Michael Alan Grapin
Release Date: October 3, 2011
How many modern holiday stories have you read, how many Christmas movies or holiday television shows have you watched, where you thought, “why didn’t they stop halfway through, before they just went too far?” At least for me it seems like every single time I try to watch or read something new focused on this special time of year, I end up bogged down in maudlin sentimentality, disgusted by madcap zaniness that has nothing to do with furthering a plot or rounding out a story, flabbergasted at unreal and forced turns of events or completely turned off by a time honored storied being padded and flabbed out for no reason other than publicity, conceit and merchandizing (2000’s live action “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, anyone? No, thanks.)
Then comes along a totally wonderfully underwhelming, blessedly low key, no explosions, no lives lost or saved (well, not quite true, but that’s mainly sidebar), no copious tears milked or shed, no heavens opening up and showering down love and joy and happily ever afters story of the season that goes down like milk and Oreo 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 narrator in Santa 17 (I don’t think we ever learn his name) is a pretty normal, everyday guy, with a few harmless eccentricities. He lives in New Jersey and runs a cavernous fabric store that has been in the family for generations. The store is large but dingy and 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 low key 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: not very tall, rotund, long grey/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 are enchanted – as is anyone, regardless of age, who still truly believes.
Then one day – months before Christmas – the fabric store proprietor is visited by a somewhat surprising guest.
This scenario is repeated in my store on nearly a daily basis, so I thought little of it. However, this time, after Brittany left with her mom, I was visited by a little fellow wearing a green cotton velvet swallow tail coat, belted at the waist, over brown cotton twill knickers and green high top sneakers that didn’t have flashing lights. Although he wasn’t any taller than Brittany, I got the feeling that he was more than four years old. There was no tilting of the head, no shy little smile and no questioning me about my resemblance to Santa Claus. Instead he tells me that his name is Jack and he’s a recruiter from Elf Central and wants to discuss a career change for me…
From here, we are taken on a journey both whimsical and pragmatic, where marvelous things happen in every day sorts of ways, and every day sorts of things continue to be every day sorts of things.
In fact, what is perhaps most magical about this book is just how down to earth it remains. While we have many wonderful chapters where our narrator – who has been tapped to become one of the many thousands of Santas who are the front men for the real Christmas powerhouses, the elves – learns the ropes of what it is to not only look the part, but to become Santa Claus (including a charming trip to Elf Central itself, to see the organization and get novice training on the protocols for joining the ranks of Saint Nicks), we also have other just as wonderful chapters that flow on what could be considered the mundane were it not for how grounded they keep us: the tussle with unscrupulous customers (the Santa Claus charm only is shared between true believers!), or what was made for dinner that night and who handled which task (based, always, on who arrived home first), what television shows were watched, and what activity was undertaken on the precious days off, and how at each traditional family dinner on every Saturday night, it was our narrator’s job to place three and only three – no more and no less – ice cubes in the glasses of water set at each place. These activities are not just related to us, but are related in detail, not meticulously in an overly conscious way, but in the way that feels more like a phone call with a close relative (“Jack left us with a lot to think about, but it was Thursday and we just had to watch The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy and the Mentalist…”).
Our narrator, now known as Santa 17 (having been arbitrarily assigned that number during his first training session at Elf Central; each participant was given a number badge that they pinned to their hats as identification, and although it was not the norm to refer to Santas by their number, the moniker of “Santa 17” just kind of stuck with him), 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 by children of all ages and background had been noticed by the elven power that be, as well his uncanny ability to instinctually identify children by name and know their deepest Christmas wishes, something Santa 17 has wondered at but never questions. 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 Claus superstar.
There is indeed action in Santa 17, and fame and fortune, but it all unfolds in a completely unlavish and low key way, kind of like a holiday-themed New Jersey working class Seinfeld. 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. (Maybe the reason author Michael Alan Grapin is able to relate this story in such an extraordinarily relatable manner is because so much of the narrative reflects his own very real life: proprietor of a third generation fabric store in Paramus, New Jersey and more than a passing resemblance to Saint Nick, which prompted the writing of this book – he’s writing so much of this from his own experience. How fun is that?)
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 in normal lives, 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.