Undercover Santa

It was 9 a.m. this morning, at the corner of Bay and Richmond in downtown Toronto, when I saw Santa for the first time this year. He was wearing walking shoes and travelling pants, the kind that have zips at the knees so you can convert them to shorts, and a few sensible layers under a hunter green fleece jacket. He carried a crisp shopping bag. He would have been unremarkable, an average man in his mid-sixties out for a morning walk, but for two elements that revealed his true identity: a woolly white beard, so genuine and abundant it would convince the most suspicious of nine-year-olds; and, on his head, a floppy red hat adorned by a snowy pompom.

As I crossed the street, nursing my soy latte, I did a double-take and scanned this half-Santa for signs of being a nut job. He looked perfectly at ease, well-groomed, and completely unaware that anything about his person was particularly notable. I couldn’t help but notice my early-morning cranky face being replaced by a grin at the sight of this undercover Santa strolling casually through Toronto’s financial district.

After noting my own reaction to the Undercover Santa, I walked closely behind him, curious to see if other people’s reactions would mirror my own. As he walked by, the ever-busy men and women on Bay Street couldn’t help smiling and turning back to check their eyesight as he walked by. In a big city, we all know, pedestrians rarely meet each other’s eyes. Heads facing forward, ear-buds or smart phone glued to our ears, we plow towards our destinations. Afraid of awkward eye contact or just distracted by our own thoughts? Either way, it is a phenomenon that gives city-dwellers a bad name. Seeing Santa’s impact on the crowd this morning got me thinking about how subtle changes can shorten the distance between people.

While the inundation of “seasonal” messages (starting November 1st) can sometimes make me feel like I’m living in a big, cheesy commercial, I have to admit that this time of year makes me feel more connected to others. It’s no coincidence that so much charitable giving and community service happens in December: amidst all the buy-buy-buy messages, many people have realized that what makes them feel good, really, is making other people feel good – and it doesn’t have to be with something bought in a mall full of crazy-eyed shoppers. The smallest gesture or moment can brighten someone’s day and make them want to pass that feeling on – and, to be a little cheesy myself, isn’t that what “the spirit of the season” is all about? Undercover Santa, wherever and whoever you are, I raise my latte to you. Thanks for waking me up, and reminding me that we are more connected than we think.

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