santa Ken" has a brief mention. I suddenly remember in a rush of emotion the year I visited Santa Ken at Macys.

I am not sure how it started, or how it came up. I think I must have mentioned over lunch that my sister brought her boys to Macy's every year, Ken told me they had to come and see him specifically, and that he would make it really special. I protested, as it made me a little uncomfortable, the gift thing, but Ken insisted. And so I was given a Christmas assignment.

I am guessing here, but my sisters boys were probably eight and three? I am honestly not sure. I think the oldest was starting to not believe in Santa, but the younger of the two was deep into the mythos as every child should be. Ken gave me a list of questions to ask my sister. The boys names, and their teachers names. If they played any instruments. What they wanted for Christmas, things like that. A couple of emails back and forth and everything was set. But here was the kicker. I had to go with them. This was non-negotiable. It was explained away as this, Uncle Brett and Santa go way back, they are old friends and he is going to come with us to visit his friend Santa. I was the cool uncle. So it was on a weekend morning - probably hung over - that I found myself at Macy's in line to see Santa with my sister, her husband and the two boys. I had specific instructions that "when I got to the magic tree, tell the elf you want to see Santa Ken." I have to say that the line actually went pretty fast, and before too long I found myself at the magic tree, whispering to an elf "We need to see Santa Ken" feeling like a complete lunatic. But the elf was a professional, and orchestrated everything perfectly. What you can't tell from the magic tree is that there are 6 or 8 different Santa houses. But this elf got us where we needed to be, without it being obvious that he was manipulating the line or the flow to Santa. He had us pause just outside the door to Santa's house and as we stood there I realized something very important that no one had mentioned. I had to enter the room first, or Santa Ken wouldn't know it was show time. At the last minute I cut in front of everyone and walked into Santa's house and was greeted by the bellowing howl of a laughing Santa Ken. "Well hello Brett! Is that "S" and "I" you bought to see me? I said it was, and ushered them to Santa. The oldest "S" sat on Santa's lap and was asked all manner of questions about the goings on at his school, to which Santa had an amazing amount of knowledge. If I remember correctly, "I" was a little too overwhelmed to sit on Santa's lap. Pictures were taken, and the experience was amazing. As we were leaving, I thanked Santa, and he said "Not so fast Brett, you have to sit on my lap too!" So I sat briefly on Santa's lap and posed for a picture. As we left Santa's house, "S" asked my sister "How did he know my teachers name?" to which my sister replied "He's Santa."

It didn't seem like a big deal at the time, though I am pretty sure my sister cried and gave me a big hug. The following Monday at work I gave Ken my thanks and told him he was amazing. He truly was Santa. In the years that followed when I would think about the experience it would strike me, that in essence, it was a little thing Ken did. He was already there, doing a job, it wasn't that much more to do this for me. But in fact it was. I hesitated when he first suggested it because I don't like to make work for people, and it was more work for Ken to take the notes and keep them hidden, and to act convincingly as Santa for my nephews. It was a little thing that echoed for years, and to this day I am grateful for the experience. It is those little moments where we do something for each other, the gestures for the holidays to say "I appreciate you, and I can do this little thing for you." that make the holidays special. I haven't talked to Ken in close to twenty years, but this little act of kindness sticks with me. I still look for things like this I can do for people, but I doubt I will ever have the impact that Santa Ken had on me.

And that, is my favorite Christmas memory from living in New York City.

Merry Christmas everyone. Thanks for reading and following and playing along.