Will the Real Santa Claus Please Stand Up

Typically when you think of Santa Claus, you think immediately of a jolly, older, plump man with rosy cheeks and a long white beard. Of course this image is universal, even for the students and teachers of the private École Française (French School) in my town of Betroka where I served as a TEFL Volunteer. And wouldn’t you know, a couple of the teachers at the École Française had the great idea to bring an authentic “vazaha” (white foreigner) Santa Claus to their students. Where could they possibly find such a famous person? Look no further than the newly arrived PCV in Betroka who also spoke French!

I still remember quite well the afternoon that a couple of the teachers from the École Française first approached me at my house in early December about the possibility of playing Père Noël (Father Christmas) for the school’s Christmas celebration. Needless to say it was quite hot and sunny being the rainy season, so the last thing on my mind was dressing up in a red fur suit, donning a beard, and thinking about a cold winter elsewhere. However, these two teachers were quite convincing and told me they would take care of everything should I accept their request to play Père Noël for their school’s celebration. Immediately imagining the faces of my friends and family back home in the USA upon hearing about my upcoming role was enough for me to accept the school’s offer!

A couple of days later the same two teachers returned to my house to take my Santa Claus costume measurements. They described the outfit, and luckily it was going to be light cotton so I wouldn’t sweat the beard right off!

Fast forward a couple of weeks to the day of the school’s celebration. The same teachers returned to my house with the costume, some glue, and a pile of cotton balls. After making sure the costume fit, the teachers had me keep it on so they could get down to the business of attaching my white beard. It was a funny experience having the teachers try and glue lots of little white cotton balls on my face for a beard, especially because it was so hot I was sweating them off. Finally, the teachers decided to stretch out the cotton balls like a beard, and it was easier for that to stay glued to my face. Luckily the red robe came down long enough so it didn’t look like Santa was wearing khaki shorts and New Balance tennis shoes.

The one small detail that remained murky was how I was going to make my way to the school for their celebration. Given that no sleighs or reindeer are located in Madagascar, I was wondering what the teachers had in mind. Of course they had thought all of this through. They hired a man to pull me in a “pousse-pousse” (like a rickshaw) from my house to the school where I could make my grand entrance, much like Santa would do from his sleigh while making an appearance at the local mall.

Riding in the “pousse-pousse” across town is an experience that I will never forget because the town’s one American guy was now dressed head-to-toe in a red robe, wearing a white beard, and was being pulled across town to the École Française. Of course people stopped, stared, laughed, pointed, and just wondered what that crazy “vazaha” was up to this time!

Upon arriving at the school’s celebration, I saw a special place of honor had been set up for me in the middle of the school’s courtyard. The children, all nicely dressed, were sitting with their families getting ready to sing French Christmas carols, eat snacks, and then of course sit on Santa’s lap and receive a present.

As you can imagine, most of the young students were experience a smattering of emotions ranging from anxiety, fear, surprise, and possibly elation stemming from the opportunity to meet the real Père Noël. When it came time for the parents to bring their children up to my lap to tell me their Christmas wishes and to receive a present, many of the students were scared and didn’t want to sit on my lap. Their parents, however, pulled them up to me and more or less placed them on my lap and made them speak in French to me. I was polite and easy-going through the whole experience, and it made my day when I had students that were actually thrilled to be talking to Père Noël. Getting a big round of applause and many “Merci beaucoup Père Noël” comments from the school at the end of the celebration was a touching moment.

After the celebration was over, I was escorted back to my “pousse-pousse” and then taken back to my house in real Santa Claus style. By then I had grown accustomed to the stares and laughter but removing the cotton and glue from my face took up the rest of the afternoon.


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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.