It was little Sam's turn to sit on Santa's lap at the mall. Sam was five years old, and he was a big sports fan. He had his list memorized.
"Hello, little boy, what's your name?" Santa asked as he lifted Sam onto his ample lap.
"Well, Sam, what would you like for Christmas?"
Sam looked Santa in the eye and said, "Santa, I want an Isaiah Thomas Buck-Passing Kit. That way, I can threaten my little sister, tell one of my friends to knock her down, and not even get in trouble for it."
Santa paused, then said sternly, "Sam, little boys who do that sort of thing don't get toys for Christmas. Instead, they will find a hefty fine in their stocking, unless there isn't what is deemed sufficient independent evidence of the alleged threat."
Sam gave a half-frown, then perked up and said, "I know what I really want, Santa: a one-year, $16-million contract for my ability to hit a baseball really far."
"Oh, how far can you hit it, Sam?" Santa asked.
"Past the pitcher's mound!"
"But Sam," Santa said with a shake of his head, "you'll be nothing but an unproductive albatross for your family. How can you be so selfish?"
"Shoot," Sam said.
He placed his chin on his fist, looked toward the ceiling, then finally said, "I've got it, Santa. What I really need is an autographed picture of Tiger Woods. I can put it in a frame, place it on the shelf in my room, and stare at it. And my friends can come over and stare at it. And then we'll talk about the moment Tiger signed the picture, when he looked me in the eye for two-tenths of a second, a moment that validated my worth as a human being.
"And then we'll stare at it some more …. Ah, never mind."
Sam thought for a few seconds. The other kids in line were growing impatient. It was nearly 5 o'clock.
"Well, Sam, it's almost time for you to go," Santa said. "So, what do you really, truly want for Christmas?"
Sam sighed and said, "I guess I'll have to settle for a membership in my local fantasy baseball league. My team will be called the Grand Sams, and after I draft my players, I won't trade any of them away. So even if they skip from team to team every year chasing a bigger paycheck in real life, I'll still have some false sense of loyalty in my little fantasy world."
Sam's shoulders slumped, and Santa gently slid him off his lap. Santa patted him on the head and said, "Sam, I hope you figure out what you really want for Christmas. Or even better, what you really need for Christmas."
Sam nodded slowly, then turned and looked at Santa as the next child approached.
"Santa," Sam said, "I think I finally figured it out. I want my innocence."
Santa gave Sam a sad look.
"Oh, son," he said, "I can't give you that. That's something you only get once, and once you lose it, it's gone forever."
"What about a hero? Couldn't he give it back to me?" Sam asked desperately.
"Sam," Santa said, "haven't you tried that several times already?"
"Yeah." With that, Sam turned and trudged away. As he headed toward the food court to find his parents, he passed the sporting goods store and saw expensive jerseys hanging in the window — Bonds, Bryant, Lewis. Then he passed the electronics store, and on a big flat-screen TV was an ESPN anchor talking about a football player suspended for steroid use.
Sam looked down at his shoes and began walking briskly. As he neared his parents' table, he passed another store. He didn't see the tiny manger scene in the window. The little baby in the hay lay still, overlooked again.