The holidays had me down. The rushing. The commercialism. The endless negative news cycle set against our supposed Christmas spirit.
I found myself at a shopping mall. Exhausted, I got in line for a Starbucks. At least I thought it was Starbucks — until I reached the front.
“Ho, ho, ho, young man,” said Santa Claus.
“Sorry, wrong line,” I mumbled.
“Nonsense,” said the big fella. “Come tell Santa what you want.”
I looked behind me at a parade of impatient faces. A mother with four kids grunted, “Please hurry. My little one needs to pee.”
I edged forward.
“Do I sit on your lap?” I asked Santa.
“You want a lawsuit?”
“Pop a squat on the floor,” Santa said.
So I did. I sat down next to him, coming up to his fat knees, which were covered in red fabric.
“All right, mister,” he said. “What do you want for Christmas?”
“For real?” I asked.
“Santa don’t lie,” he replied.
Santa can’t fix our problems
I thought back on the year that is about to end, the stories, the disturbances, the anger.
“OK,” I said. “For starters, I’d like there to be less political division in our country.”
“Yeahhhh,” Santa said, squinting. “Not gonna happen. I’ve already had 50 requests for ‘Make America Great Again’ hats. And 60 for ‘Impeach Trump’ bumper stickers.”
“Well,” I countered. “How about less gun violence?”
Santa checked his list. “A hundred wishes for firearms.”
“In that case,” I replied, “I’d like the country to be less sexed-charged.”
“Oooh, sorry,” Santa said. “Push-up bras are a top requested item.”
“Well, how about this?” I said. “I’d like everyone to stop texting their lives away. Look up from their screens. Talk to one another.”
Santa pursed his lips. He pointed down the hallway to the Apple store, and a line of customers that snaked out the door, all of them engrossed in their devices.
“What else?” he said.
I scratched my head. I looked around. The mother with the four kids was fidgeting. Her youngest was pulling at his pants.
“I’d like our children to eat healthier,” I said.
“I’d have to cancel 75 McDonald’s gift certificates,” Santa said.
“Adults eating healthier?”
“And lose 90 Dairy Queen gift cards?”
“Could we watch less television?”
He held out his list and tapped a gloved finger to an item marked “Big Screen TVs.” The number was so large, I couldn’t count all the zeroes.
“Try again,” Santa said.
There’s still hope on Christmas
The line was getting antsy. I heard grumbles of “Come on, already” and “What’s this guy doing?” The mother with the kids had her youngest hopping on one leg.
“I don’t suppose world peace is an option?” I said.
“Out of my league,” Santa answered.
“An end to hunger?”
“You’re talking to a guy who eats cookies all night.”
“What about good will towards men? Isn’t that the whole point of the season?”
Santa sighed. He looked at his watch. “Break time,” he said. “I gotta hit the head.”
As he walked away, everyone groaned. They pointed at me, as if I’d driven him off.
“It’s not my fault,” I whined.
Just then, I heard a rustle. I turned and saw a different Santa. He was older, plumper, and his white beard looked more authentic.
“Ho, ho, ho,” he said, sitting down. “And what do YOU want for Christmas?”
“What’s the point?” I said. “Whatever I asked for is out of the question. The world is a selfish, bitter place, with everyone pitted against everyone else, and each of us watching out for our own interests. What could you possibly bring me to counter that?”
This new Santa took a deep breath. He looked at the mother with the four kids, and the little one hopping up and down.
“Come stand by my side,” Santa told me.
Then he motioned to the little boy, and the kid charged and plopped in his lap. When Santa asked for his Christmas wish, the kid leaned in so he could whisper.
I leaned in as well.
“My mommy is really poor,” the boy said. “And she’s really stressed out cause it’s just us. Can you do something nice for her?”
Santa raised a bushy eyebrow. “That’s it?”
The boy nodded.
“Nothing for you?”
“I don’t want to be selfish.”
“Are you sure?”
The boy scrunched his face. “Well, I really have to go to the bathroom.”
Santa chuckled and lifted the child off his lap (although not as fast as I would have). He patted his head and said, “Merry Christmas,” then looked at me and winked.
“Same to you,” he whispered.
Which is when I realized that despite our insanity, as long as there are children, there is hope. And hope is really the best gift of all.
I walked off feeling better. When I looked back, Santa Claus was gone, and the chair was empty. I paused. Then I saw the other Santa Claus coming out of the men’s room.
“Nine more days of this,” he grumbled as he passed.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Isn’t it great?”
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his latest best-selling book, “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” available online and in bookstores nationwide. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.