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Cover Story

Santa’s Secrets


Santa is serious business. If you thought that all it took to get one of those big thrones in the middle of the mall was a beer gut and a well-shampooed “Duck Dynasty” beard, you are sadly mistaken. Santa Claus conventions and workshops actually exist out there, run by organizations like the International University of Santa Claus and the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, to make it all happen year after year. Therein, men looking to be Santa (or Santa’s Helpers, depending on the locale) study otherwise odd topics, such as the proper way to hold children, what to say when a child asks for the return of a dead relative and proper hair and beard care.

Santa doesn’t usually concern himself with petty things like pay and benefits, but for what it’s worth to the rest of us, those mall jobs don’t pay too badly. A typical mall Santa makes around $10,000 each Christmas season, with the higher profile Santas pulling in quite a bit more. Last year, for example, the Kris Kringle for Macy’s flagship New York City store made $80,000, according to a 2011 Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch report.

But what’s it like BEING Santa? What does Santa do on all the days that don’t fall between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve? We spoke to a few Santas (and some former Santas) in an effort to find out the recipe to brewing up all the magic and what the off-days are like.


Santa 101

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The tradition of store Santas is historic. The origin is often given to James Edgar, a Scottish-born entrepreneur who dressed up as Santa and roamed the aisles of his dry good store in Brockton, Mass., back in 1890. Sometime around 1918, cameras were added to the mix, and children began having their pictures taken with St. Nick. Since then, the store Santa has become an annual tradition for millions of children in the U.S. and around the world. Wherever you go, Santa’s lap is a well-traveled piece of real estate.

Valley West Mall has employed the same Santa for 16 years. In that time, he says he’s developed a sentimental sense of family with returning patrons.

Valley West Mall has employed the same Santa for 16 years. In that time, he says he’s developed a sentimental sense of family with returning patrons.

“We order 12,000 coloring books (to give to children),” said Tricia Barton, Valley West Mall marketing director. “And we are typically out of those at least a week before our season ends.”

Since not everyone takes a coloring book, Barton figures the kid headcount to be about 15,000 in all. Some stores employ more than one Santa (a.k.a. Santa’s Helper, because, well, you know, “Santa’s very busy this time of year.”) But for most locations, the role of Santa is played by one guy, every day, usually for 10 or 12 hours a day. And most host stores go to great lengths to maintain the magic.

“We call him Santa,” Barton explained, referring to Valley West’s emissary. “I don’t tell anyone his real name. Anytime anyone calls me (about him), it’s always ‘Santa.’ When he calls me on the phone, I ask him to say that it’s Santa, and not use his real name. It’s very magical, and we try really hard to keep that magic.”

At Jordan Creek Town Center, General Manager Randy Tennison concurs.

“I’ve never allowed Santa to be interviewed before,” he said. “We try very hard to maintain the idea that he’s the real Santa.”

“You kind of have to live it,” said Randy Washington, who spent 15 seasons as a Santa in Dubuque and Galena, Ill. “You’re an ambassador for the store, sure, but to all those kids, you’re Christmas. You ARE the holiday. They don’t want to know that you’re an engineer for 10 months a year and Santa for 45 days.”

Forty-five days, which comes to an abrupt end literally overnight.


Dec. 26 jet lag

“I start on the week before Black Friday, and I’m here until Christmas Eve,” said Santa at Jordan Creek Mall, literally with a wink. “Then I’ve got my long night ahead of me.”

“Christmas Eve is usually a half day,” added Washington. “But most of the guys I know will stay until the last child is gone. On that day especially, we don’t really mind being late.”

For some Santas, while the Christmas season may be the busiest time of year, it’s far from the end.

“I’m pretty active year-round, as far as Santa Claus,” said Valley West Mall’s Santa. “There’s TV commercials that I’ll do. In fact, I’m actually headed to Montana after this season for a commercial. I’m supposed to ski.

“February is a month of reading. So I’ll go to schools. Khaki shorts, sandals, sweatshirt — Santa’s on vacation — and I’ll have the teacher write up a big piece of paper with the students’ names (and) what they got for Christmas. Then I’ll say, ‘Trish, are you still playing with that?’ And the kids are sitting there wide-eyed. Then during the summertime, I’ll travel and go to charity golf events, and in the fall it’s time to start lifting weights, gain a little bit of weight, and two weeks before Thanksgiving I come here to Valley West Mall.”

Even when they aren’t wearing the red suit and bells, being Santa isn’t something that most of them can just turn off.

“It’s harder to blend in during the off-season if your beard is real,” Washington pointed out. “Some guys can shave it off and grow it back in a month or so each fall. But I never could do that in time, so I stopped shaving. So even when you’re sitting at a bar in overalls and a ball cap, you still look like Santa.”

“I was an outside sales rep for a number of years,” continued Washington, who’s retired now. “It made for some surprised looks — some receptionist looks up in the middle of July, and Santa walks into their office in a three-piece suit and wants to talk to their supply manager about his photocopier needs.”

The vast majority, however, don’t keep their Santa Claus iternary or look post Dec. 25, choosing to leave a temporary, one-time gig.

“I was 22 when I did it,” said Troy Baker, who spent a season wearing a strap-on beard and ringing a bell as Santa for the Salvation Army. “I’m pretty thin and not really that big, so it’s not like I set off anyone’s Santadar when I’m at the Greenwood or shopping at Target.

“I can’t say I had a bad time doing it, but it’s not something I’d do again. Outside, in the cold, for hours at a time, and you can’t be even a little bit tired or grumpy. Most bell ringers can just kind of stand there and zone out a bit from time to time. But as Santa, you need to be super engaged and super happy the whole time. Who wants to be the reason why some kid thinks Santa is mad at them?”

For people like Baker, for whom their stint as Santa was a passing job, leaving it behind is easy. For others, like Washington, it’s a part of them even sans the line of kids.

“I shaved a year or so ago, but it just didn’t feel right,” he said. “So I’ve got the beard back now. I haven’t worked as Santa in six years or so, but when I catch a child staring, I’ll still take a knee and ask them if they’ve been good. I can’t help it.”

But for many others, putting on that red suit every Christmas season is still very much a way of life.


Valley West Mall

At Valley West Mall, Santa has 44 years of big red experience, and “big” is the word. Standing at six-foot-something and broad-shouldered, he would be an imposing figure if he weren’t so amiable. While he’s coy about some questions (“Where are you from?” “The North Pole.”), Valley West’s Santa is candid about others.

“I started when I was 16 years old. My dad used to be the local Santa Claus, and for some reason he couldn’t get off work in time to make it, so Mom said, ‘I think you better dress up.’ ”

While most Santas spend their warmer months as carpenters or teachers, this Santa spent 24 years serving this country in the military, which he used as an opportunity to spread the cheer globally.

“In Thailand we came down out of a helicopter — fake beard then, of course — with Styrofoam that blew out (for snow),” he said. “Then when I retired, I ended up in the hospital for a few weeks. Well, my beard grows like a weed (and) my daughter saw me and said, ‘You could be a full-time Santa now.’ So I went to a Santa Claus convention and did some training.”

And that’s how he found his way to Valley West Mall’s center court.

“I went to (the) convention, and they asked me about going out to Utah. I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that,’ and at the last moment they said, ‘Well, would you like to go to Des Moines, Iowa?’ So I came here (originally) for two years and thought, ‘What a nice mall.’ The hotel is right here, the Hy-Vee is right here, so I decided to stay. Over the years, I’ve gotten calls from Burbank, Boston, Seattle, and I always say, ‘Will I leave Des Moines? No.’ ”

He said he’s connected with Valley West patrons over the years, and they with him.

“I’ve had a 2-day-old child that the parents brought straight from the hospital,” he said. “I was a little surprised by that.”

“For about 13 years, this group of ladies has come in. Mom and seven sisters. They’re scattered all around the country, but every year they get a hotel room and come here to shop, but this year, they brought a picture of their mom. They said, ‘This is in memory of Mom.’

“That’s why I stay. After being here for 18 years, this is my family.”


Jordan Creek Town Center

West Des Moines’ other major mall fosters a similar family feel this time of year, Jordan Creek’s Santa says. Gentle, warm and just a hair under six feet tall, he is cherubic in his features. His light voice carries a hint of a southern drawl. His giant chair makes him seem smaller than he really is, which lends him an air of accessibility.

“I have three grown sisters who come through every year. Last year they came through in pajamas. They all have their wishes for Christmas. It’s a family affair,” he said. “I’ll have children come running in here, give me a hug, then turn around and want nothing else.”

At Jordan Creek Town Center, no one knows Santa as anything but Santa. He surely has his own name, but they’ll never tell.

At Jordan Creek Town Center, no one knows Santa as anything but Santa. He surely has his own name, but they’ll never tell.

He smiles warmly, “I had twin sisters, both 3 years old and scared to visit. They come in, hiding behind Mom and Dad, didn’t want to visit with me at all. So I’m just talking to them a bit behind Mom and Dad, then ask Mom and Dad to come back later. So they left, and came back a little later with their older sisters. Well the twins would come sit in the chair with me on their sisters’ laps to take the picture, so we did that. Then, while everybody was up looking at the pictures, the twins are on the floor playing, so I crawl down onto the floor with them and just start talking.

“I asked them if they wanted to see pictures of my reindeer,” he continued, pulling a copy of “The Night Before Christmas” from his bag. “Well I have my book here, so I pulled it out and showed them pictures of my reindeer. By the time they left, they were giving me hugs and laughing.”

He punctuates his words with the occasional soft belly laugh — the trademark “ho-ho-ho” — and he does or says nothing to disturb the magic: Nobody in the mall, from the worker who takes the children’s pictures, to the girls in the salon who trim his beard and hair, know him as anything other than Santa Claus, and that’s how it’s been since the town center opened.

“I like to start out every morning with a nice, hot cup of chocolate and relax. Then, when the kids come in, that brings it all together. I feed off the energy of the kids.”

As you’d expect from Santa Claus, there is no real off-season for Jordan Creek’s ambassador, who stays busy designing new toys each year, he said.

“I also have to take Mrs. Claus away for a couple of weeks on vacation. This is a tough time of year for her, with me gone from the North Pole.”


Tricks of the trade

got2b Glued styling gel is “Santa’s best friend,” according to Washington. “Nobody’s beard curls like that on its own,” he said.

“Those Santa suits are hot,” added Baker. “But you’re Santa, so you can’t go out there smelling like Old Spice deodorant. So I bought a bunch of those pine-scented car fresheners. You know, the little trees? I’d stick them in my pockets and under my collar. Smells like Christmas.”

Such are the topics covered at Santa Conventions. But by far the most delicate issues any Santa has to deal with will come from the mouths of babes.

“Sometimes you get tear jerkers,” explained Valley West Santa. “Sometimes you hear, ‘Can you bring my dad back? He got killed in Iraq.’ ”

He’s quiet for a moment. “What are you going to do? You just wish them well. Give them a hug and ‘ho ho ho.’ ”

“All you can do is just say I’ll pray for them,” echoed Santa at Jordan Creek, quietly. “Santa’s just a toy maker. There are some things with life that you just can’t mess with.”

“The hugs and smiles are easily the most important part of the job,” added Washington. “You’re a listener. People confide in you. Because they know that Santa listens.”

Which, of course, is a key ingredient in making the magic happen.

“You have to be a good listener. That’s important to them. And it’s important to me, too,” said Santa at Jordan Creek. “I really want to know what they want for Christmas.”

“Even as you get older, you still want to believe in (Santa),” said Barton. “The idea is that Santa gives and asks for nothing in return. That’s why we love Santa so much.” CV

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