By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
In 1897, which was before my time (6 a.m. is before my time, too, but that’s another story), a little girl named Virginia asked if there was a Santa Claus.
In 2015, a little girl named Chloe got up at 6 a.m. in her grandparents’ house and asked for breakfast. Then she asked if there was a Santa Claus.
She found out when she went to the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, New York, to see the right jolly old elf who made her laugh when she saw him in spite of herself.
As a sometimes naughty boy who is trying to get on the good list so I can receive reindeer underwear for Christmas, I am not lying when I say that this Santa is the best I have ever seen.
His real name is Ernest Johnson. But he is known in holiday circles, which look remarkably like wreaths, as Santa Ernie.
“I love being Santa Claus,” he told me in a phone conversation a couple of weeks before meeting Chloe, who just happens to be my granddaughter.
Santa Ernie has greeted good little boys and girls at Smith Haven every year since 2001. But he took the role long before that, in 1979, at the age of 40.
“I told a little girl four years ago that I was 654, which makes me 658 now,” Santa Ernie said.
“You don’t sound a day over 483,” I replied.
He chuckled and said, “Being Santa Claus keeps me young.”
When Chloe and I met him, he certainly looked the part. His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow. He had a broad face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.
“Hello, Chloe!” he said cheerily, his blue eyes twinkling behind round spectacles.
“Santa!” exclaimed Chloe, who will be 3 in March. She was accompanied by my wife, Sue (known to Chloe as Nini); our younger daughter, Lauren (Mommy); our son-in-law Guillaume (Daddy); and, of course, yours truly (Poppie).
Chloe wore a red Christmas dress, with a gift-box bow in her blond curls.
“You’re beautiful, sweetheart!” Santa Ernie told her.
“Say thank you,” Lauren said.
“Thank you,” said Chloe, who wandered through the Santa’s Village display in the center of the mall. She had the place to herself because our special visit was arranged by Noerr Programs, a family and holiday services company headquartered not at the North Pole but in Arvada, Colorado, which gets plenty of snow, too.
One of Santa Ernie’s helpers gave Chloe a little stuffed husky, which presumably helps pull the sleigh if Dasher or Dancer, or Prancer or Vixen, or Comet or Cupid, or Donner or Blitzen calls in sick.
Chloe clutched the dog as she sat with Santa Ernie and Lauren for a picture, but she wanted to do more exploring, so a very helpful elf gave her a book, which she promptly opened and put in front of her face, making the photographer’s job a tad challenging.
Santa Ernie, who with his wife of 55 years has two children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and has greeted thousands of boys and girls over the years, knew just what to do to make the picture perfect.
At the end of her visit, Chloe hugged Santa Ernie and gave him a high-five.
“Say thank you to Santa,” Lauren said.
“Thank you, Santa,” Chloe said, adding sweetly, “I love you.”
“Merry Christmas, Chloe!” Santa Ernie said.
“Merry Christmas!” she responded with a wide smile, knowing full well the magical answer to that age-old question:
Yes, Chloe, there is a Santa Claus.
Copyright 2015 by Jerry Zezima