Not-so merry at the mall
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A recent experience with a mall Santa has clarified for me the meaning of Christmas.
Celebrating Christmas in the public square has suffered from the historic confusion regarding the role of religion in government, beginning with Thomas Jefferson's "wall" between church and state. While my grandmother was still living, she was very upset when the nativity scene on public land in Downtown Pittsburgh came under scrutiny. Who would have guessed that secular Santa could be the source of controversy?
Beautiful Santa Claus displays, such as the one I came upon this Christmas season while shopping at South Hills Village, enhance the shopping experience and benefit retailers' bottom lines by demonstrating the Christmas tradition of giving.
Feeling in the Christmas mood, when I encountered Santa at South Hills Village my smart phone photo application came in handy to capture the scene. But the picture seemed incomplete because there were no children sitting on Santa's knee, confiding in him their sugar-plum visions.
Happily, a family approached unceremoniously through the exit of the elaborate display and soon their child was comfortably perched on Santa's knee. My vignette was complete as I quickly snapped three photos while other families lined up at the entrance.
Full of Christmas warmth, I continued visiting shops until a woman interrupted my transaction and verbally assaulted me for photographing her son. She wanted to know what kind of person would take a picture of someone else's child. After her public assault, it was difficult to remember the Christmas spirit the picture had engendered.
Store employees commented that they had never heard such silliness or seen such a disturbance. A few minutes later, the employees told me they saw security waiting for me. Shocked, I exited the shop into the even more public area of the mall to face what awaited me.
A South Hills Village security guard told me to delete the photos from my cell phone. After informing the guard that there were also photographs of Santa without the child, the guard told me that it was against mall policy to take photos in the mall.
In the middle of the mall, with the supposed mother and security guard looking over me, I deleted the three photos of the child with Santa. No concern was given to the lonely mall-Santa photos which remained on my cell phone.
Humiliated and hurt, I decided to leave, remembering how one of the male adults in the child's group had chuckled when I snapped my cute Christmas shot ... as he held his own cell phone up to shoot free photos. Yes, as is customary at such mall-Santa scenes, there had been multiple cameras in action.
Returning to find the security guard still with the alleged mother and her group of four adults, I attempted to clarify the mall's camera rule. When I asked if the family would have to delete mall photos from their phones, too, the guard unprofessionally joined the family in laughing at my logical query.
The woman who had stalked me through the mall did not know that I am a former state legislator who initiated and succeeded in creating strict laws against pedophiles in the West Virginia legislature. To me, the random child in my picture was simply a representation of a special moment in a human life and an innocent attempt to capture the magic of Christmas.
Like a superstitious Mexican native afraid that a photograph will capture his soul, I felt as though that woman had momentarily sucked the Christmas spirit out of me. This shopping-mall experience exemplified for me that the true meaning of Christmas really isn't to be found at a mall.
My Pittsburgh visit will include a visit to the living nativity at Eastminster Presbyterian Church. I will be carrying my smart phone, but if "no photos" signs are posted, I will happily turn it off.
First Published December 13, 2011 12:00 am