It was a raggedy little boy I found staring up into my whiskers … He had his teeth clenched and his jaw set.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by Jim Frise, December 13, 1947.

“Let’s,” urged Jimmie Frise, “let’s go up and see Santa Claus!”

“Awff …!” I groaned.

We were wedged in the main-floor Christmas crowds of the big department store. Up on the fifth floor, Santa Claus was holding court for hundreds and hundreds of kids.

“Jim,” I puffed, as a large lady with bundles butted me aside, “we don’t want to get tangled up in that melee.”

“We can take the escalator,” persuaded Jim, “and we won’t get hurt.”

“What on earth do you want to see Santa Claus for?” I demanded, taking shelter up against a solid pillar.

“I always like to see Santa Claus,” said Jim cheerily. “I wouldn’t think I had done my Christmas shopping unless I’d gone up to the toy department and stood for a little while, watching those kids filing along past Santa Claus, with that lovely, innocent look of awe.”

“You’ve got two weeks till Christmas,” I pleaded. “You come up some other day – by yourself.”

“Look,” said Jim, bracing himself against the butting, shoving, trampling horde that stampeded around us. “We’ve got an hour with nothing to do. We’re here. Let’s get it over with.”

“I’ve given up believing in Santa Claus,” I submitted. “In fact, I find myself leaning a little in the direction of these new fangled psychologists who believe it’s wrong to teach children myths, like Santa Claus.”

“Okay, then,” declared Jim, taking me by the coat sleeve firmly. “Come and have one farewell look at the old boy. Every day from now on it will be harder to get in here.”

I permitted myself to be good-naturedly bundled through the mob toward the escalators.

The stupor of Christmas was already in full possession of the multitude in the big store. The stupor of Christmas. It begins to show itself even earlier than this. You can detect the first faint symptoms of Christmas stupor as early as the first of December, both on customers and store clerks. By mid-December, the stupor is such, that often you will see both customer and clerk standing staring absently at each other across a counter, the customer having forgotten what he just asked for, and the clerk having apparently lost consciousness for a moment.

You find Christmas stupor most evident in the actual traffic of the store. In the walking, shuffling, wandering throngs of customers and store employees, you note that expression in the eye that is characteristic of a herd of cows moving along a country road. A look of wonderment. A look of anxious preoccupation, as if the cow or the customer didn’t know where it was going, or what it was going for. And like a cow or a steer wandering along the road with the herd, the customer often takes a sudden idea to turn to the right or the left, without any particular purpose.

Christmas stupor, of course, is part of Christmas. I we didn’t get stupid, we would all stay home the month before Christmas. Thus business would get the biggest black eye in the biggest period of sales in the year. Business would fail. A slump would begin. We’ve all got to be stupid at Christmas.

Jimmie steered and propelled me ahead of him resolutely through the fighting throng. Being taller than I, he could set his course with greater advantage. Where he could see ahead of us a mass of young, middle-aged or healthy customers, he would make a quick detour or tack to the right or left, choosing children, feeble old ladies and unsuspecting women of the frailer sort, with their backs to us, whom we could butt, trample or ricochet off; making our progress much faster and more skilful than the average. I figure the average speed of a person in a Christmas crowd to be at the rate of 40 feet in five minutes, or one-eleventh of a mile per hour.

We reached the escalators and entered the crowd, jammed there awaiting their turn. We finally shuffled and inched our way on to the escalator and began the slow, rumbling upward journey of five storeys. One of the pleasantest places to be in the big stores at Christmastime is on an escalator. Nobody can really get a jab or a gouge at you there. About the only thing that can happen is to have your hat knocked off by the skis or the ironing board the lady in front of you is carrying.

“Ah,” I sighed with relief, as the pleasant ascent began.

“I’ll tell you another reason,” began Jim, in the conversational isolation of the escalator, “why I want to go up and see Santa Claus and the kids. It’s for my soul’s sake. It’s for my intellectual reassurance. In this day and age, when so many beliefs are toppling, it is mighty heartening to behold ONE belief that is standing fast against the rising tides of unbelief.”

“Even if it’s a myth,” I agreed, “like Santa Claus.”

“Well, most beliefs,” pointed out Jim, as we swung round and took the escalator from second to third floor, most beliefs contain a certain element of myth. Every generation, or at least every century, we see our beliefs shedding some of the mythical elements they used to contain. For example, my old grandfather used to believe that his ‘betters’ had the right to govern him. He was always referring to his ‘betters’. The preacher, the schoolteacher, the local banker, the owner of the sawmill – all these were his ‘betters’; and he frankly acknowledged them as such. Today, the guy who runs the elevator doesn’t look upon the president and vice-president of this store as his ‘betters’. He looks them bung in the eye. And the president and the vice-president say ‘Hi, Bill!'”

“Would you call that a myth?” I questioned. “That belief in your “betters’?”

“It’s the Santa Claus myth in adult form,” explained Jimmie. “For the kids, we have Santa Claus. For ourselves, we have had – until quite lately in human history – a mythical belief in our rulers, emperors, princes, lords, bosses, who would be Santa Claus to us and shower us with blessings.”

“The Santa Claus myth,” I pondered, “in adult form!”

“Sure,” pursued Jim. “There isn’t an employee in this whole city, who, this week, isn’t hoping and praying that Santa Claus, in the shape of their boss, is going to give them a Christmas bonus.”

“Er …” I argued.

But we had come to the top of the escalator at the fifth floor; and we knew by the different tone of the din, by the higher, shriller hum, that we were close to the toy department, with Santa Claus enthroned on high.

It is easy for adults to progress with fair rapidity in the toy department. By a judicious use of knees, feet, elbows and the flat of the hand, an adult can really push, kick and shove children out of the way with a freedom that is denied him in other departments of the big stores at Christmas.

We worked our way through the pandemonium to a position square in front of Santa Claus’s throne, where we could observe the pantomime at its best.

Santa Claus sat in a throne raised on a platform about 10 feet high. A ramp of planks, prettily painted, led up to and past Santa Claus, so that the little ones could file past him in endless queue.

“Ah,” sighed Jimmie, relaxing. “Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that touching?”

Santa Claus, dressed in scarlet, gold and white, with a mass of white beard and hair surrounding his ruddy face, reached down and lifted a darling little girl on to his knee. Up to him, she turned her trusting and adoring little face, her eyes ablaze with faith. We could not hear Santa, of course, because of the din of the toy department – electric trains rattling, horns blowing, dirty little boys playing tag with store detectives and maiden lady clerks, toy dogs yelping, mamma dolls mewing and disgruntled small children screaming while being yanked by their mothers through the press.

Nor could we hear what the little girl asked for. But we could see dear old Santa nodding his head emphatically to the darling little girl, and she went right on rapidly lisping her requirements, with bright upturned face, until Santa Claus laid her down off his knee and reached for the next supplicant.

“Greedy little brats!” I remarked.

“Oh, oh, OH!” protested Jimmie, anguished. “You miss the whole spirit of Christmas.”

“Just a minute, Jim,” I interrupted. “Look at Santa Claus, would you! Look at the way he’s twisting and turning…”

Santa, in between bending down to listen to the children on his knee, kept twisting and writhing on his throne, casting what seemed to be anguished glances to the right and to the left, back of the wings of the throne on which he sat.

“By golly, look at his face!” agreed Jim.

Looking narrowly, you could see, through the white clouds of whiskers, an expression of agony.

And at this instant, I heard my name being called!

“Oh, Mr. Clark… Mr. Clark!”

It was my old friend Bob Brittain, the assistant manager of the toy department, and he was clawing his way through the kids toward me, beckoning. He came up and stood breathless for a moment, controlling himself.

“Look,” he gasped, “I saw you in the crowd… how would you like… I mean… this is an extraordinary request… but you know…”

“What is it, Bob?” I asked cautiously,

“Santa Claus,” went on Bob, “has got an awful attack of indigestion. Tight indigestion. He’s simply got to get some baking soda and lie down for a few minutes… 10 minutes…”

Bob looked at me with intense meaning.

 “You…” he said, “you’ve got the build, the jolly red face…”

“You mean…?” I inquired stiffly.

“It would be an unforgettable experience for you,” explained Bob Brittain eagerly. “Only for a few minutes…

“But the kids,” I protested, “the kids would be willing to wait a few minutes, if Santa Claus went and lay down…”

“Oh, you can’t do that!” cried Bob. “You can’t let the kids know Santa Claus gets indigestion. Besides, the department is jammed with kids wanting to speak to Santa Claus. Their parents are waiting impatiently. We can’t let them down, keep them waiting…”

“Isn’t there somebody on the staff of the store?” I inquired, though Jimmie was pushing me with little nudges.

“I’ve been all over the place, we can’t spare a single clerk. The department is rushed off its feet!” said Bob.

“Okay,” I condescended, with a chuckle. “Where’s the harm?”

Bob led us back of the scenery behind the throne. At a whistle, Santa Claus came staggering off the stage, holding his stomach.

In a jiffy, he had whipped off his costume, whiskers, wigs, hat and all. An anguished little fat man with perspiration on his face stood revealed.

Jim, Bob and half a dozen others stuffed me into the costume. Slammed the whiskers and wig on me. Helped me into the boots.

Just talk deep and hearty,” hissed Bob, “and laugh ho, ho, ho! And promise them everything.”

I was shoved on to the stage, where I hastily took my throne.

The queue of children were yelling, the mob on the floor were waving and screaming. I reached out genially and picked the first child in the lineup onto my knee.

“Ho, ho, HO!” I bellowed in a deep voice.

It was a raggedy little boy I found staring up into my whiskers. A raggedy little boy with a dirty face and gimletty gray eyes. He had his teeth clenched and his jaw set.

“Ho, ho, ho!” I repeated. “And what would my little man like…?”

“Yah!” screeched the dirty little boy, reaching and grabbing a handful of my whiskers. “This ain’t the real Santa Claus! He ain’t got a voice like that! He’s a fake… a fake… a fake…!”

And with a jerk, he had my whiskers, wig and beautiful hat off, and gave me a nasty kick in the shin as he jumped and ran.

I made a grab at him. It was to get my whiskers back. But Jim, who was watching from the wings, said it certainly looked more like a swift uppercut I aimed.

At all events, the next children in line apparently were chums of the dirty little boy. For they jumped me, yelling “fake” and even worse. And before Jim or Bob or anybody else could come to my rescue, the whole department full of children seemed to be piled on top of me, tearing and kicking and scratching.

“Just,” I huffed, as they undid me from my costume back stage, “just another myth exploded!”