Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Business of Being Santa Clause

When I was in my early 20s I was approached by a co-worker who had run a Santa Clause business on the side for a couple of decades. He suggested that I would make a great Santa.

This guy and his wife had been doing this gig for years and knew all the tricks of the trade. For starters, the costumes they had were remarkable. There was a quilted undersuit to make the wearer look much plumper. The main portion of the outersuit was made of industrial grade upholstery fabric. It was soft but durable. The material on the knees and thighs (where kids sit) was double reinforced. The white (fake) fur trim was durable and washable. There was a secret pocket for storing billfold and keys. A broad black leather belt went around the enhanced belly.

The headpiece was worth as much as the whole rest of the outfit. It was made of yak hair anchored in very sturdy stretchy off-white material. The hair was naturally lustrous off white. It could be washed and styled. The beard was hooked into the scalp piece so that it effectively stayed in place if anyone pulled on it; something that happened with regularity. It was actually a bit of a chore to get the headpiece on and off.

The mustache was part of the beard, but it presented a special challenge. While the beard naturally moved with the chin, the mustache had to be adhered to the upper lip with spirit gum. When it was properly in place, the mustache moved much like a real one. The wearer could talk, eat, and drink so that it looked quite natural. But it never felt right. Of all of the bits of the costume, I was always most grateful when I could get the mustache off.

Eyebrows are a special challenge. If you want your own eyebrows to match the costume, you’ve got to color them. Most temporary coloring methods simply look fake. But dying the eyebrows for the Christmas season looked odd when out of costume. Gluing on pieces of yak hair didn’t work well either. I experimented with different things, but never struck on the perfect solution.

It was also necessary to wear makeup to make the small portions of visible skin appear seasoned rather than 20-something years old. A pair of wire rimmed reading spectacles (with no prescription in the lenses) completed the facial ensemble. I wore thin white cotton gloves so that it didn’t matter whether my hands looked old or not.

The black shiny boots appeared to be leather but were actually vinyl. My experienced Santa friend explained that he had converted to such boots because he got tired of getting his feet wet when walking in wet circumstances. The boots were effective in keeping the feet dry even in wet parking lots. A band of fake white fur attached to the top of each boot with the aid of Velcro.

Of course, there was a bag for filling with goodies and slinging over the back. My friend explained how he had shifted from candy canes to plastic Santa rings. The rings last from season to season and are far less fragile than candy canes. Besides, it’s difficult to get candy cane flavors that suit everyone and some parents aren’t thrilled about their kids getting another dose of sugar.

While the costume might have been impressive, the experienced Santa explained that it became useful only to the extent that the wearer was a good actor. He said that the trick he had learned over the years was that he remained in character from the moment he got the outfit on to the moment he began to get out of it.

I rented the suit the first season. Then I used the proceeds from the appointments that I landed to purchase the suit outright.

During the first couple of seasons I learned a lot about how to interact with children and how to manage crowds. Being able to sing and play Christmas songs on the piano was a plus. I was surprised by how many adults insisted on sitting on Santa’s lap. That can be tough, even if they are beautiful women. It is wise to be careful about overscheduling. Both the number of events and the number of people in a day need to be considered.

I had some amazing experiences during the seasons I played Santa. I once stopped by a friend’s home for a surprise visit. His three young boys (who are now fine men) were just getting ready for bed. I have a picture of three wide eyed little boys sitting on my lap. My friend didn’t even know who I was until I called him later.

Once I was driving home from an engagement when I saw some children who had come out onto their front porch in the cold to look at the night sky. On impulse I pulled over, jogged up the driveway, and handed each a Santa ring. They were completely amazed.

Once I got started playing Santa, it wasn’t hard to get appointments. I never had to advertise. Word got around. Some of my favorite engagements were ones where I personally knew the children. It was always great to greet children by name or with personal information. Almost nobody that wasn’t already in on the secret guessed my actual identity. The headpiece held my chin in a way that made me speak differently and I tried hard to take on the Santa persona while in costume.

One problem was that the outfit was very hot. I tried to stay well hydrated, but I occasionally found myself unusually fatigued after events. A few years went by and I was ultimately diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Many people with MS get fatigued when they get too warm. Once I had been diagnosed, I started to understand the episodes of fatigue I had experienced as Santa. My wife and I decided that it was time for me to put an end to my Santa career.

For a few years the outfit sat unused in a closet. Then one year a friend was looking for a Santa suit to use for a church gathering, so I lent him mine. He was such a natural at it, that I eventually gave the suit to him.

As the years have passed, I have come to a somewhat different understanding about playing Santa than I once had. Given the heightened awareness of deviants in our society, I have started to wonder about people that dress up in order to be in close physical contact with children. Their costumes convey a wholesomeness that disarms otherwise cautious parents. Clowns are also problematic. Frankly, clowns have always creeped me out.

Although I enjoyed being a part-time Santa for a few years, I have never deceived my children about the true nature of the whole Santa Clause thing. I have leveled with them about the real St. Nicholas and our modern Santa Clause tradition. My kids have always known that the gifts under the tree come from Mom & Dad, and Grandma & Grandpa rather than from some bizarrely clad intruder. I want them to know that they can trust me to be truthful with them.

I enjoy both our religious and secular Christmastime traditions. I have no problem having fun with the Santa Clause fairy tale. But even if I didn’t have MS, I doubt I’d still be playing Santa nowadays.


JBT said...

So are you saying its ok to deceive other people's children, but not your own?

Rob said...

I'll have to introduce you to the real Santa, a personal friend of mine.

Scott Hinrichs said...

jbtsax: Your point is well taken. However, I said that I had developed a different personal understanding about the Santa Clause bit since my days of playing the part, and that I doubt I'd play that role nowadays. I believe it is normal and acceptable for people's views to evolve over time.

I have no problem having fun with the fairy tale aspect of our modern cultural interpretation of Santa, but we do not treat it with any level of seriousness in our family. I do, however, know folks that take the matter very seriously.

Perhaps Rob's friend would shed a different light on the whole subject.