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SHOPPING : Secrets of Santa : Lo and behold, the helpful spirit of "Miracle on 34th Street" materializes in a Thousand Oaks shopping mall.

December 19, 1991|AURORA MACKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last thing I wanted to do on the day I had set aside for Christmas shopping was watch television. Stay home, consume a bag of M&M's and despair over whether I would be able to get everything done, yes--but stare at a movie I'd already seen, no.

But the choice wasn't exactly mine.

Both my kids woke up with feverish head colds and immediately began fighting over who should get to sit on the left side of the sofa and whose turn it was to change the channel. A quick reassessment of the day's possibilities--and the sight of Cocoa Puffs strewn over the rug--forced me to take control.

They were going to watch "Miracle on 34th Street," I announced, and they were going to love it. I ignored their rolled eyeballs and protestations that "It's old and has no color in it."

"It's about a Santa Claus in a department store," I explained, "and no one believes it when he says he really is Santa Claus. He has to prove to everyone that he really is Santa."

My 8-year-old sat up straight. Suddenly, I was overcome with a feeling of dread.

My son was going to look me in the eye and, as if giving me one last chance to redeem myself, ask me if there really was a Santa. If I answered as I had in the past ("Would I tell you something that wasn't true, sweetheart?"), he would ask me to explain again--just as he had in recent weeks--the little things that simply didn't make sense.

How come, he had wanted to know a few days earlier, the wrapping paper that Santa used last year is the same kind as the leftover wrapping paper in my closet? If Santa really does bring all of the presents, how come we couldn't find a parking place at the mall? And how does Santa know whether to bring the presents to mommy's house or daddy's house every year?

Among adults, I suppose that the Santa myth is OK. But my sons, I knew, wouldn't understand the distinction between a culturally acceptable lie and an ordinary lie.

Hadn't I always told them that telling the truth was the most important thing? That the only time it was all right to tell other than the exact truth was if someone's feelings would be very, very hurt? Would it help them to know that a lot of other parents told their kids the same thing?

But my son didn't ask me any of those things. He didn't even mention the box I'd caught him opening in my room the other day, the one that contains the baby teeth confiscated over the years by the Tooth Fairy.

"So everyone just thinks he put on a beard and is pretending to be Santa?" he asked about the movie. I nodded and sat down, the three of us huddled together under a blanket.

As it progressed, I explained several scenes. The department store manager is mad at Santa, I said, because Santa is sending all the customers to other stores to find what they need. He's just about to fire Santa, but the customers start talking about what a great idea it is.

"Imagine," one woman says to the bewildered manager, "putting customers' needs before profit! I haven't done much shopping here in the past, but I'm sure going to be a regular customer from now on!"

Things, of course, got even better. But when I started to explain again, I was stopped by stereophonic snoring. I watched the rest of the film on my own.

The following day, feeling better, we all headed over to The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks. And it was then that the real miracles began.

In place of the crowds of my bad dreams, you could have rolled a cannonball through some of the stores. At numerous shops there were huge pre-Christmas sales galore and guarantees of the lowest prices, even on traditionally high-ticket items such as jewelry.

"Tell her," said one ad for a 50% off diamond ring, "that you'd marry her all over again."

But the biggest change was in the atmosphere of the stores. In contrast to what I assumed was a move toward self-service by management ("Hello? Hello? Does anyone work here?"), salespeople were falling over themselves to be helpful and polite.

At the May Co., a salesgirl apologized that they didn't have any Spode china cups and saucers--only mugs--but advised me to try Marshall's. At the Broadway, another item not in stock was followed by a recommendation to check out J.C. Penney. If this was a recession-era marketing ploy, I certainly wasn't going to complain.

My son looked at me and smiled, most likely giving no thought to economic crises. It was the spirit of Christmas and the magic of Santa.

When we got home, I put the packages in a closet and headed toward the kitchen. It was then that my fears were alleviated.

"Listen, I know there's really no such thing as Santa Claus," my son said in a soft voice to his brother, "but don't tell Mom. She'd be really sad if she knew."

I knew then that the secret was safe.

And the tradition, I felt quite sure, would continue.

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