How I became Santa

This is the 2nd of a planned 365 daily posts in 2016.

The suit has gone to the cleaners and has been packed away for another year. The beard has been trimmed way, way back. Christmas is over1. Another year of being Santa has come to an end. It’s the only thing I do I really consider a hobby. It’s something I can only do for one month of the year.

I’ve played Santa at Christmastime on and off for about 35 years. I say ‘about’ because I think I first put on a suit in 1980. It might have been 1981, but I think it was 1980. One year some friends from high school band went Christmas caroling. Someone supplied Santa hats and it struck me how much fun it would be to go all the way with it. I bought a cheap suit from the Sears catalog the next year, and that was that.

I replaced my original suit when I was in college later. In late September my mom would place an ad in the neighborhood weekly advertising my services for me. Kids parties, private visits, that sort of thing. She’d take the calls and schedule for me up until classes ended in the Fall and I came home for Christmas. It was a nice way to make some money over break. Working small events and,on occasion, delivering gifts only got me more hooked. In those days it was a fake beard and wig, but I always lucked out and got good ones. No one ever pointed and said “Hey, that’s fake!”

Photo by Luke Morano. Cuteness by Weston Bullard.
Photo by Luke Morano. Cuteness by Weston Bullard.

One fall when I was in grad school I was approached to play Santa at a mall. I really needed the money. I learned a lot. Mostly that I don’t ever want to play Santa at a mall again. The kids were great — they usually are — but the parents were really annoying. You know those really funny pictures with the screaming kid on Santa’s lap? Yeah, well, no one in that picture is having a good time. One kid got so scared he took a dump in his diaper. I got a whiff and apparently reacted visibly. The mother immediately starts screaming that I clearly hated kids and that i wasn’t cut out to be the object of her child’s terror. She was right, but not in the way she thought. I had to get up and take a break because, as I explained to my awesome manager, I didn’t think the kids would understand why Santa ripped Mommy’s throat out.

I also learned that you should never, ever work double shifts. There was a strict rule that you worked one four-hour shift a day with a mandatory 15-minute break mid-way through and strongly-suggested five minute breaks in the first and fourth hour. I started out working the 2-6pm shift the week before Thanksgiving. The guy before me was a full-time prison guard at night and, apparently, a alcoholic all the time. I could smell the whiskey on his breath when we BS’d during the changeover. I let my manager know because one day it was pretty strong and he was a little wobbly.

I took his shift. They moved another guy into my original shift, then I took the night shift that had also come open. I’d do my four hours to open, then leave for four hours and then come back and close. Every day. It was brutal. There were funny and sweet moments and several where I clearly I had the power to put a kid in therapy for many, many years. The company was Cherry Hill Photo and I’ve got a lot of respect for them. They had some good training materials for me and I loved that THE ironclad rule was that every kid got a visit and a candy cane and it didn’t matter if the parents wanted to buy the photos. When it was all over I swore I’d never play Santa for money again. I’ve been able to stick to that, for the most part. I have a lot of respect for the guys who do the malls. It’s a very tough job.

After I got out of college life got complicated and Santa fell by the wayside. I held into the suit, but wore it less and less. I outgrew it, which really helped my self-esteem. It turned into something I used to do. “Maybe someday,” I said. But it never seemed to happen. Then, in 2011, I volunteered to be Santa for the City of Florence, KY’s tree lighting ceremony. City Councilman and all-around community icon Ted Bushelman had done it for years, but he had died in March of that year. I admired him greatly. He was one of the most generous and giving people I’ve ever known. I like to think he’d get a kick out of the fact that his passing is what inspired me to put the suit back on. I certainly can’t put it on without thinking of him. And I thank him for that.

The beard is real now. It’s more gray than white, but the kids don’t seem to mind. It bothers me, but the theatrical whitening makeup makes me look very creepy close up. No one wants that.

I don’t ever want it to be a job. I don’t want the transaction to be between me and the parents or me and some company. I want the transaction to be between me and the kids. They get to believe in Santa and I get to see them believe in Santa. That’s a very fair trade to me. Most of the time there are people standing around taking pictures, and that’s OK, but I’m not a prop. I’m not a photo backdrop. I’m Santa and I’m talking to your kid. I’m not here to scare your kid. That’s not what I’m about. My deal is with them, not you. You’re transportation. My only deal with you is that your kid is safe with me and  I won’t put you in a tough spot and promise something you can’t deliver.

Like I said, I have nothing but respect for the guys who do it day in and day out during the season at the malls. I’ve seen some amazing ones and I don’t think for a minute it’s only about the money for them. It’s just that my choice is to not bring money into the mix. My choice. Their choice is perfectly OK. They’re just as much Santa as me. Some day I’d love to go to Santa School. There’s always stuff to learn. I don’t think I’m all that unique in the Santa world. It’s something I’d love to geek out about some time.

Don’t ask me what I think of SantaCon.

I’ve put it away the suit for another year. In August I’ll go see Amy, who cuts my hair, and she’ll ask if I’m ready to start letting the beard go. I’ll say yes and the run up to December will begin again. And then, for just 24 days, I get to be Santa.


1 Secular Christmas. The season doesn’t really end until January 6th.

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