Native Son: December 15, 2022

“If you play Santa, you will have a great experience. If you become Santa, you will have a truly extraordinary experience.” –My answer when someone asks me if playing Santa is fun.

Life just kind of sneaks up on you sometimes. As I was still reeling from another Santa gig, someone asked me how long I have done this sort of thing. Well, it turns out the answer is 20 years … to the day. And, like most things, the first time was truly memorable. I hope you enjoy it … and Merry Christmas!


It was a rotten Saturday morning. The sun was up, the air was brisk, and the threat of perfect weather was everywhere. My back writhed in pain and the rest of me felt like a crumpled up wet newspaper that the neighbor’s dog had mistaken for a fireplug. Dragged out of bed by an obligation I had repeatedly tried to decline, I found my lips muttering voodoo incantations on Mary Jo Baird, the sweet lady who had “asked” me to do this Santa thing for the Bird’s Christmas Tree event. (Actually, I did decline, and repeatedly. She finally subdued, uh, persuaded me with a flying half Nelson and a well-placed stiletto heel spike.) So there I was, thirty-two minutes from show time, bleary-eyed and glazed over, when I stumbled up to Kathleen Cook in The Grove.

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Now, Kathleen was particularly irritating this morning. There she stood, well dressed, organized, and confident; a model employee in good spirits while the demon Curmudgeon was thrusting glass shards into the throbbing muscle spasms of my back. Great, she gets to be the professional while I look like roadkill. My eyelids cracked open a bit and I could see nothing but a few empty tables and some mulch. I managed to spit out a crabby, “So, where are the kids?” “Oh, they’ll be here. They always are,” she answered with enough perk to brew a big pot of Joe.

My stomach turned a bit, boiling with that horrible queasy feeling that inevitably precedes disaster. I looked back at Kathleen, who was now bopping like a bluebird, busily making sure it was all ready for the hundreds of kids that I knew were going to stand us up. As much as the thought aggravated me, she did manage to inspire me just enough to think that I could survive 45 minutes of abysmal torture. I trudged back to the Rock Springs Center, and slowly donned the blasted red suit while my back screamed with spasmodic waves of twisted anguish.

I caught a ride to the Grove from two merciful souls named Lisa Grove and Clint Zalewski, the latter of whom was deeply embedded into the folds of fur that we refer to as, “BG Squirrel.” They were cheerful as Mouseketeers, and I felt like biting a rat. I wondered, “Who needs this smarmy malarkey anyway?” My foul mood stuck to me like peanut butter, and I was looking for an opportunity to spread it around.

The cart stopped and I almost fainted in disbelief. Thirty thousand children flooded The Grove and spilled out in all directions. (The “official” count of 800 was ridiculous.) As I struggled to straighten the cheap, crusty beard on the (obviously low bid) Santa costume, a spiritual awakening enveloped me, body and soul. Which was real lucky, ‘cause about 200 screaming little girls in Brownie uniforms were running straight at me with pigtails a flyin’. The whole herd surged up to me like a tidal wave and then halted, just inches from me. We all stood flash-frozen for an instant, mired in the sad reality of the “No Touch” world the lawyers so proudly created. I heard the words, “Santa loves hugs!!” fall from my mouth and the swell of kids instantly collapsed upon me. I struggled to keep my feet under me as the squeals and shrieks filled my ears. I could no longer hear the screams from my back spasms, and an overwhelming sense of merriment flooded my entire body. Those little faces, beaming with wonder and excitement, had changed the world.

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I spied BG Squirrel sneaking away from the crowd to avoid the squish. A voice, quite likely mine, bellowed, “Guess what, girls?” In amazing unison, they quieted and said, “What?” I waved a magical hand and yelled, “BG Squirrel loves hugs, too!!” The outer ring of little girls peeled off and instantly inundated the hapless rodent, giving me but a glimpse of Clint’s sidelong expression of desperation through the mesh of BG’s mouth before they swept him away. (I took, perhaps, too much pleasure in this scenario.)

The sun beamed, the birds sang, time stood still, and all was magical … until it finally happened. As I bent down to pose for picture number 736, I felt a tiny little tug (human or spirit, I do not know) on the fuzzy red fabric and my entire world went black. Possessed with the agility of a cobra and the speed of a gazelle, half a bolt of cloth zipped up into my most personal of places and lodged itself firmly, and with malicious intent. My eyes bulged and I probably leaked a tear, but I held still for the photo. When I stood up, I concurrently felt the power of Zeus and the fruit of the loom. I reeled about, knowing I had to take immediate action. Before me and completely encircling me were the innocent eyes of God’s children, backlit with the halos of their mothers, who sported smiles of joy and camcorders of eternal truth. I found myself in one of the few places on the entire globe where a quick and simple “adjustment” cannot be bought, borrowed, or stolen. Panic filled my heart as the cobra tightened his coils. Born of a necessity known by few mortals, I began a slow pelvic squirm, which, aside from being very “un-Santa-like,” knocked the charmed smiles clean off the faces of a few previously enchanted moms. I knew I had to act fast, for the future of Santa as we know him was at stake. I went for the Gold with a wide-stanced, gyrating Santa Boogie dance that would have made Elvis cry with envy.

I said they were God’s children, and they proved it by rescuing me in my time of need. They joined me in the shake and quake festival that culminated in a giant-jolt landing that sent the cotton serpent back to the homeland. Tears of joy were shared by all, but only truly appreciated by me … and the spirit of the King.

The rest of the day was a joyous blur; my back stopped hurting and I was once again reminded that the true treasures of this world are the simple things that money can’t buy. As for Mary Jo Baird, I suppose I owe her thanks for giving me a very memorable day. Assuming editor Bruce Boardman manages to keep this story away from her, she just may ask me to do it again next year.

First printed in the Fort Worth Botanical Society’s newsletter, The Redbud.


Just so you know … the Longview Arboretum & Nature Center is OPEN! Hours are 10am-5pm, Wednesday through Saturday; Sunday 12 noon-5pm. Come out and see us! And bring your own brand of Zen! 903-212-2181

I need a road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come and speak to your group sometime. I’m low maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town too small. Just send me an e-mail at and we’ll work something out.

Posted by Steven Chamblee
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