Friday, December 18, 2015

The Reluctant Santa

Originally published in the Northland Reader now the Reader Weekly, December 7, 2000 as "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he's a temp employee"

Santa Claus quit in early December, 1999.  Mariner Mall called Pro Staff for a replacement.  The staff looked at each other and said, “Mel!”  I have white hair and a white beard.

The job was from noon to 6 everyday through the 23rd.  The pay was $7.50/hour.  I was not very enthusiastic but I accepted because I thought it would be an interesting experience.

When I arrived at the Mariner Mall office, I introduced myself as the Santa from Pro Staff.  Grant, the manager, took me down the back halls to the back room of an empty store.  The floor was littered and the small restroom had not been cleaned in months.  The room had two Santa suits and wigs hanging from old display stands.

I figured out the various pieces of the outfit, stripped down to my underwear, and began putting things on.  First was a stuffed front, essential for those of us with a moderate build. Next were the big red pants, and I mean big.  They must have had a 60 inch waist!  Pulling the drawstring as tight as I could, I just managed to get them to stay up over the false front. Then there was the big red coat with white, fake fur trim.  It fit well enough, not too baggy and not too tight.  To go with the coat was a wide black plastic belt.

Pro Staff had said that I should wear black shoes and I did have on a pair of black “dress” boots.  The fake boots were black, lined vinyl with white fake fur around the tops and no soles.  One’s own shoes peeked out from under the fake boots.  Running shoes definitely would not do.

Now I was ready for the finishing touches.  I have a white beard, but it is rather short and sparse so I had to use a false beard.  The supplied beard was a huge frizzy thing with a moustache that covered my mouth instead of staying above my mouth.  Since I have a fairly decent white moustache, I kept the false moustache below my mouth.  The wig was a mass of flowing hair that was also frizzy.

Almost last was a huge red hat with white trim and a white ball dangling from the top.  That hat could not be worn without the wig!  Last was a pair of gold-rimmed reading glasses.  They were smeared and I thought they would pinch and scrape my nose (did they ever?)

SantaI wended my way through the back halls to the main part of the mall.  On my way, I went past the rest rooms, and I immediately had to get into character.  As I met people in the hall, I greeted them with “Merry Christmas!”  Most people reacted with cheer and a “Merry Christmas, Santa!” From my “throne” I looked out over some fake snow to a camera on a tripod, a reflector light on a stand, and three tables in a U.

Being Santa was “easy” but boring, at least in a slow place like Mariner Mall.  I watched for eye contact from people passing by.  If they looked at me I waved and said, “Merry Christmas.”  Some people would make eye contact from thirty feet away and their faces would light up.  Others didn’t seem to notice me until they were right alongside me.  Yet others ignored me by looking straight ahead or at the store windows.

If a kid walked by I would say “Merry Christmas” even without eye contact. Some would shyly hide behind their parents; others would almost run to me.

The photos made my life harder.  Some parents were intimidated that they had to pass by the photographers’ tables to get to Santa, even if the photographers asked, “Would you like a photo or would you just like to see Santa?”  On the other hand, the possibility of photos attracted parents whose kids were afraid of Santa.  A couple of parents were almost abusive trying to get the kids to sit on my lap or even to stand near me.

One thing I didn’t like was bribing the kids with candy canes to get them to come forward or to calm down.  Aren’t they being taught not to accept candy from strangers?

On the other hand, there were the kids who came rushing up to get a hug.  I would open up my arms and give them a big bear hug, and then go into my almost robotic spiel.  “Hi, what’s your name?”  “What would you like for Christmas?” “Anything else?”  “We’ll see what we can do.”  “Would you like a candy cane?”  “Bye.  Merry Christmas.”

It wasn’t all that mechanical.  I kept my tone friendly and I would vary my “script” with questions about details, like how big a truck they wanted and what kind.  I would extemporize with things like “Everybody wants Pokémon cards.  I don’t know if the elves can print enough.” One memorable visitor was Erin, a precocious girl trying to work through her confusion of seeing Santa in different places: “When I saw you at Jubilee...”

There were three Santa substitutes who filled when I had classes at UMD and on weekends. One substitute spent two hours in the bar of the mall pizzeria before he began his shift on Sunday.  I didn’t get any details on how he behaved, but the photographers were told by their manager to just pack up.  A mall customer accosted them at the photo store accusing them of getting Santa fired. The Santa who replaced me the second weekend was moody.  He would be very friendly and open for a couple of hours then be grouchy or withdrawn. The third substitute was almost wooden.  He wouldn’t look around, he apparently didn’t relate to the kids, and he got up to take a break when there were about a dozen kids in line.

Some adults wanted to sit on my lap and I didn’t deny anybody.  My first visitor was a grandmother who had a tradition of getting her picture with Santa.  Several retarded adults were delighted to sit on my lap.  Some adults reeked of cigarette smoke.  Of course, I had to get a photo with my wife.

Almost the very last adults to sit on my lap were a reporter and cameraman from a local TV station.  I was amazed at how well I winged the interview.  Since we don’t have a VCR or a TV, I called a friend to ask him to tape it, but I only got to leave a message.  Unfortunately, his stepfather  was in the hospital and died on Christmas eve.  I later purchased a copy of the segment to watch on somebody else’s TV.

There were lots of other high points like the three or four kids who asked for “Peace on Earth.” Answer: “We’ve been working on that one for a long time.”

All in all I’m glad that I did it because of the many small rewards.  But I doubt that I would do it again.  I don’t think the sore bottom, the itchy chin, and the waiting for the next break were worth the pay.  Especially considering not much was left after I paid for the pictures, the news video, and the chocolate bars I ate on breaks.