Airport Santa is real

This is a true story.

Normally, wild exaggeration is part of my job description. But not now. I’ve been sitting on this story since my daughter was 7, and now I’m finally comfortable telling the embarrassing, ridonculous, stupid truth: I believe in Santa Claus.

We were headed out for the holidays. A young family, huddled together in the airport’s waiting lounge listening to my inexhaustible daughter list her preferred Christmas presents for the 88th time, a list that extended to near infinity, included live animals, and living household items one can only purchase in a cartoon, when the big, white-bearded guy sitting behind us turned around and blew our mind.

It was Santa. Don’t stop reading! I know; you’ve had it up to here with Xmas glurge, I know. But this really happened. I swear.

My daughter’s belief in Santa was as strong as my belief in gravity. Christmas was not a December event for her. Christmas was her life. She sang Christmas songs in June without a hint of irony and when this guy, this plaid-shirted, red-suspendered, bald, bearded, gnomish nut turned around, her heart stopped and, moments later, so did her mouth.

“That’s a very long list,” said Santa.

“Grhm Flurny Nerb,” said Sarah.

“It might fill up my entire sleigh,” he winked. His eyes crinkled up with little Hollywood special-effects crow’s feet. My daughter’s heart restarted and she leapt into an embrace of this stranger followed by an interrogation about reindeer, elves, and the weather at the North Pole. My wife and I smiled warmly and basked in the crazy coincidence. We were starring in our own personal Christmas special. Other passengers leaned in to listen. They smiled and stole glances at each other to check their sudden and mysterious lack of cynicism.

I finally pried my daughter off the ironically dressed Canadian (I’m assuming — there was a lot of flannel) and she promptly fell into sugarplum dreams, drooling copiously on my wife. I looked at Santa.

“I bet you get that a lot.”

“Well, I am Santa. So, yeah.”

“Ha ha. Good one. So, uh, seriously.”

“Chris, seriously. I’m Santa Claus.”

As he said this, he pulled out his wallet. His driver’s license read “Chris S.C. Kringle.”

And then my inner child exploded. I know, I know, he was listening before and heard my wife call my name and blah, blah, blah. You weren’t there. It was December and there was snow and Dean Martin was singing “Silver Bells;” I’d just spent two weeks power-shopping, building a tree, falling off a ladder, and wearing plaid. I was sitting in an airport lounge with Santa Claus. Seriously.

I let loose. As my wife stared at me like I’d lost my very last struggling vestigial shred of sanity, I went wide-eyed, little-kid Mall Santa on this guy. My Christmas list unspooled. I practically sat on his lap. And he listened. He smiled. He asked questions (“A seven iron? Really?”).

Ever classy, ever practical, my wife finally reached over and peeled me off of my seat. I tried to catch my breath and become an adult again.

And here’s what still sticks in my barren, cynical, wasteland of a mind: he stood up, shook my hand, winked a randy Burl Ives wink at my wife, and walked away.

I got a seven iron (bought it myself — I’m not crazy) and my wife got a lovely diamond tennis bracelet. But after the tornado of torn of wrapping paper subsided and we’d put batteries into all the toys and had a cup of coffee, there was a moment in which my wife and I looked at each other and for a moment, briefly, I think even she, the most practical woman in the world, was willing to believe we’d met an elf in an airport.

I still do.