I have played Santa Claus three times in my life.

In grade school, I was Santa in a Christmas play at St. Barnabas School in Southwest Philadelphia. There was no Santa suit, though. We made do: I borrowed a red car coat from some other kid, put a pillow in it. My mother created a beard and hair from cotton batting, attached a piece of red cloth to make a hat. The whole thing was held together, precariously, with bobby pins. (Remember bobby pins? Do women still use bobby pins?)

There were a couple of performances of the play and by the end, the makeshift beard and hair were beginning to look, well, like clumps of cotton batting.

The second time I played Santa was for the children of a friend. This memory is hazy. I think there was a suit. There was a beard, too, although there was also a face mask of Santa. I figured the mask was pretty frightening looking, so I went with the beard. I guess I was in my twenties, but these were little kids, so what did they know?

The third time was at the old Gloucester County Times, the first year I was there, in 1984. The paper would invite a few readers’ kids in to see Santa and take some pictures of it. Some of the kids’ Christmas wishes would be printed in the paper, along with a headshot. And the parents would get a lovely, black-and-white 5-by-7-inch photo of junior with Santa.

I put a great deal into the preparation for this event. We had the wig and beard cleaned and curled. I dyed a pair of brown boots black so I was wearing real boots, not those stupid spats that often came with Santa suits.

I wore a pair of gray, formal gloves and my own gold wire frame glasses, pushed down a bit on my nose.

I was 38 years old. I had very dark hair and a full beard. I had my Closest Companion spray white dye into my hair, my beard and even my eyebrows, just in case the fake beard slipped.

I wore a pillow.

I went into the small room where my chair was situated. I had a helper who would tell me the name of the next kid before the child arrived. That way, as far as the kid was concerned, I knew his or her name magically.

I took this whole thing very seriously. Grown ups constantly harp on their kids to NEVER talk to strangers. Then, once a year, these same parents are forcing kids to go sit on a stranger’s lap. Not just a stranger, but a guy in an outlandish outfit, with a booming laugh, and who holds the power of life or death — well, at least, naughty or nice — over all children. How frightening that must be!

So I toned it way down. My Ho Ho Ho was a soft, chuckle. My voice was soft and reassuring. I didn’t grab kids and plop them on my knew. I followed their leads — if they seemed ready to climb on Santa’s knee, I helped them. If not, I put a gentle hand on their shoulder and let them stand beside me to tell me what they wanted for Christmas.

It lasted about 40 minutes. That may not seem very long, but it was exhausting, trying to make sure these children enjoyed their meeting with Santa.

One mother kept hollering at her little boy while he was in the room with me. She stood in the doorway. If I could have reached her, I would have slapped her. (Some years later, I heard her screeching voice in a department store and, sure enough, she was berating the same little boy. Sad.)

We got to the very last little boy. He was wearing creased jeans with turned up cuffs, festive suspenders, a patterned shirt and a boy tie. He was very well-behaved.

“Did you help your mom when she asked you to?” I asked him. He said he did. He told me what he wanted for Christmas.

Then he left. He walked across the small room and stepped out the door. As soon as he was over that threshhold, he turned and looked at me.

“Sometimes I say curse words!” he blurted out, knowing he need to be straight with Santa Claus, then ran like the devil himself was chasing him.