In Sweet Company

“I think we each have our own soul assignment, our own unique way of contributing to the world. It doesn’t have to be something big. It just needs to be authentic, something that truly comes from within our own selves.” — Reverend Lauren Artress, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE

Many years ago, when I worked as an Art Therapist at an assisted living facility in Santa Monica, I planned a Christmas party for the 200 + residents and staff. I hung stockings on every door. I baked cookies the envy of Martha. I decked halls. The day before the party Santa caught cold and canceled his appearance. I borrowed my babysitter’s candy-striper apron, glued a tuft of red feathers around the rim of an old pair of black boots, and dug out my pearls. It would have to do.

The morning of the party I attended my daughters’ Christmas pageant at school. My eldest daughter played Mrs. Claus. She poked her head out the window of a cardboard North Pole and admonished her hubby in an oft rehearsed line “to come in from the cold for a hardy bowl of reindeer noodle soup.” Santa, a boy who, at nine, was my height and nearly twice my girth (no doubt why he was chosen for the role) entered Stage Left wearing the most beautiful Santa suit I had ever seen. Rhinestone buttons the size of quarters sparkled like Bethlehem stars in a ruby velvet night. A hat and goodie bag, a beard as pure as the driven snow, completed the ensemble. This was the Balenciga of Santa suits; Dior du jour. A secret childhood dream to be Santa — one denied me numerous times because of my gender — sprang from the murky pool of my unfulfilled desires. The opportunity to redress the Santa gender equity issue consumed me.

I elbowed my way through the throng of the huddled kinfolk of twenty-three elves and nine reindeer and arrived at Santa’s front door just as he uttered his concluding triumvirate of holiday “Ho’s.” I asked about the suit. It was not his, he said; it belonged to the third grade teacher. I sought her out and explained my situation, asked if I might borrow the suit for the afternoon. She was reluctant; it was a family heirloom, handmade by her recently departed mother who wore it at each of the fatherless Christmases of her childhood. I smiled appreciatively and walked away. 

Fifteen seconds later I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Mother would want you to wear it,” she said, and pressed a red satin hanger into my hand. I thanked her, sought out the Santa-kid and promptly relieved him of his vestments.  

Thirty minutes later I stood in the nurses lounge of the skilled nursing facility ramming bed pillows down my pants. Adrenaline pulsed through my veins. Bedecked and bedazzled, resplendent in my ruby suit, high on the promise of social justice procured and desire fulfilled, I visited every patient on every floor of the facility. I schmoozed visiting grandchildren. I hugged beleaguered nurses. I high-fived poinsettia-laden delivery men, then took up my post as party ringmaster. My formerly corpulent belly had, by then, drifted to regions below my right buttock, and tiny white fuzz balls stuck to my eyelashes like dried oatmeal. But I  was Santa Claus! I  made Christmas merry and bright!  All must needs could be answered! Thanks to me, no one would ever be sad or lonely again! 


It’s true, some of my patients were momentarily made bright at the sight of me. One old gentleman grabbed my hand and said, “Oh Santa, I always knew you would come.” But I was trashed. Dehydrated. Depleted. Destroyed. And I remained so for the rest of the holiday season.

I got an unexpected gift that Christmas, a powerful confrontation with the dark side of desire, with my need to be all things to all people, and a visceral understanding of why even Santa comes only once a year.

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