An Interview with Santa Claus

Pick a Santa, any Santa. They're all as real as you want them to be. (Photos: Various sources.)

Pick a Santa, any Santa. They’re all as real as you want them to be.

One of the most remarkable developments during my many years of travel as a journalist was the time I interviewed Santa Claus.

It was March 2004, and I was in Tokyo for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays-New York Yankees opening series. Our first afternoon there, I came across Herr Kringle strolling through the 400-year-old Japanese garden adjacent to our hotel, the New Otani. He was alone, unattended, not a reindeer in sight. I got the distinct impression he wanted to be left alone. But I was a journalist. This was news. I approached the Jolly Old Elf and introduced myself.

I pulled out my digital recorder and notebook and proceeded to conduct the interview of a lifetime.

The 400-year-old Japanese garden at the New Otani in Tokyo, site of my interview of a lifetime with Santa himself.

The 400-year-old Japanese garden at the New Otani in Tokyo, site of my interview of a lifetime with Santa himself.

Here’s how it went down.

Carter Gaddis: I apologize for interrupting your meditation, Mr. Claus.

Santa Claus: Please, call me Santa. And I understand. You have a job to do. You mind if we keep this short, though? I have a breakfast reservation in Paris.

CG: Paris? But we’re in Tokyo.

SC: Hello? Magic elf.

CG: Sure. Of course. Sorry.

SC: Look, if you don’t have any questions …

CG: No, no. Yes, well … um. I guess the first thing is, how is this even possible? You’re not real.

SC: And “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” right?

CG: Well, yeah. Who’s that, Locke? Hobbes?

SC: Hume. So, what do you deduce from the evidence? Wait, let me make it easy for you. You’ve studied your Pascal, yes? You’re familiar with his “wager” theory about belief in God? No? Well, it’s like this. Are you willing to gamble away potential eternal bliss spent basking in the presence of the almighty creator simply because you can’t bring yourself to believe in Him? I mean, what if you’re wrong? If you’re right, that there’s no God, all you’ve lost is an infinitesimal blip of time in the immeasurable immensity of eternity. Not a bad bet, that. In this case, the odds are heavily in your favor, because here I am. Think about it like this: Your eyes tell you I’m real, correct? With that piece of evidence, and knowing that not believing I’m real means you’re doomed to a lifetime of no presents at Christmas time, it is in your best interest to just go ahead and let yourself believe. Right?

CG: But …

SC: Buddy, I really can’t stay much longer. We can stand here and debate my existence for the next three minutes, if you like. And when I disappear into thin air on my way to the Champs Elysees for œufs brouillés a la truffes noires, you can stand here holding your … notebook. It’s your dime.

CG: OK. Yes. So, let’s say you are you. You’re really Santa Claus. How do you deliver toys to all the good little boys and girls on a single night? The whole sleigh and flying reindeer thing seems a bit unlikely, to be honest.

SC: I have a T.A.R.D.I.S.

CG: A … what?

SC: A T.A.R.D.I.S. You know, blue police call box from England. Bigger on the inside. Travels through time and space? Like Doctor Who.

CG: Doctor Who?

SC: Exactly.

CG: But that’s not …

SC: Real? Ho! Ho-ho-ho! Of course not. I was kidding. No, but yeah. It’s magic. I use magic. Simple, really. The reindeer are just for show. Mrs. Claus runs an arctic animal rescue up north, so I just – do what I do – and voila! Flying reindeer. The actual gift delivery system is far beyond your comprehension. There are too many moving parts to simplify the explanation. Let’s just call it magic and leave it at that.

CG: I’m sorry, that’s not good enough. I need to know how you do it. I need to know how to tell the world you’re real. Explain it to me like I’m a fifth grader.

SC: A fifth grader? Funny you should pull that particular time of life out of the ether.

CG: Funny how?

SC: Because that’s when you stopped believing. Remember? Even after you spotted all those toys in the foyer closet when you were 5, you wanted to keep believing. So, you did. You kept believing in me because that’s what you wanted to do. And that still applies today. To you, and to everyone in the world. Do you understand what I’m saying?

CG: Sure, but I don’t think it applies. I mean, you’re not real. You’re an inherited Western European archetype, based loosely on Germanic paganism and later Western religions, seasoned with a healthy sprinkling of good, old-fashioned capitalism. It’s all about corporate symbolism now. Is that the message we want to teach our kids? That it’s OK to perpetuate a vast, fantastical myth that celebrates commercialism and the all-mighty holiday dollar?

SC: OK. Well, I don’t know what else to tell you. Except this: Sartre was on the right track when he wrote, “In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait.” You see?

CG: That doesn’t answer my question.

SC: Your question doesn’t have an answer. I’ve got to go. Merry Christmas!

CG: It’s March.

SC: I know. Ho-ho-ho! Bye.

And like that … he was gone.

As you can see, the interview was a disaster, which is why I sat on the story until now. It was nothing more than an incoherent mishmash of pop philosophy and obscure science fiction allusions. I didn’t have a camera on me (no iPhones back then), so I could produce no photographic evidence. My recorder crapped out after I transcribed the conversation, so I even lost the audio proof. I haven’t seen Santa since.

I believe, though. I decided to believe, and I did. In my portrait, the one I made for and of myself, Santa Claus is real. Just as every religion, every mythology is true in the sense that it is metaphorical of the mysteries of existence, Old Saint Nick is a metaphor. For me, he’s a combination of kindness, generosity and the wonder of imagination. I’m leaning toward zombie Santa at the moment, too.

What else does Santa symbolize? Depends on who you ask. Your portrait is yours, and yours alone.

The Time We Almost Missed Christmas

We shuffled up to the customer service counter winded, defeated, dejected. The O’Hare concourse was empty. Anybody who had a chance to get somewhere that night, Christmas Eve 2000, was either there already or on the way. Not us. We were trapped in the giant airport on the outskirts of Chicago, stranded between working that day’s Buccaneers-Packers game at Lambeau Field and getting home in time to wake up in our own beds on Christmas morning.

There were five of us. Four were with the Tribune: a beat writer, a columnist, a photographer and me. The fifth covered the Bucs for the Orlando paper. I was the only one who didn’t have at least one kid waiting for me back in Tampa, but the house was full of in-laws, including some toddler cousins. The Orlando writer was on his cell phone when we got to the customer service counter to sort it all out.

“No, sweetheart, I won’t be there tonight,” he murmured. “Molly. Molly. Don’t cry, sweetheart. Daddy will be home tomorrow. … Well, I don’t know what time. Don’t cry, Molly. Put Mommy on the phone, OK? Don’t cry, sweetheart. Daddy’s sorry.”

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When you’re a sportswriter, you don’t think about what you do as sacrifice. The night-time hours, the weekends, the holidays lost, the ridiculous travel schedule – it’s just what you have to do to get the story, to cover the beat, to keep the job. It still hurts to miss things, but the ones who choose the life must absorb that pain and wear it like a badge. Those who can’t cut it are frowned upon or mocked. Oh, you miss home? Waahhh. Work at a bank. It’s the same macho approach whether you are a man or a woman. Those who make the choice know that they are privileged to have the job, that literally thousands of people are out there waiting to take their place, and any sign of weakness might just be the chink in the armor that allows the tip of the spear to penetrate.

In other words? Quit your bitching.

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The football game went into overtime (foreshadowing!). Packers 17, Bucs 14. We filed our stories and photos and headed to the airport. The plane left Green Bay on time. There was snow, of course. But a little snow didn’t delay us in Green Bay.

The delay came in Appleton. Why we stopped there, I’m still not sure. Maybe it was for fuel. Maybe it was to pick up a passenger. Either way … what? We stopped in Appleton? It took about five minutes to fly from Green Bay to Appleton. Five minutes. We were up, we landed. It was supposed to be a 15-minute stop, for no reason I could discern.

Instead, it lasted about two hours.

What. The Hell.

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I remember looking out the airplane window while we sat on the ground in Appleton. It was dark and white, and snow drifts were piled against the terminal walls. It looked cold.

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We were assured that we would make our flight in Chicago. It might be tight, we were told, but we’d make it. We might have to sprint through O’Hare hurdling airport chairs like O.J. Simpson in a Hertz commercial, but we would make the flight. Our departure gate wasn’t that far from our arrival gate, we were told, so we would make it.

O'Hare Neon

This light sculpture is called Sky’s the Limit. It’s a neon walkway at O’Hare. We saw it only in passing on Christmas Eve 2000.

We landed with 20 minutes to spare. We grabbed our carry-ons and bolted up the ramp. We would make it. We sprinted up the concourse, found the connecting passageway to our departure terminal, ran at top speed down a hallway lit by flowing neon lights. We would make it. We found the right terminal, ran past the other gates, counted the numbers to ours. We would make it.

And I swear this happened next: We saw our gate 50 yards ahead, three attendants hovering around the desk and the ramp door. We kicked it up a gear, sprinting, shouldering our computer bags, a bunch of out of shape sportswriters desperate to get home for Christmas. In slow motion, one of the attendants reached for the handle to close the ramp door. We would not make it. In slow motion, the attendant’s head turned toward us as we yelled for her to wait wait wait wait we’re coming don’t shut it yet hold on we’re almost there stop stop stop stop stop!

We would not make it. The door shut just as we got there. Click.

I lost it. We all did. They knew we were coming. They saw us. They had been told we were on the way.

Click.

There was a floor-to-ceiling window right next to the door. There, at the other end of the ramp, was our airplane. The ramp began to move away from the side of the airplane. Then, while my fellow travelers tried to reason with the attendants, I actually did something I’ve only ever seen in movies and TV shows. I banged on the window and tried to get the pilot’s attention. I hammered on that glass and waved my arms and yelled as loud as I could. The pilot never so much as glanced in my direction. The ramp kept moving away from the plane.

Merry Freaking Christmas.

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At the customer service desk, the Orlando reporter tried to comfort his young daughter on the phone. The airline customer service guy gave us all $100 vouchers for pretty much any local hotel we wanted to stay at that night. He also told us that the O’Hare Hilton had a Christmas Eve special. It was connected to the airport, so we decided to stay there. Then we were all booked on a first class flight for the next morning. To Orlando. Because there were no direct flights to Tampa until late in the day. So we rented cars, too. To drive from Orlando International Airport to Tampa International Airport, so we could pick up our cars before we drove home to our families.

Merry Freaking Christmas.

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After we checked into the O’Hare Hilton, we met down in the hotel bar. There was a Christmas Eve bowl game on. I think it was Georgia and Virginia in some very, very minor bowl in Hawaii, of all places. I don’t even think they play it anymore. So, we gathered at a table in the empty bar and watched a college football game. We ate bar food and drank. We toasted Christmas.

Then an old man in a gray suit and fedora stumped into the bar with the aid of a brass-handled wooden cane. He sat at the table next to us and ordered a drink. He placed his hat on the table in front of him and leaned his cane against a chair. He nodded to us and sipped his drink while he watched Georgia-Virginia in a bar at the O’Hare Hilton on Christmas Eve.

We sat and talked and asked the old man to join us and watched the game until it was time to go to bed.

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I can only imagine what it would be like to still be one of those guys. The guys who spend Christmas Eve working in Green Bay and miss their connecting flight home to Tampa. I never had to call my boys and explain through their tears that I wouldn’t be there when they woke up on Christmas morning. For that, I am grateful.

My sportswriting career didn’t end on my terms. I was laid off in 2008, freelanced for 19 months, then landed a Monday through Friday job writing and editing in a cubicle for an Internet marketing agency. That’s what I do now. I don’t have to concern myself with inexplicable layovers in Appleton, Wis., or callous gate attendants or inattentive pilots or lonely old men in hotel bars on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t my choice for the sportswriting to end, and I do miss it every now and then. But I wouldn’t go back. Not to the way it was, anyway. I haven’t missed a Thanksgiving or a Fourth of July or a New Year’s or a Halloween or any holiday since 2007. Having weekends off is like having 52 two-day vacations every year.

Tuesday morning, I’ll see the light in my sons’ eyes when they come downstairs and dig into their stockings. I’ll be home for Christmas.

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After we landed in Orlando on Christmas day, 2000 – I highly recommend first class flights, by the way – I rode in a rental car with the photographer and the columnist. The photographer drove and we took I-4 in record time. At the Tampa airport, I got into my car and drove home. It was around 2 o’clock Christmas afternoon when I walked into my house. There were maybe 20 in-laws there. They had already eaten. I hugged my wife and ate some leftovers, then opened some presents.

It was nice.