Santa Claus Schooled Me On Barbie Dolls

A magazine writer had a list of toys she’d never allow in her children’s possession. But a winter holiday assignment that made her reconsider.

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“Santa’s giving me a Barbie,” my 4-year-old daughter told me quite a few times over the spring and summer with utter confidence. My daughter’s tiny teeth nearly shone. Her dark hair—spiky from a lice-induced buzz cut—resembled Barbie’s not at all. “Because my Barbie is lost.” 

Her Barbie had been lying around our house naked for a good five years. During those years of neglect, Barbie’s smooth, wavy, blond hair had become permanently tangled. Sometimes, her naked, disheveled body was strewn in a twisted position: crime scene cold or blankly torrid. Pressure to her abdominal area elicited “Tap your heels together three times,” in a lilting, repetitive singsong. At one time she’d had a shiny pink and silver gown, plastic silver heels, a tall, glittery crown, and a wand. She was Glinda Barbie. 

We hadn’t bought the doll. In those days we avoided getting certain toys, especially Barbie and toy weapons. This sole Barbie was a prize my husband and I won at a baby shower for a lesbian couple we knew, so Glinda got to stay. 

Until last spring that is. I’d tossed Glinda Barbie out along with other, half-broken but once-beloved toys while the four kids, ages 4 to 17, were in school, in hopese that no one would notice. Once our motley Glinda was out of the way, I thought I’d beat Barbie. But she wasn’t missing long before my daughter started to ask for her replacement. Her requests did not move me. There were plenty of other toys, plenty of other dolls. 

Santa Claus seemingly disagreed. I know, because I met him. 

That fall, on assignment for a regional arts magazine, I drove to a sprawling retail complex, a rambling amusement park of Christmas complete with Muzak carols, Santa’s workshop, a Bavarian Christmas display, and more ornaments, toys, and knick-knacks than I could have ever dreamt existed. Add a restaurant, a bakery, a fudge factory, and a candy shop, and perfumed air not ten paces past the sliding door—I was understandably feeling lightheaded.

My editor requested I interview this Santa for the holiday-themed December issue. “Santa will never break character,” my editor promised. “He’s been at this job for years and he takes it very seriously.” 

“Sure,” I’d replied. 

Before I approached Santa, I spent a few minutes across the room, and watched him in action. He surely looked the part with his white hair and beard and his round, wire-rimmed glasses. His stomach sloped in the chair. He waved at kids too shy to do more than stare from a safe distance. He invited their parents or grandparents to ask questions. He answered each one; he never stopped smiling and managed to sneak in a “Ho, ho” here and there. 

I walked up and introduced myself. He stood up to shake my hand. He noticed my eye wander toward his blue jeans. “You don’t want to get paint on your fancy clothes,” he explained. He wore suspenders and a flannel shirt, too. “The missus would have a fit. Besides,” he added, patting his girth, “all those cookies people leave out, who could say no?”

Then, he pointed to the stool beside him. “Mrs. Claus won’t mind your sitting there,” he assured me. He showed me the tree and the desk and the pen and the lists. He described life with the reindeer and the toys and the way the parking lot at the retail Christmas Mecca filled up the Saturday after Thanksgiving with people eager to meet him. He pointed toward his Evergreen. “I make ornaments for my tree year-round,” he explained, and whipped out a piece of origami paper. “No reason to lose the Christmas spirit.” A child watched his thick hands fold the paper. “Do you like it?” he asked. The child, with eyes saucer-wide, nodded. He handed the ornament to the child. “Here,” he said. “This is for your tree.”

He showed me stacks of letters on his desk. Many came from adults. “Adults do come to talk to me,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm or judgment. “People have to have places to share their dreams, and even their disappointments,” he mused. “That’s important.” Belief for this man—this Santa David—seemed like lifeblood. Clearly, Santa wasn’t an act—or a mere job. His calling seemed to be to preserve a sense of wonder about his alter ego.

“Mrs. Claus reminds me that I can help people understand that manners count,” he explained. 

“What else do you hope kids understand?” I asked. 

“I want children to know the importance of kindness and gratitude,” he replied. For a moment, although his “corner” was situated in the toy store section, I might have believed he didn’t know which toys were popular that year. 

By then I’d entered the fiction with him. Like anyone in the midst of a tale might be, I was pleasantly charmed. While I didn’t address him as Santa or Mr. Claus, I wasn’t at all tempted to call him by his street name, either. His jovial tenderness and his obvious sense of pride in the person he channeled was too dear to burst in any way. 

As I walked across the parking lot unable to shake the waxy, vaguely mango scent I’d picked up inside or the headache I was brewing, my dulled mind felt happy. I started to think that an actual Barbie could not damage my daughter’s self-esteem nor threaten her future feminism in any way. The Barbies of my youth endured countless hours being drowned in my grandparents’ swimming pool with my just-older cousins. They narrowly escaped other terrible fates. I’d turned out just fine, if by just fine I meant a peacenik feminist. 

My upbringing was Jewish—light on religion. It included a smattering of Hanukkah and Christmases that were haphazardly celebrated without extended family. I do remember the morning my mother’s scratchy, nearly illegible scrawl across a paper towel roll for the pet gerbils revealed “Santa’s” identity in our household. I was seven, maybe eight. I called her out about her deceit. She urged a cover-up so my younger sister could hold onto her belief a little longer. Thus ended the magic of Christmas, at least the Santa part, for me. It comingles with my parents’ divorce in my psyche—I took the burst Santa bubble and the thorniness of their breakup as evidence of how unreliable adults were and how unable to contain their children within the mythic innocence of childhood. There was a lot of confusion in those years. Some was between them. Then, there were his tangled romantic life, her sadness, her emerging professionalism, her underwhelming romantic life, and, of course, where my sister and I fit into their jumbled adult challenges. Put another way, that loss of the Santa fantasy exposed, in my memory at least, my sense of vulnerability. 

Determined not to repeat the gerbil-gift-handwriting-paper-towel-debacle circa 1970, my exceedingly meticulous husband and I took reasonably great pains not to reveal Santa’s hand. My husband designed forgeries for Santa notes: cut-up magazine letters—kidnap note style—or typed words, when necessary. The kids don’t believe in Santa forever. But the 4-year-old girl still does. She knows Santa slides down the never-used chimney and eats cookies and drinks milk and brings Barbie. That’s what I realized as I drove down the highway with my head throbbing and my heart inexplicably soaring to write up my interview on the morning I rediscovered my faith in Santa. 

She ended up with a princess Barbie and a pink unicorn. “You don’t just want her to stand there being pretty; she has to do something,” my husband reasoned. He’s responsible for the unicorn, although we wouldn’t have the unicorn without the Barbie, and she’s on me—and Santa.


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