THE LITTLE girl's name is Patience Cole, and the big guy's name is C. Kelton Alley, but we will keep his identity between us adults. This time of year, Alley passes as Mr. Santa Claus. As Patience is 3 years old, we are reasonably sure we do not reveal any secrets to her through the pages of the newspaper. We will leave it to Santa to deliver the true secrets of the season.
This Santa arrives at the Arundel Mills mall from Rockwood, Tenn., via the North Pole. Patience arrives here with her Aunt Danielle Osterling and her innocence. All around them, in these final hours before Christmas, the grown-ups are rushing about in a frenzy of procrastination-induced guilt.
They will try to alleviate this by buying, and then buying more. Somewhere along the line, they became convinced that video games and soccer equipment carried the important message of the season. This is why we turn now to Santa, at the Arundel Mills mall, who speaks with the message of angels.
"I bring gifts one night a year," says Santa, as Patience looks up at him. She is all eyes and pigtails. "But my gifts aren't as important as the love of your mother and father, who bring you their gift every night of the year. Do you understand?"
Patience nods her head, looks over at her Aunt Danielle and snuggles in close to Santa, as though they're old pals. She gets it. Presents are nice, but family is forever. A few moments later, a little girl named Abby Tilghman, 6, approaches. Santa pulls a little notebook from his pocket, filled with pages and pages of names.
"Abby, Abby," he mutters, leafing through the book. "Have you been good?"
Abby nods. A few feet away, her sister Emma, older and, at 10, far more skeptical about these matters, rolls her eyes a little.
"Says here in my 'Naughty-and-Nice' book," Santa says, finding Abby's name, "you've been good. Is that right?"
Abby doesn't want to be presumptuous, so she looks toward her mother, Barbara Tilghman. Mom nods her head.
"She's been good," she affirms.
"Although," says Santa, nodding toward 10-year old Emma, "there's something in here about maybe the two girls getting on each other's nerves a little bit."
Now Emma drops her skepticism for a moment and edges closer. Is that what it says in Santa's little book? Emma's close enough now to share Santa's lap with Abby and to listen to his little message before he asks what presents they want. It's the message about love, about family, about matters of the spirit that are sometimes overlooked in the commercial chaos of the season.
In a brief pause between children, Santa slips off to the side for a grown-up conversation. He says he comes here every year to play Santa. He says he worked for seven years, back in Tennessee, as a year-round Santa at a Christmas store. Sometimes, he says, he stood outside the store back home with a sign saying, "I Will Work for Cookies."
In Baltimore, he says, some children tell him, "Santa, we don't have a fireplace. How will you get in?" He holds out a metal rod, the length of an umbrella stick, with a knob on the end.
"I have my own doorknob," he explains with a Santa-esque chuckle.
Then he slips back into character.
"How old are you?" asks a grown-up, taking note of the big guy's white hair and beard.
"Why, hundreds of years old," he says.
"Do you always tell the children that same message about love and family?"
"Oh, I just talk from the heart," he says.
So do some of the children, and some of their parents.
One woman, Santa says, told him, "Santa, we're having to start over. Our house was broken into last night and all our presents are gone." At such moments, this Santa's message about love doesn't quite eliminate the loss of the presents - but maybe it offers a little perspective. There are gifts beyond the spending of money.
"One little boy," says Santa, "told me, 'I don't want anything but my uncle to come back from Iraq.' I said, 'We have to look to a higher power for that.' But we said a little prayer for him to come home safe. I've actually had four or five children who have asked for that."
The children arrive wrapped in their innocence - and their vulnerability.
"One little girl had me sleepless till 3:30 in the morning," Santa says. "She looked like a little angel. She had a smile on her face the whole time. But her mom said, 'Santa, we have spinal cancer. The operation didn't get it all.' We said a prayer together. I told the little girl she was a very special person and I was honored by her presence."
At such moments, this Santa honors us with his presence. He talks about love and caring before he asks about gifts. On the last day before Christmas, the grownups rush past him in their lateness and their frenzy. They should stop for a moment. He offers the sweetest message of the season. And it doesn't cost a cent.