Back in the early 2000s, when my niece and nephew were little my mother would hire an actor to play Santa Claus and deliver gifts to her house on Christmas Eve. Santa actors were hard to find in Southern Illinois but not impossible, though more than once the guys she hired were completely hammered and smelled like cheap liquor and cigarette smoke.
I missed a lot of those Christmases after I came out as queer at 19. I wasn’t welcome to come home for the holidays for several years and the first year I was invited back I was nervous and hopeful. I knew there was an unspoken expectation that I not discuss my “lifestyle”, bring a girlfriend, or rock the boat in any way. I was so homesick that I was willing to endure it but I needed reinforcements, so I asked my best friend Grady to come along. He and I had a lot in common, we both desperately wanted to bridge the gap of being authentically true to ourselves and still belong in our families, our hometowns, and our communities. So when my mom hadn’t found a Santa yet that year and out of the blue asked if Grady would do it, I wasn’t surprised when he unhesitatingly agreed. At the time Grady was a butch lesbian tentatively being welcomed into a rural mildly homophobic family and given a lead role in the holiday. There was no way he was going to turn down this opportunity to shine! Besides, there isn’t much Grady wouldn’t do for a good costume. He had a job as a gas station attendant just because he got to wear a pinstripe button down with his name embroidered.
When we arrived in West Frankfort, Illinois my mom immediately pulled out the Santa costume she had rented. I’d never seen a costume rental business anywhere in the tri-county area but somehow she had found this thing. It had clearly been worn a number of times, the beard had a yellowish tint on top of the bright white plastic hair. The red suit was fine, there was some thinning fabric here and there but the beard and the wig, they smelled. They smelled like those previous bad actor Santa’s— cheap whiskey, cigarettes, a tinge of body odor, and bad breath. It was really bad. But again, there was a lot on the line here, no way was Grady turning down being Santa, he lived to please the unpleasable, he would power through this.
We put the costume in the trunk of my car to hide it from the kids until late afternoon on Christmas Eve when we went over to my Aunt Lori’s house to get ready for the big Santa visit. We pulled the costume out of the trunk and somehow it smelled even worse. Despite the winter cold, the confined space seemed to have set the odors more deeply into the plastic. The stench was so pronounced that when we walked into my aunt's house she scrunched up her nose and said: “dear god, what is that smell?” Grady said, “I think it’s the beard.”
Aunt Lori put out her cigarette and walked into the kitchen while Grady pulled the red costume over his jeans and t-shirt. He gingerly hung the beard over his ears and for just a moment placed it on his face. He immediately started to cough and muttered “oh my god this is disgusting. I hope I don’t throw up, in fact, I think the last guy DID throw up right into this beard.” Aunt Lori emerged from the kitchen into the living room, shaking a giant aerosol can, with a freshly lit Virginia Slim dangling precariously from her lip. She gestured toward the beard and said: “give me that thing.” Neither of us considered what she was about to do or even looked closely at what was in her hand. Aunt Lori, despite being 100 pounds and 4’ 11’’ was somehow the most terrifying figure we had ever encountered. When she said jump you jumped, when she said sit down, you sat down and when she said hand me the beard, you handed her the beard.
Before we knew what was happening Aunt Lori was dousing the beard in Lysol. With the number of accidental fire incidents in my family, it would have been thematically appropriate if the beard had caught on fire. But it didn’t ignite.
God knows how many chlorofluorocarbons were released into the atmosphere that day punching a hole in the Ozone layer right above West Frankfort but I can tell you this for sure, the chemicals in Lysol mixed with the smell of aged cheap whiskey, cigarettes, and vomit made for a cocktail more potent than teargas. Grady and I started coughing, wheezing and sneezing, eyes watering while Aunt Lori looked on completely unaffected, probably from decades of Lysol use and diminished sensory responses from her endless cigarette smoking.
Through tear filled eyes I noticed it was almost 6 o’clock and 1/2 dozen small children were waiting for a surprise across town— we needed to go. Grady took the beard outside to wave it in the air but it was no use, the Lysol scent seemed to multiply with each wave. Aunt Lori was laughing saying things like “serves you right for agreeing to this shit show” and “buck up.” Even though she was laughing you could see she felt badly, she knew she’d made matters worse. Aunt Lori hadn’t planned to go to my mom’s house but now there was no way she was going to miss the spectacle. She bundled up and followed us as we drove with the windows down, gasping for breath, the beard hanging out the passenger window.
As we rounded the final corner to my mom’s house, Grady said: “Let me out here, if the kids see me without the beard they’ll be traumatized.” I nodded in agreement. We knowingly locked eyes understanding the sacrifice that was about to be made. Thus far we’d only held the Lysol vomit beard but now Grady would have to put it on, walk into to my mom's house, and be a jolly old elf —in spite of himself
Aunt Lori pulled up behind us, rushing to intercept Grady before he walked into the house. She held out a pair of needle nose pliers and said: “Santa doesn’t have a nose ring.” While Grady is now an out proud trans man, back then he had big boobs, a nose ring, and Ronald Reagan hair. Before he could verbally consent, she took ahold of his chin, twisted the metal, and pulled.
When Grady walked in the door, my mother shouted in her sing-songy isn’t this exciting voice “Oh my goodness children, look, Santa is here! Oh my, Santa has a terrible cough. Quick kids, someone get him a chair and some milk.” One by one each child climbed into Santa Grady’s lap staying only briefly to tell him what they wanted most— Furbies, Pokemon cards, Beanie Babies. Not one of them mentioned the smell but as soon as their list was complete, they each quickly jumped away. Perhaps children are used to smelly Santa’s.
Despite the fact that Grady’s left eye had swollen completely shut, his left nostril was bleeding just a little, and he could barely breathe, Grady still somehow managed to find his inner Santa Claus. He asked each child for examples of good behavior and to name something they were grateful for. When it was time to leave he even quoted lines from the Night Before Christmas before reminding the family that his reindeer preferred carrots over cookies, unpeeled, please. Santa Grady was magnificent all the way up to his final Ho, Ho, Ho.
Clearly, this all went beyond making a good impression or proving that queer people could belong in mainstream rural families. As I looked on in awe, I could not help but feel profoundly loved. This was true ride or die friendship forged on the battlefield of family Christmas.
My mother never hired another Santa Claus, instead, me and my butch dyke best buddy returned to rural Southern Illinois year after year. Eventually, he also became the Easter Bunny. I’d like to report that the costume rentals improved, that this first stint as Santa was a one-off that we learned from —but that isn’t true. Each and every wig, beard, and rabbit head smelled exactly the same—disgusting.
This essay is made possible by the generous community contributions on Patreon.com/NikoleP
Note to Reader: Grady talks about his gender history publicly, however, I still called him to ask permission to tell this story and if it was ok to include details of his former name and gender identity. He gave me permission. Even though he is my family and I know him very well — things change and I wanted to make sure I had the most recent information about what is currently comfortable for him and respectful to him. I’m being explicit about this because I don’t want anyone to think I am modeling that it’s ok to use former names publicly without careful consideration and explicit permission.