The question that almost stumped Santa Claus

Story highlights

  • Val Lauder says the toughest questions Santa gets come from his littlest fans
  • A student's question revealed one of Santa's biggest challenges

Val Lauder, a former reporter for the Chicago Daily News and lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of "The Back Page: The Personal Face of History." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN)Full disclosure. I love Christmas. Since I was old enough to remember. The stocking hung on Christmas Eve. The rush downstairs to the tinseled tree the next morning. The packages under the tree.

I don't remember ever being taken to a department store to see Santa or sit in his lap but clearly remember the Christmas night he came to see me. I was 8 and had whooping cough. No opening presents Christmas morning with all the family. I was quarantined, if not literally, as good as.
My parents did the best they could, but the merry wasn't there. Then that night, great excitement outside. Not Santa's sleigh but a bright red fire engine, called because a kitten was stranded in a tree in front of the house next door. Hanging off the back of that fire truck was Santa Claus. Red suit. Black boots. Hat and sack and "Ho! Ho! Ho!"
    When he stepped down, he came right to my house. He put his sack on the floor and pulled out all sorts of packages in shiny paper. When I'd opened every one and Santa left, my parents said something to the effect that not every little girl had a visit from Santa.
    Val Lauder
    And I said, "Yes. It was nice of Min to come."
    Min was part of my aunt's family. He owned a menswear store, and his own sartorial style was his best advertisement.
    I seem to remember my parents trying to convince me it was Santa, then curiosity taking over. It was Daddy who asked: "How did you know it was Min?"
    "Santa was wearing spats, and Min is the only man I know who wears spats."

    Santa and the star

    Fast forward. My fifth year at the Chicago Daily News.
    On the eve of the Chicago Christmas parade when Santa Claus made his official appearance on State Street, I was in a limo en route to a promotional event with a film star when the press agent and the Daily News photographer started talking about the parade. Bob Hope was coming in to be the grand marshal. After two or three minutes of their conversation, the star turned to me and asked, "Is there a Santa Claus?"
    I was 23, a columnist at one of the great newspapers in the country with an official Chicago Police Department Press Card, and I'd just been asked if I thought there was a Santa Claus.
    Perhaps it was the Ghost of Christmas Past -- Min's Santa and the spats. I said, "Yes. In spirit."
    The star smiled, and we rode on. As we did so, I began thinking about Santa Claus, and thinking that while I had been setting up press conferences for the high school and college newspaper editors in the Greater Chicago area for three years -- President Truman, Gen. Eisenhower, Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Jane Powell, Esther Williams -- we had never had a press conference with Santa Claus.
    He certainly fit the criteria: someone of interest, prominence -- someone the student editors would enjoy interviewing and their fellow students would enjoy reading about.
    It was too late that year, but the following fall, I started making arrangements. I was able to get the official State Street Santa Claus, the one who would ride in the sleigh for the Christmas Parade.
    We scheduled the press conference at the Palmer House, where we'd interviewed singer Tony Bennett. But I made one change: Rather than sending out the usual notice of the press conference to the editors of the high school and college newspapers in the Greater Chicago area, I wrote to the principals of the grade schools -- the first through eighth grade -- and invited them to send their newspaper editors.
    So it was that on the designated afternoon, I waited in the meeting room we'd been assigned for the eighth-grade editors to arrive, hoping they'd be into the spirit of the event. Which I quickly decided they were. Of course they'd read about the other student press conferences, and, now, here they were. To interview Santa Claus.

    Putting Santa on the spot

    One of the last of the young editors to arrive, however, came in with an air that told me he was not into the spirit of the event: He was there to expose something. None of this Santa Claus crap for him. Just wait. He'd show 'em what this Santa Claus thing was all about. He took a seat on the left aisle, one row back, poised to spring.
    Fortunately, I didn't have too much time to worry about it.
    Santa Claus arrived.
    And he was one wonderful Santa. With the cherry cheeks and twinkling eyes, the long white beard, the wide black belt with the big brass buckle, he looked as if he'd just stepped off a Coca-Cola billboard.
    "Ho! Ho! Ho!" he called out, waving to everyone. "Ho! Ho! Ho!"
    I introduced him, as I always did the person to be interviewed. Then I opened the press conference to questions.
    Frankly, I don't remember what the students asked, but they were definitely into the spirit of it all. And if the questions posed here, and answers, are not exactly what were heard that day, they reflect what was.
    How did Santa manage to get toys for all the children?
    Well, the elves had to work very hard all year. But no one wanted any child to be disappointed Christmas morning.
    How did he keep all the gifts straight?
    Mrs. Claus was a big help with that.
    All was well until the time to close the interview approached. Realizing that, a boy rose to ask a question that was frequently asked by the high school and college editors -- of the celebrities, not the historical figures -- that he had apparently seen in the accounts of those interviews.
    "Santa, what is your pet peeve?"
    He didn't hesitate a millisecond. "Soot."
    Soot?
    A stunned, shocked -- forget simple surprise -- reaction.
    "Yes, soot. You work hard all year to get the toys ready for the children. You get into the sleigh and set off, knowing you have to go around the world regardless of the weather. It can be raining. It can be snowing. It can be freezing. And the reindeer, they get tired. And you arrive at a house, and you land on the roof, and you take the sack of toys to the chimney, and what do you find? Soot!"
    Talk about making it a dirty word.
    "They didn't care enough to clean the chimney."

    'Look at you!'

    Which was just what the boy who wanted to expose something had been waiting for. He came out of his chair as if on a spring. "Then," he demanded, pointing an accusing finger worthy of Emile Zola and J'Accuse, "why aren't you all dirty?!
    "Look at you! The white trim on your coat and sleeves, the white beard, the white on your hat, your gloves .... There's not a spot on you!"
    I tell you true I slipped down in my chair until I was practically sitting on my tailbone. I remember thinking: And this seemed like such a good idea.
    I sneaked a peek at Santa.
    He had not slipped down in his chair. He had drawn himself up to his full height. He stroked his beard, rested his hands on the big brass buckle on his black belt, fixing his gaze on the boy who'd just asked the question.
    "Because," he said very slowly, "I stand for love and generosity and kindness. And those things are hard to soil."
    No wonder I've remembered him all these years.
    Even without seeing a Santa ringing his bell by the black kettle on a street corner. Hearing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" at the local mall. Watching "Miracle on 34th Street" on TV
    Come Christmas Eve, I wish him a Merry Christmas.
    And clean chimneys.