My senses are swirling and my joints are aching. My vision has been blurred by a constant dribble of sweat flowing from my brow. My knees appear like they're ready to come detached from a fragile torso.
It's not easy playing Santa at the local church Christmas party, especially after hitting your 70s.
Used to be a time when I could hoist two youngsters onto my lap, absorbing a couple of swift kicks to the shins, while listening to 50 requests. Sometimes more.
But that was 40 years ago. That's how long I've been impersonating the jolly old fella. Others have tried to hone in on my territory, but the role always reverted back to me.
When you teach a bunch of students in Sunday school, you can appear before them in an iron mask and they'll know who you are. No secrets here, except from the 3-year-olds. The brown bucks are a dead give-away, not to mention the voice. Much as I've tried to disguise myself, it's never worked.
What does it take to impersonate Santa? Intestinal fortitude for one thing, and a gift of gab. A rundown of each youngster is not required — but helpful. The meek need not apply.
For instance ...
"Merry Christmas, Noah. How's the ark these days and the animals that came aboard in twos? You know, of course, it landed on Mount Ararat following a flood. It's all there in the Book of Genesis. Congratulations on making the honor role in school and scoring a touchdown."
"How do you know all that?"
"Cuz I'm Santa. Ho! Ho! Ho!"
"Hey, I know who you are ..."
Ever since I was old enough to believe in miracles, Santa was my hero. He could make dreams come true. Any guy that could fly through the air on a sleigh pulled by reindeer was not your ordinary folk hero. Especially one who started out old and incredibly stayed the same.
That's because he had guys like me helping him out and doing all the side work. But, knock on wood, it's kept me fit and frivolous, even when the more incredulous kid challenges your wits.
The after-effects of just an hour marooned on the hot seat bearing the brunt of errant little feet can be detrimental to your health.
Thank goodness for that pillow over the stomach — it provides protection from frontal assaults.
Unless the Santa suit is a perfect fit (and it never is), much of the beard flows into my mouth. The wig shields my eyes and the red stocking cap that holds the wig in place fails miserably on occasion.
Initially the idea of playing Santa and having the opportunity to entertain children was a stimulating one. Kids are a wonderful audience, naturally responsive and eager.
Over the years I've learned one lesson — don't promise them anything you can't deliver. The safe answer is, "I'll do the best I can."
I tell them, "Do a good deed daily. Help someone you don't know and always be kind to others."
The memories are plentiful.
I recall the visit Santa paid me many years ago with my first bicycle. I couldn't wait to try it out and wound up crashing it into a telephone pole.
I remember the first radio I received, which was a much bigger thrill than the first TV that was moved into our home.
I recall, too, how Santa brought that puppy I requested and it knocked over the Christmas tree in its haste to get a bulb. I named him "Crash."
And I remember playing Santa at my son's kindergarten class and how he kept the secret from the others, knowing his dad couldn't fool him. I may have traumatized my own kids with the get-up.
After all these decades, I've noticed a change in attitude. A train set back then would have sufficed. Today, it's computers, cell-phones and iPods.
I was taken aback one year by a request from a child who wanted nothing else but his mom and dad reunited. And another who wanted his dad home from the war.
Another didn't want a toy, but for his baby sister to get well again. Another request came from a young girl who wanted an end to hostility — and a start to world peace. Someone else asked Santa to comfort the needy.
Lately, my mission has become a more intricate one, based on survival.
But the real gift, I suppose, is the gift of love and the comfort of family and friendship. For that, Santa needs loads of help this holiday season. Won't you join me?
• • •
Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from the Gazette. He contributes this regular column.