“I want an X-Box 360, an iPad2, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,” asks the little boy sitting on department store Santa’s knee as his recently laid-off dad winces in the background. Even poor kids believe that Santa is a dude with lots of stuff no matter how horrible things are their own families. With about one in four children in the United States living at or below the poverty line and one of three families now defined as “poor” or “near poor” (families within 150% of the federal poverty line), the holiday season can be particularly stressful and frustrating. And exactly what is department store Santa to do with requests that are clearly way out of line for the economic reality that surrounds so many? Recommend pepper-spraying the crowds and simply stealing the X-Box?
The last few years have produced a nuance to the minimal training accorded most department store Santas: managing expectations. Take for example the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan, a state hit particularly hard with plant closings and layoffs. This year’s crop of 115 graduates had a different world to manage. They had to “learn to swiftly size up families’ financial circumstances, gently scale back children’s Christmas gift requests and even how to answer the wish some say they have been hearing with more frequency — ‘Can you bring my parent a job?’
“Santas here tell of children who appear on their laps with lists that include the latest, most expensive toys and their parents, standing off to the side, stealthily but imploringly shaking their heads no. On the flip side, some, like Fred Honerkamp, have been visited by children whose expectations seem to have sunk to match the gloom; not long ago, a boy asked him for only one item — a pair of sneakers that actually fit.
“‘In the end, Santas have to be sure to never promise anything,’ said Mr. Honerkamp, an alumnus of the school who also lectures here. He has devised his own tale about a wayward elf and slowed toy production at the North Pole for children who are requesting a gift clearly beyond their family’s price range. ‘It’s hard to watch sometimes because the children are like little barometers, mirrors on what the country has been through.’” New York Times, November 27th.
For men whose physical geometry fits the Santa mold, an opportunity to be a Santa may itself be a slight relief from the unemployment lines, an opportunity to be productive, if only for a moment in a marginally rewarding sort of way. “The Santa school itself, held in this small, central Michigan city over three days every fall, may offer some measure of the nation’s woes. Last month, it drew the largest class of its history. And while most of the men were longtime, passionate Santas looking to hone their skills in hair bleaching, story-telling and sign language, at least a handful, including an aerospace engineer and an accountant, said they were testing out Santa school in part because of slim times, shrunken retirement accounts, or a dearth of work altogether.
“‘I’m trying it,’ said Joe Stolte, who, at 28, was decades younger than most of the bearded, portly, jarringly similar-looking men in rows all around him. ‘There are no jobs out there — it’s ridiculous,’ he said, adding that he had been surviving by doing odd jobs and cutting lawns in Saginaw and that his mother had helped him come up with the tuition ($400 for first-timers, $350 for others). ‘I like being Santa Claus. And I figure it comes once a year. It’s a thing that’s going to be there.’” NY Times.
At least these “graduates” actually are prepared for the kids they will face. Indeed, whether it is a company president making lay-off decisions, politicians cutting back popular but unaffordable programs or simply families imparting descriptions of the hard new world, these days our lives seem to be built around downsizing and managing expectations for the “big reset” – the redefining of the average American lifestyle going forward – as the longer-term aspects of “recovery” settle in with an entirely difference range of contracted opportunities and lowered effective spending power for the vast majority of Americans. But it is also a time when even the slightest charitable donation can make a very big difference to someone in need.
I’m Peter Dekom, and those who can give a little more to those who need a little more really should.