Sunday, December 3, 2023

A visit with St. Nicholas a long time ago...

Written By Jim Heffernan for the DuluthNewsTibune/12-2-23

I suppose those wide-eyed kids meeting Santa Claus that long-ago day are in their 50s now. Could be grandparents by now, taking their “young uns” to meet the Jolly Old Elf to express their Christmas wishes. 

 The Santa Claus some of those kids met back then was actually me, all decked out in a red suit, white beard and attempts at jolly demeanor sitting on a festive throne at Duluth’s Miller Hill Mall.


It was in the early days of writing a column for this newspaper. I thought it would be a good idea to experience things in the community and then write about them. I wanted to ride an elephant when a visiting circus paraded units down Superior Street, but somebody else at the paper got the nod (and their photo on the front page).


But at Christmas time I decided I should see what it was like to be a Santa Claus at Miller Hill Mall, still in its early years and attracting big crowds of shoppers who brought their children to tell Santa their Christmas wishes. It would provide plenty of fodder for a holiday column, my thinking went.


Mall management was delighted; we made a date, and I showed up in a preparation area where I climbed into the Santa outfit, beard and all, and suddenly came down with a slight touch of stage fright. Approaching my grand entrance into the mall corridor, I regretted the whole idea, but there I was, dressed in red from head to toe.


A line of excited kids, their parents hovering over them, had already formed, awaiting the appointed time for Santa to arrive. So, I arrived.


Out I went, mounted the throne, and attempted a few ho-ho-hos, realizing right away that I wasn’t that good at ho-ho-hoing. Whatever else might be lurking in my personal makeup, I just am not the ho-ho-ho type. But there I was forcing ho after ho after ho.


Onward. Sitting there, I beckoned the first child, perhaps a four-year-old boy still full of belief and excited to tell St. Nick what he wanted for Christmas. Others followed, boys and girls, sitting on my lap, filled with excitement at meeting the Jolly Old Elf who would be invading their homes on Christmas Eve with a bagful of toys. Yeah, right.


As always happens, some of the younger ones were afraid of me, and I don’t blame them. What they didn’t know was I was just as afraid of them.


It began to occur to me that many of the kids were hoping for gifts their families couldn’t possibly provide, and I wondered what I should say to them. I didn’t want to promise that I would deliver on their wishes, but I didn’t want to disappoint them by saying that I wouldn’t.


I tried to come up with stock answers but I became more and more uncomfortable with the whole scene. It’s hard to be jolly when you’re not, and actually not that good at it in the first place.


But the line grew longer, as did the afternoon. I began to feel warm, even hot and sweaty (except for cold feet), as I welcomed child after child to the open arms and hard knee of a fake fake Santa. I can’t recall how long a Santa session I had committed myself to. I supposed the “real” mall Santa had taken the whole afternoon off, the scoundrel.


I wondered, too, if he had been using the same white beard that I had strapped on and if it might be full of cold germs or dreaded flu. Can you catch pneumonia from a borrowed beard? Could bubonic plague be far behind? What if my nose starts to run? Still, the kids kept lining up.


“Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas,” I kept repeating as kid after kid descended from my knee and another mounted it. “What would you like for Christmas?” I’d open with each one, and many of them would tell me some outlandish thing I knew they wouldn’t get and I felt sorry for them.


Finally, the Santa session came to an end and I was able to shed the costume and get the heck out of there. My own children were at the Santa-believing age at that time and, of course, we later took them to see a competing Santa.


He’s great, I determined as I stood and analyzed his Santa style, cheerfully greeting my daughter and son and handling the promises just right. I started believing in him again myself.


It was the only time I attempted such a thing, but it instilled in me a deep admiration for the men (and I think there are some women too) who take on the job of Santa Claus each year. It ain’t easy.


With that, I sign off for 2023. So, I wish everyone a joyful holiday and a happy new year.


Ho-ho-ho, and all that that implies.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

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