I will admit, I have a problem with Santa.
Especially when we are standing with reindeer beside his sled in freezing temperatures with driving wind and snow and he announces he is cold and going inside.
I wanted to give him a little tip – we were all cold, (or a kick in the velvet knickers) but instead, practiced my restraint.
It was a lovely morning at the Rosedale mall. We stood with Rosette and Sophie, beside a large Christmas tree outside of the AMC theater while shoppers stopped by to snap photos and pet our deer.
Rosette is one of three reindeer in North America without antlers, so she is unique. This is genetically considered an anomaly, but we think she is special and for my first outing as a handler, she was easy. The challenge with most of the reindeer is keeping the public from getting whacked with the antlers and trying to keep your own face from the same. With Rosette, that is not a problem.
Sophie who is 11 and 1/2 has a broken leg that healed crooked. She is sound and happy and can run on all four, despite that one looking a bit off. When you are handling Sophie, you explain the Broken Leg story about a million times in two hours. She is super sweet but we don’t like taking her out to show because of her age and her compromised appearance, but for Saturday she was a top-notch showgirl!
We showed off the “ladies” from 11-1:30 then loaded the sled, the deer and our equipment into the truck for our next stop – a shopping center in Eagen. Somewhere in that hour it started to snow.
Not just a little dusting but a howling wind and driving snow. By the time we arrived and set up, there was a line of kids, parents and grand-parents waiting for us.
Santa showed up at the last minute with his wife and had us re-arrange the bales of straw we position around the sled for people to step on getting on and off.
This is harder than it sounds. Hay bales are not that heavy, but if you have one wrist inside the loop of the lead rope and the other clutching the chin strap of your reindeer, you really don’t have a free hand for maneuvering hay bales. Santa kicked the bale in a not so cheery manner. I held Sophie’s lead rope and could not offer much help.
He and his wife stood behind the sled and he explained to many families that his insurance would not allow him to help them in and out of the sled or hold any children.
After an hour, the line cleared out and he announced he was cold and going inside.
People waited in their cars in the surrounding parking area for his return.
By the second hour, the numbers of Santa’s visitors were dwindling. Our red coats were white from standing in the wind.
That is when a mother with two children walked up. She had on a tan coat, the boy looked to be about 12 – a big boy, but not quite in adolescence. The little sister followed like a shadow.
That’s when Santa surprised even me.
“You’re Kevin, right?” he stated while pointing to the boy.
“Yeah,” Kevin responded, looking surprised.
“Climb into the sled. Let’s get a photo!” Santa instructed as the two followed. I saw him give a nod to mom, who stood by me clutching her phone.
When Kevin and his sister were parked in the sled and focused on Santa, I heard him say, “Your dad isn’t home this Christmas? Christmas isn’t always a happy time for everyone…”
I turned to mom and saw tears as her lips tightened and she tried to smile.
I don’t know how I did this, but I held open my arms and she met me in a hug.
Where was Sophie? Why were neither one of us whacked by antlers, like a stick to the face? I don’t know. I just know that I was patting the back of a sobbing stranger.
I only know the snow was blowing and stinging and Kevin and Santa were talking and I found myself saying over and over to this strange woman in my arms, “You are not alone. It might feel like it, but you are never alone.”
Then, I felt Jane tug my arm and offer to take Sophie. “Go ahead, you know her. Why don’t you take a moment with your friend?”
How could I explain to Jane, team leader of reindeer handlers, that I don’t really know this woman I hugged? I couldn’t. It was beyond me.
In a way, I do know her. Too well.
I know what it is like to be alone on the holidays. To have loved and lost. To face another holiday without the people you loved. To wonder how it could be happy, how anyone could sing or wish anyone else a “Merry Anything?” To wonder if you will ever celebrate another holiday again, and if so, just exactly how? How can everyone else just carry on, like nothing has changed?
I could do nothing to help this woman and her family. Nothing but feel her pain.
My first day as a reindeer handler was not like anything I ever expected.
It was far better. Thanks, Santa.