Some days, the fat man just wants the fat lady to sing. He wishes the holiday season would end already. His back aches, his red suit feels like a spacesuit, his cheeks have gone...
Some days, the fat man just wants the fat lady to sing.
He wishes the holiday season would end already. His back aches, his red suit feels like a spacesuit, his cheeks have gone numb from smiling for 12 hours — and still the children keep coming and coming, like ants at a picnic.
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“When the last gig of the season is ‘finito,’ ” said Victor Nevada, 61, a professional Santa Claus in Calgary, Alberta, “I have a bottle of rye whiskey and some Diet Coke by the bed, and a couple of novels, and I’ll phone in for pizza, and I won’t get out of bed for two days, and if I don’t see another child again till next Christmas — that’s OK with me.”
It didn’t used to be this way. For a century or so, being Santa was something like being a golfer on the senior tour — a leisurely, seasonal pastime for men of a certain age and genteel demeanor. But being Santa has changed dramatically, say Santas across the United States and Canada. More taxing, more complicated, the job now comes with grueling hours and hidden pressures.
As Christmas becomes more commercialized, so must Santa. As the holiday begins earlier each year, so must its spokesman and standard-bearer. What used to be a three-week gig has become a two-month grind, from the day after Halloween to New Year’s. Santas often answer to three equally demanding bosses — the parent, the mall, the photographer — and one all-powerful overseer, the child, who has come to view Santa as a cross between a birthday-party clown and a miracle worker. A hybrid of Bozo and God.
Carl Anderson, a psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote his dissertation about the effects of Santa on children. He’s read widely and deeply on the subject of Santa, whom he calls a hopeful, comforting figure who historically provides solace during times of war and economic hardship. “You go back far enough,” Anderson said, “that’s the whole origin of the custom. Whenever there’s a need for hope, there’s more turning to Santa, more energy given to it.”
It’s a lot for one man to carry on his red velvet shoulders.
St. Nicks behaving badly
Maybe all this added pressure isn’t the reason a Santa in Atlanta this month knocked a woman cold with a two-by-four. Maybe it’s not why 30 Santas engaged in a drunken street brawl two weeks ago at a charity fund-raiser in Wales. (Five Santas were arrested.) But it’s undoubtedly why so many professional Santas sound edgy, spent and as if they might come down with the flu before they come down the chimney.
“It’s changed a lot,” Nevada said wearily. “It’s gotten to be more professional.”
As “Canada’s Top Claus,” according to one Canadian newspaper, and as headmaster of a Santa school, Nevada knows the Santa business inside out — from beard to boots — and he laments how much “civilians” take for granted. “Everybody thinks it’s easy,” he said. “You put the suit on. If you wear a fake beard, great, go for it. You practice your ‘ho-hos.’ Great. You’re ready to go. But you’re not. Not psychologically.”
For starters, questions from children are tougher than ever. True, for as long as children have climbed onto Santa’s lap, they have been tenacious interrogators. But now, with thousands of children pining for a father or mother serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, the questions are as heart-rending as they are unanswerable. “Can you please bring Daddy home from the war in time for Christmas morning?”
Children sometimes stare intently and ask for peace on Earth. What’s a Santa to say?
“I had a little girl on my knee,” Nevada recalled, “and she said she wanted ‘a happy home’ for Christmas. … Mom had bruises on her face. Now, what can I do? I can’t phone the cops. I can’t tell the child, ‘Don’t worry — Santa will send some hit men over and they’ll take care of the old man.’ I called Mom over, and she sat on my right knee and mom and daughter faced each other and we had a little visit. What I could do was give that mom and daughter three or four minutes of peace.”
A hefty ho-ho-ho
Anderson — who has not only studied Santa but played him at NorthPark Center in Dallas for the past 16 years — says he starts to feel it right about this time each December. “Late at night, I’m a lot more emotionally vulnerable,” he said. “You feel the physicalness of it — the aches and pains of constantly lifting — but then there’s the emotional exhaustion.”
Also, there’s the competition. Top Santas can earn $60,000 a season working the ritziest malls, said Nevada, who charges $500 an hour for his appearances. With so much money on the line, the need to be realistic, to be relevant, to be the best, is intense — and competition among malls is that much stiffer. Every mall wants to say it has the real Santa under contract, to attract the maximum number of shoppers. “There’s a saying in the Santa business,” Nevada said. “Santa doesn’t drive a sleigh — Santa drives sales.”
Cherry Hill Photo Enterprises, in Cherry Hill, N.J., is thought to be the nation’s largest supplier of mall Santas, mobilizing a battalion of more than 750 this season. Before hitting a mall, each Cherry Hill Santa has graduated from the company’s “Santa University,” according to chief executive Bob Wolfe. Cherry Hill Santas are given common-sense Santa lessons — bathe daily, use strong deodorant — and politically correct caveats: Only refer to a child’s “folks,” in case the child doesn’t have a traditional mother and father.
Santas at the ready
Nevada has done the math, and he says 40,000 men in North America are working the same side of Santa Street, vying for the same malls, parades, private parties and corporate events. And more are coming. As baby boomers age, Nevada said, they will seek ways to augment their retirement income; the planet, he warned, is about to be lousy with Clauses.
That doesn’t even count the Internet, where a booming Santa industry is taking shape. Alan Kerr, founder of EmailSanta.com, says his Web site has received millions of e-mails in its seven years of existence — 500,000 this season alone. Many e-mails, he says, contain requests even more wrenching than those made in malls, as children turn to Santa for help not only with parents in the military, but parents who are sick, addicted to drugs and alcohol, abusive. So Kerr has teamed with child psychologists and police to develop special software that identifies those “in dire circumstances,” whom he then directs to the proper social agency.
If the child-Santa relationship has taken on shades of the patient-doctor relationship, some Santas point a white-gloved finger at Oprah and Dr. Phil. In a culture that encourages everyone to discuss their feelings, children apparently have gotten the message. It was relatively rare for a child to open up to Santa 10 years ago. It’s de rigueur nowadays.
A burgeoning support group
As children open up more, so do Santas. A chat room called Santas Across the Globe is beset by Santas worried about things such as flu shots, head lice, the most effective antibacterial hand soaps, the pros and cons of fake beards made from yak hair — and “inappropriate offers while touring seniors centers.” There is also some troubled discussion of how to respond to certain photographers who want to pose Santa in unsavory positions and settings, sans red suit.
Santas each year come together in greater numbers for ever-larger conventions. They not only share information about costumes and children’s questions, but they help one another negotiate the legal complexities of being Santa. Before getting hired by a major mall or photo company, Santas typically must undergo stringent background checks and fingerprinting. After getting hired, they must carry insurance.
“When I started doing this years ago, I never even thought about liability,” Nevada said. “But Santas have a pretty good chance of getting sued. You got the obvious things: You drop a child on its head. Then there’s Santa saying the wrong thing to a child — that can be a problem. I had a Santa working for me a couple years ago; he had a girl on his knee and he commented, ‘You have nice eyes and nice hair.’ She claimed sexual harassment.”
Such indelicate scenarios have led Nevada to labor hard on a comprehensive Santa manual, which he intends to hand out to all students, and to the five Santas he employs in his booking agency.
Tim Connaghan, 56, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, which has 451 members worldwide, says he always mentally prepares himself while driving to his next job, like any other actor.
The other day, however, talking on his cellphone while racing to an appearance, Connaghan sounded spent.
He’d just finished a visit in Hollywood with 400 children of soldiers, and many of the exchanges were traumatic. “When I started years ago, the only thing you really asked was — ‘Have you been good?’ We didn’t get into discussions.”
Ed Butchart, 69, a Santa for 17 years in Stone Mountain, Ga., and author of “The Red Suit Diaries,” says one of the hardest challenges for Santas lately is the expense and sophistication of the toys. As toys become more expensive and more involved, so does Santa paraphernalia. Fake velvet won’t cut it. Kids react to it like sandpaper. They’re as picky about the velvet on Santa’s lap as some grown-ups are about thread counts in their sheets — and good stuff doesn’t come cheap. “The velvet in my costume sells for $25 a yard,” Butchart said. “And there’s a lot of velvet in it.”
Girding themselves for the fray
Butchart also had to shell out recently for a pricey pair of steel-toed black boots, “because of kids jumping off my lap and killing me. … I don’t wear a cup or nothing, but it’s all in how you sit on your throne. That kid can really hurt you bad.”
When a Santa feels put upon or anxious, he often shows it in the same ways civilians do. Nevada has one friend, an immensely popular Santa at a large mall, who recently completed counseling for job-related depression. “I’ll get calls from people wanting to engage my services,” Nevada said, “and I always ask, ‘Would I be right in thinking you had a Santa at your event last year? I’m curious why that Santa isn’t there this year.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, the guy showed up drunk.’ That’s common.”
Or else, Nevada said, stressed-out Santas will morbidly overeat. “The show is done — and the Claus hangs around at the buffet table! … I tell my guys, ‘Listen, boys, I don’t want you scrounging any bloody food off any client!’ “
Many Santas think it’s their right, and a perk of the trade, to demand “a reindeer bag,” which is like a doggie bag, only bigger, Nevada said.
“Forget that reindeer bag [expletive],” he tells his students and employees. “And don’t think you’re going to pass that buffet table and snaffle a couple of sandwiches into your bag. If you do that, and I hear about it, you’re fired.
“And this ain’t a union shop.”