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Marvin Joseph | Washington Post
Will Aukema, 6, shows his wish list to the Merrifield Garden Center Santa Claus, in Merrifield, Va.

Sandy Hook’s shadow hangs over holiday

Young ones’ purity especially poignant to Va. mall Santa

– Every year, the children ask Santa for dolls, cars, games and puppies. They also ask for guns. Nerf guns, pistols, air rifles, shotguns. Even assault weapons.

And that breaks this 82-year-old Santa’s heart, especially this year.

Unlike the department store Santa in the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story,” who told Ralphie he would not be getting the official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot Range Model air rifle because “you’ll shoot your eye out,” the much beloved Merrifield Garden Center Santa has a more elaborate denial.

“You might get a gun from your father or your mother or grandfather, but you won’t get one from me,” he tells kids who request weapons, either real or make-believe, at the nursery in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County. “Guns were put on this earth to take the life of a bird, an animal or a person. Guns were designed to make people cry, to make people die. Now, take a candy and a holy card.”

At Merrifield, where Santa has been nestling children on his lap for more than 30 years, at least one child a night comes asking for a gun. And that’s not abnormal, given the role of guns in the arsenal of kid toys. But Santa remembers one child who asked for an entire arsenal: an assault rifle, a shotgun and two handguns. And he asks me not to print the awful details of one encounter that really rattled him. But let’s just say that some parents don’t agree with his quiet speech about weapons.

Santa’s steadfast denial of guns as gifts, coming from a man who first dyed bedsheets red and wore a cowbell around his neck to create his uniform decades ago, is especially poignant this year.

In the dark shadow of the Newtown, Conn., massacre that left 20 first-graders, six school staff members and the mother of the gunman dead on Dec. 14, children seem just a little more precious.

It is difficult to get too annoyed by the whining, the sticky hands, the greedy 13-page Santa letters that seem so standard.

And I went to listen to the requests Santa hears just to be reminded of their innocence, for a little sugar plum against all the gloom. And hearing about their requests for guns came as a surprise. It probably shouldn’t have, but we live in a different world.

Lots of first-graders come to see Santa. Many of them balanced on the same knee that their parents sat on 30 years ago. At Merrifield, Santa has a multigenerational following.

Will, who was actually pretty well-mannered, given the three-hour wait for this extremely popular appointment with Santa, made Santa’s eyes twinkle.

“Will, I love first-graders. All first-graders have to sing me their ABCs,” Santa said. And he jingled the bell on his hat along with the song, then promised Will a special gift under the tree, wrapped all in white paper, with no name but with “ABC” written across it.

For nearly five hours – two hours past closing time – Santa listened to requests for goldfish, zombie guys, Legos and a Ford F-150 truck (from a 20-year-old who has visited Santa each Christmas for the past 18 years.)

A determined little 3-year-old in a red velvet dress with furry white cuffs plopped onto his lap. He embraced her, told her that he’ll bring a dolly and a soft stuffed animal to cuddle with.

“I want an iPad and a laptop,” she interrupted him.

“Oh, my, the world has changed,” Santa said. “Three-year-olds asking for iPads and laptops.”

But he has very little coal in his heart. Over the years, he has listened to children ask for deployed family members to come home safely, for parents to get back together, for siblings to stop fighting, for Grandpa to return from heaven and for people to smile and be friends with one lonely little 9-year-old.

This year is harder than others, though. The little ones, who put every ounce of their faith into his words, get him.

“Those first-graders,” Santa tells me as he stretches his legs after all the children have gone home to bed, “you just look at them, and you think: ‘How? How could anybody, how could anybody shoot them?’ ”

Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.