From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

The Department Store Santa

“Why are there so many different Santas?” I asked my mother, tightly clutching her hand as we walked along the icy downtown sidewalk. I was five years old.

“They’re all Santa’s helpers,” my mother answered. “The real Santa is the one at Leavitt’s department store. You met him last year, remember?”

I nodded, not doubting for a moment that he was genuine. The Santas everywhere else, with their scraggly cotton beards, heavily rouged cheeks and drooping, padded bellies bore little resemblance to the Santa in my favorite picture book, The Night Before Christmas. But the Santa at Leavitt’s department store—well, he looked as if he had just stepped right off one of the pages.

“Can we go see Santa today?” I asked. “Please?”

“Next week,” my mother answered, glancing at her watch. “I promise.”

But five days later, instead of visiting Santa, I found myself on a cold table in a doctor’s examining room.

Wide-eyed, I stared at the doctor as he spouted a lot of medical terms I didn’t understand . . . until he said, “She’ll probably lose all of her hair.”

“You’re mistaken,” my mother responded, shaking her head. “I don’t want to offend you, but I’m going to take her to a specialist for a second opinion.”

And she did. Unfortunately, the diagnosis was the same. I had a form of juvenile alopecia, a disease that would make my hair fall out.

I can remember watching my mother choking back tears every time she found a clump of my blonde curls lying on the floor or scattered across my pillowcase. I also remember angrily refusing to believe her when she assured me that my hair would grow back.

Understandably, I didn’t have much Christmas spirit that year. Although I felt fine physically, the sight of myself pale and bald made me want to lock myself in my room and hide under my bed. When my father enthusiastically invitedme on our annual father-daughter shopping spree to buy Christmas gifts for my mother—an event I’d always looked forward to—I told him I didn’t want to go.

But Dad could be persuasive when he wanted to be. He convinced me that without my help and suggestions, he probably would end up buying my mother the most hideous Christmas gifts in the history of the world.

Solely for the sake of salvaging my mother’s Christmas, I agreed to go shopping with him.

Downtown, the throngs of shoppers, cheerful Christmas music and thousands of twinkling lights made me temporarily forget my problems. I actually began to have a good time . . . until Dad and I decided to stop for a cup of hot cocoa.

“Hi, Lou!” one of the customers greeted my father when we walked into the coffee shop. “Say, I didn’t know you had a little boy! I thought you only had a daughter.”

I burst into tears.

My father quickly ushered me out of the coffee shop and led me toward Leavitt’s department store. “I have just the thing to cheer you up,” he said, forcing a smile. “A visit with Santa! You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Sniffling, I nodded.

But even as I stood in line in Leavitt’s toy department, where Santa sat on a regal, red velvet throne trimmed in gold, my tears wouldn’t stop. When my turn finally came, I shyly lowered my head and climbed onto Santa’s lap.

“And what’s your name?” Santa asked kindly.

Still not looking up, I carefully pronounced my full name—first, middle and last—just to make certain he would be able to find my house on Christmas Eve.

“And what would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas?” he asked.

My tear-filled eyes met his. Slowly I removed my brown stocking cap and revealed my naked scalp. “I want my hair back,” I told him. “I want it to be long and beautiful, all the way down to the floor, just like Rapunzel’s.”

Santa cast a questioning look at my father and waited for his nod before he answered. “It takes a long time for your hair to grow, sweetheart,” Santa said. “And I’m very, very sorry, but even Santa can’t speed things up. You’ll have to be patient and never lose faith. Your hair will grow back in time; I promise you it will.”

With all my heart, I believed his promise. And ten months later, when my hair did grow back, I was convinced it was due solely to Santa’s magic.

The years passed, and when I graduated from high school, I went to work full time as a switchboard operator at Leavitt’s department store. All my coworkers were friendly, but one employee in particular went out of his way to make me feel welcome. He was a retired professional boxer named “Pal” Reed, the store’s handyman and jack-of-all-trades.

Pal had a knack for sensing when an employee was depressed, and he did everything he could to help. When I was learning how to work the switchboard and became so frustrated over my mistakes that I was ready to quit, Pal bought me a box of chocolates to lift my spirits. He was so easy to talk to, I felt as if I had known him for years.

During my first Christmas season at Leavitt’s, I went down to the stockroom one afternoon to get some gift boxes. There, standing in a corner with his back toward me, was the store’s Santa, getting ready for his annual arrival in the store’s toy department.

“I’msorry,” I said, embarrassed that I had interrupted him while he was dressing. “I didn’t mean to barge in on you.”

Santa quickly put on his beard before he turned to face me, but no beard or long white wig could conceal his identity. He was the same Santa I had told my Christmas wish to fourteen years before.

He was Pal Reed.

He smiled knowingly at me, then softly said, “I remembered you the minute I heard your name—and I’ve never been more thrilled to see such a beautiful head of hair.”

Sally A. Breslin

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