It's Christmastime again, and for your old pal Jean, that means one thing: limited-term seasonal employment. This year, my job is something I've done before. I'm wrapping gifts at the Northway Mall in the town where I grew up, about 30 minutes from Casa Teasdale. It pays seven bucks an hour, and there's quite a lot of sitting-around time on weekday mornings. But weekends are a whole different story! (Boy, if you ever start a business, hang a banner reading "Free Gift Wrapping Here!" People will wait in line for 25 minutes to avoid buying their own Scotch tape.)

Given that the wrapping is free, customers are awfully choosy about the type of paper they want. They can choose reindeer paper, holly leaves paper, solid red paper, even blue Hanukkah paper, but people still complain. "That's all you have?" they ask. "Isn't there any with Santa on it?" Then, they get all snippy when I tell them there are no bows and ribbons. I hear a lot of, "Some free gift-wrap deal!" and, "This is just a way for you to get rid of the wrapping paper nobody wants."

Boy, Jeanketeers! I remember the day when people kept those kinds of cynical thoughts to themselves. Is it just me, or was Christmas a lot more fun back when? It seemed like the crowds at the Northway Mall were thinner and less aggressive, the toys were cuter and quieter, and the decorations were just wonderful. True, I was a kid at the time, but I remember being dazzled by the way they decorated the mall fountain. They put fiberglass over it, to make it look like it had iced over. Then, they posed little skater dolls on top. And up above, glitter-sprinkled white reindeer soared on wires. It was magical. It felt like you were in an animated Christmas special. They've since dismantled the fountain. Now they just hang a little gold bunting, set up some fake trees, and call it Christmas.

A security guard told me a story that really surprised me. She said that last week, she smelled something foul near one of the Christmas displays. When she opened a prop toy box, what do you think she found? A used diaper. I guess somebody was changing her baby on the benches and stuck it in there when no one was looking. The guard thought it was funny, but I didn't see the humor at all. Needless to say, my dream of working in a Christmas paradise has soured. I mean, if you can't find Christmas cheer inside a shopping mall, where can you find it?

Last Saturday, after a long, hard day of wrapping, I was headed home. Walking through the mall to my car, my heart felt like it weighed a ton. What is Christmas all about, and why do people celebrate it? Had I ever had a genuine Christmas experience of my own, or was it all a sham? Were all my Christmas memories as artificial as one of the mall trees?

"Snap out of it, Jean old girl," I said to myself. "Try to think of how you'll feel if you wake up Christmas morn and that breadmaker you've been bugging Rick about is sitting under the tree."

I was just about to walk into Hobby Corner and buy some artificial snow to scatter around the Beanie Babies in my bedroom when someone with a bushy white beard and a red stocking hat caught my eye. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and maneuvering a Rascal scooter out of an ice-cream parlor.

"Dad?" I shouted.

He turned around, or I should say, he made a three-point turn in his scooter. "Jeannie!" he said.

I was shocked to see Dad in town. For the past few years, he'd been living with his third wife Dana, in California. I know what you're thinking, and no, I hadn't hallucinated the beard and hat. Ever since his beard went white, Dad has worked as a shopping-mall Santa at Christmastime. A couple of years ago, he was even lucky enough to land the gig at a mega-mall near his home with real ritzy stores like Nordstrom and Sharper Image.

"I'm never leaving these sweatpants!" he said, as I bent down to give him a hug. (Instead of greeting you or asking you how you are, Dad always says something completely unrelated. It used to bug my mom, and I think his second wife cited it in her divorce papers.)

I asked my dad what brought him back to town, and he said he was visiting my brother Kevin and his family. I was shocked.

"You guys made up?" I asked. "When? And why didn't you tell me you were here?"

Dad, in usual form, ignored my question. Munching his cone, he told me to come back with him to the mall atrium where he had his "setup."

"Picking up a little cash as usual," he said and drove his scooter up a ramp and onto an elevated platform. He parked beside a hand-lettered sign that read "Chill out with Santa!"

A beach towel lay on the carpeted floor beside a plastic pail, a shovel, and a beach chair. Dad threw himself onto the chair and straightened his hat. Of course, by then I was completely confused.

"Dad, what happened to your Santa suit?" I said.

Dad hushed me. "Don't break the illusion," he said. "Remember: I'm Santa." He gestured for me to kneel down beside him and listen.

"The suit is back home," he said. "My trip to town was a little sudden, you see. But I was doing some Christmas shopping with Kevin when I noticed this place didn't have a Santa, so I showed 'em my resume and offered my services cheap. I didn't have my suit, so I improvised. It's like Santa's enjoying a quick sabbatical before the big day. You know, he's 'chilling out'—like the kids say. Twenty bucks plus all the ice cream and pretzels I want for six hours of work. A far cry from what I make back home, but a pretty good take for someone who just breezed into town. I like to stay busy. Plus, it's Christmas—no time to be greedy."

I asked him why he was using the Rascal, and he said it contributed to the image of Santa as a laid-back, mellow guy. He acknowledged that it helps him get around better, too. Finishing his cone, Dad wiped his beard, put on sunglasses, and gave me the thumbs-up.

Dad did look pretty relaxed, but still, I wasn't sure about the vacationing-Santa idea. Without the red suit, Dad just looked like an eccentric old loiterer. I mean, I don't think Santa would wear flip-flops, particularly if he were missing a toe. I wasn't the only one who didn't get it. While I was talking to Dad, I spotted a lot of families walking by with confused looks on their faces.

"Dad, where's Dana?" I asked.

Dad scowled.

"I mean, where's Mrs. Claus?"

Dad sighed and explained that he and "the missus" were spending some time apart. He went on to explain that he'd decided to use the separation period as an opportunity to see the family back home. He was obviously uncomfortable with imparting so much personal information, so I didn't push him to elaborate.

"Look, honeysuckle, I gotta get back to work," he said. "I'll call you soon. I'm gonna be here a while, so there'll be plenty of time to catch up with good old St. Nick."

When you reunite with your dad, do you feel like the meeting was just a dream? I always do! I drove home in a daze, with so many unanswered questions swirling in my mind. (I almost rear-ended someone in the process!)

I'm pretty sure I got a lot of my imagination and sass from my dad. He was the parent I was the most drawn to while I was growing up, but he did strange things. He'd leave the windows open in winter so we'd develop a resistance to cold. He paved over our yard, because he didn't want ants infesting the house. He wouldn't let us have yo-yos in the house, because the faint sound of the string winding and unwinding against the yo-yo's axle drove him crazy. A typical Sunday afternoon consisted of my brother and me helping Dad bundle up and drop off newspapers at the recycling center for cash. Then, he'd drop us off at his buddy's supper club so we could guzzle chocolate milk and color placemats while he went over the grounds with his metal detector. I thought this was all perfectly normal until hubby Rick informed me otherwise.

Speaking of hubby Rick, when I told him I saw Dad, the first thing out of his mouth was "He's not staying here." When I told him that Dad hadn't said a word about staying with us, he snorted without turning his eyes from his football video game. "As usual, you're giving that guy way too much credit," he muttered. "My family would've sent him straight to the nuthouse."

(Ho-dee ho, ho, Rick!)

Well, I like to think of my dad's return as a Christmas gift. I mean, it wasn't miraculous, like you'd see on a Christmas special, and it wasn't even something I particularly yearned for, but it's still nice I got it. (I definitely still want that breadmaker, though.)