Santa 17, by Michael Alan Grapin
How many modern holiday stories have you read, how many Christmas movies or television shows have you watched, where you thought, “why did they ever go there?” It seems like every time I try to watch or read something new focused on this special time of year, I get bogged down in maudlin sentimentality, disgusted by madcap zaniness that has nothing to do with anything, flabbergasted at forced turns of events, or completely turned off by a time-honored storied being padded for no reason other than conceit and merchandising.
Then comes along a blessedly low key story of the season that goes down like milk and cookies, and leaves you with a glow like cranberries and cinnamon simmering on the stove. In other words – just like how Christmas should be.
Simply put, along comes a book like Santa 17.
The unnamed narrator in Santa 17 is a pretty normal, everyday guy, with a few harmless eccentricities. He lives in New Jersey and runs a fabric store that has been in the family for generations. The store is large but worn, his employees are no superstars but decent enough, and he has a love/hate relationship with his customers. (Look up curmudgeon in the dictionary and it well might have this fellow as an illustration.) But – we get it. He works hard and has little to show for it. It’s been years of the same old, same old, every day, only Sundays off but those full of obligations, and no vacations, no accolades, no comfortable retirement looming.
But he’s not a scrooge-like character, either. He has a loving wife, and their life as a couple is one of comfortable patterns, low stress activities and enjoyments. By choice, they have no children. His extended family is at times boisterous, but generally, they all get along – every Saturday night for dinner, in fact.
And he looks like Santa Claus. Not just a passing resemblance, he looks like the real deal: rotund, white curly beard, rosy cheeks, twinkling eyes. Children accompanying their parents to the fabric store often mistake him for Santa, and he enjoys playing along. “This is what I do in the off season,” is his stock response to questions on why he’s not at the North Pole, and the children – and anyone who truly believes – are enchanted.
Then one day the fabric store proprietor is visited by a somewhat surprising guest: an elf, who’s a recruiter for – well, take one guess. From here, we are taken on a journey both whimsical and pragmatic, where marvelous things happen in every day sorts of ways.
Our narrator, now known as Santa 17 (having been arbitrarily assigned that number during his first training session at Elf Central), appears to be somewhat of an anomaly: he is a true rookie, having never been a mall Santa or with much professional experience before being tapped by the elves. But his intrinsic knack at being able to foster an unwavering belief of his “true” identity has not gone unnoticed, as has his uncanny ability to identify children by name and know their deepest Christmas wishes. As time goes by, and as his understanding of what being a true Santa Claus entails grows, he very unassumingly, a tad bit clumsily, and without conceit or fanfare, becomes a Santa superstar.
Oh, there is action in Santa 17, and fame and fortune, but it unfolds in a very low key way. In fact, the reading of this story demands not just a willing suspension of disbelief, but a willing suspension of cynicism and a lack of need for guile or drama, and instead an embracing of the comfort of routine and the joy of the everyday life.
I suppose those readers looking for glitz and dash, expecting a riveting build up, exciting climax and heartwarming conclusion might be disappointed in the gentle romp (and sometimes stroll) that unfolds with Santa 17, but then I think they would be missing the point – that there is no real point, there simply is a story, unfolding simply, to normal people who nevertheless have wonderful things happen in amongst those most normal of times.
And for me, that’s part of what Christmas is all about. Wonderful things in our normal lives. Santa 17 delivers this, along with good cheer, a healthy dose of required naivety, and a few chuckles along the way.
And – even in New Jersey – a good time was had by all.