Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes — an old cliche, I know — can be the best way to understand what it’s really like to be that person. So for this Christmas, lifestyles editor Teri Thornton had an assignment for me. A set of shoes, curly, Christmas spirit-infused, red-with-a-little-green-poofball-on-the-tip shoes, I could wear for a few hours on a recent Friday in the mall while helping Santa take toy requests from all the little boys and girls in the Shoals.
That’s right. I dressed as an elf. Not an elf like Legolas or Elrond from “Lord of the Rings.” More like Will Farrell in “Elf.”
I got in touch with Shane Dabbs, owner of Shane Dabbs Productions, who organizes the Santa area at Regency Square Mall in Florence. He set things up and for a few hours I was one of Santa’s little (or in my case, not-so-little) helpers.
I handed out candy canes and said “Merry Christmas” to all the little kids. And in the process I learned a few things, too.
I met Santa Claus, or in this case, Santa’s helper who also is known as Jackie Behel when he’s not donning a velvet red coat, boots and, well, you know.
“I just do this because I enjoy it,” Behel said, between waves of kids coming to sit on his lap.
Behel, with his full white beard that makes him look the part nearly perfectly, must enjoy it. And have more than enough Christmas spirit to fuel him through wave after wave of kids, parents and camera flashes. He made each encounter feel unique. He talked and joked with the kids.
But, it was funny and often heartening to see the kids and their reactions to the big man in red. Some, of course, were frightened, and others were absolutely terrified.
I felt bad for the kids, but I felt worse for the parents. Those kids are too young to ever remember this, but the parents just wanted a nice photo of their kid with Santa. What they ended up getting was a photo of their kid bawling with Behel trying his hardest to look jolly.
Some came in with the single minded approach that only a kid in the few weeks before Christmas can have. One girl, who couldn’t have been much older than 7 or 8, hopped up on his lap and matter-of-factly read to Santa from her list on her phone. She even showed him pictures she’d taken.
Others just sat in awe. Those kids couldn’t quit looking at him and smiling. They were sitting in the presence of a legend. I remember one kid who didn’t have much to say or ask for, he just wanted to sit there and bask. Another, a little girl, just wanted to ask if she could touch his beard. Almost always the kids who sat in awe finished their time with a hug.
Of course, gift ideas varied from front teeth to Furbys (these are a thing again?) to iPads. One little girl asked for a house — she lives in an apartment — so she’ll be allowed to get a puppy.
“Talking to the little young ’uns, I enjoy it,” Behel said. “You never know what they’re going to come up with.”
But some came up with some really sweet stuff. Some asked for presents for their brothers or sisters and others asked for things for their parents, or grandparents. One little boy just wanted his mom to be happy.
As we get older, we become cynical about the things Christmas represents. And I really went into this elf experiment expecting to see 10,000 kids all demanding iPads and expensive toys. And don’t get me wrong, there was some of that. But most of what I saw was innocence, hope, love and thoughtfulness. And most importantly, a healthy Christmas spirit.
Bobby Bozeman can be reached at 256-740-5722 or bobby.bozeman@TimesDaily.com.