Saturday, June 21, 2008

Probable Claus

Stephen Glass

Last year, two days before Christmas, Jerry Buttle was nearing the end of his best year yet as a shopping mall Santa. He was averaging more than 25 kids an hour, up from the previous year's record 21. The line of eager children equipped with voluminous lists snaked farther than he could see down the Wisconsin shopping center's hallway.

At about 7 p.m., a ruddy-faced fourth-grader hopped onto his lap and began listing the dozens of gifts he wanted for Christmas. Then, just after asking for a video game, he shouted: "Mommy, Santa has a boner!" He began singing over and over: "Santa has a boner, Santa has a boner!" A deep silence spread all the way to the back of the line. Then, just as suddenly, the chatter started up again as parents told their kids it was time to go home.

Jerry Buttle is 83 years old. "Trust me. I haven't had one in a long time," he says of the erection in question. "He must have felt my belt buckle." Mr. Buttle now uses rope to hold up his red pants.

An isolated episode of humiliation for one old man, a small change in tradition, rope instead of a belt. But incidents like this one are just the beginning for Santas across the country.

Once assumed to be kindly -- if perhaps slightly eccentric, boozy or otherwise not conventionally employable -- old men, commercial Santas are now widely assumed to be potential pedophiles. No longer celebrated only in secular hymns and saccharine movies, Santas are the subject of a forthcoming paper by a child advocacy group on how to guard against child molesters.

The climate of suspicion has spawned an entire industry of Santa advisers. One Chicago-area school for Santas featured a 144-page textbook that provided instruction on everything from going to the bathroom in a Santa suit to rules on how to touch children. The country's other major Santa school and company, Santa Plus, offers a shorter handbook that repeats this rule twice: "Always be aware of the placement of your hands while children are on your lap. Both hands should be clearly visible at all times."

And Santa's bosses are taking this sort of stuff very seriously. The witch-hunt that has devastated the day care industry in recent years has made a deep impression on others who work closely with children. Fearful of lawsuits, criminal charges and bad publicity, mall executives are erring on the side of skittishness.

Starting about four Christmases ago, though, shopping mall executives -- under pressure from insurance companies -- began demanding tighter control over jolly old Saint Nick's baser instincts. In many malls, this has meant relatively subtle changes, like requiring that Santa undergo drug testing, and that he wear white gloves so that his hands are more visible.

But, increasingly, Santa's overlords have begun to demand much more. In the Midwest, children's advocates have been successful in pressuring malls to adopt a whole new Santa tradition. Three Illinois malls instructed their Santas to be "more down-to-business" and refrain from smiling since St. Nick's traditionally jolly demeanor could be "misinterpreted."

Across the Atlantic, Santa fares little better. England, whose Victorian age gave rise to the notion of Saint Nick as an innocent dispenser of universal love for children, has, like the U.S., begun to regard the old boy more as a fur-clad groper than a pater familias. This November, for the first time, several of England's department stores declared Santa's lap or knee off-limits unless an adult supervised.

And children's advocates say they want even more restrictions. The executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence believes all Santas should be fingerprinted. The Child Welfare League of America says there should be a national registry of Santas. "What we need are some regulations," explains Mary Davidson, the dean of Rutgers University's School of Social Work and a prominent advocate for children. "The question we must ask ourselves is, who is screening the Santas?"

But if child-care alarmism had at least some roots in reality (there have been a few cases of child-care workers molesting children), the great Santa Scare is 99.9 percent hysteria. The National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect hasn't recorded a single case of a Santa molesting a child.

Some experts say Santas may actually be the safest population since they are constantly being photographed. "What (the demand for restrictions is) doing is drawing attention away from the real problem. It's making Santa the fall guy," says Richard Gelles, director of the University of Rhode Island's Family Violence Research Progam. "If you worry about Santa, you forget to worry about Uncle Harry." And an abusive Uncle Harry is far more common; only 6 percent of child abuse is committed by strangers.

Douglas Besharov, the first director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, fears that many men will avoid the Santa business altogether. "It's a great loss for the men and for the children. Children need to be touched. People need to be touched," he says. "It's a reality that men want to be careful, so they are progressively having less and less physical contact with children."

The Santa scare may not be saving children, but it is having one real effect: It is discouraging Santas and frightening them into treating children in a more distant, and even peculiar, fashion. While no one has historical data on how many Santas are quitting, one retired South Carolina Santa, Richard, began informally keeping track last year. Richard, a 78-year-old Santa who claims his last name is Claus (he also says his answering machine announces that he is unavailable because he is feeding the reindeer), is convinced the scare is encouraging more and more Santas to get out of the racket. "If this keeps up, the next generation will have no contact with Santa," he says. "Get your pictures now," he forecasts solemnly, "they'll be collector's items."

Some Santas have agreed to stay on board only if they can modify their costume to avoid any perceptions of child abuse. For many, this simply means streamlining the suit's cuffs, so Santa's hands are more visible. But a few Santas have gone further, and weirder. After an Illinois Santa noticed that his white-gloved hands appeared to blend into a child's white shirt in a picture, he began wearing rhinestone-studded aqua-blue mittens. Likewise, a Miami Santa has been wearing sunglasses ever since a parent accused him of giving his 3-year-old daughter "the eye."

Richard is horrified by the more creative solutions. In October, he founded the Union of Concerned Santas and Easter Bunnies. The group fights malls that tinker with tradition, but promotes sensitivity training for Santas. In its upcoming newsletter, the child is segmented into green (safe, like shoulders) and red (dangerous, like chests) touch zones. "If they could invent safe sex," Richard says, hopefully, "then, Ho! Ho! Ho!, we'll make safe Santa-sitting."

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