Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Sleigh Trail

I first became a reluctant Santa in December 1969 while working for a Sears store in Fort Worth, Texas.  The store’s Santa had called in sick just a few minutes before time to appear, and the store manager pointed at me and said, “You’re the biggest guy in the store.  Get in the Santa suit.”  Thus I became Santa for the first time.  I donned the suit a few more times over the next two or three years, and while it was fun, it wasn’t my life’s passion.  Over the next 30 years, I put on the red suit only two or three more times, and it was always with great reluctance. 

In 1975 I grew my beard, but not to be Santa.  I just wanted to grow a beard.  Over time it began to turn gray, then white, and in 2002, I was standing in a grocery store line when a little girl peering over her father’s shoulder suddenly looked at me and shouted, “Santa!”  Well, it was December, so I went along with it and became Santa for her and other children in the store—and I liked it. 

A few months later, about April or so, I was in a Home Depot when a young boy ran up to me and grabbed hold of my leg shouting, “Thank you, Santa!  Thank you for my gift!”  The first thing I did was look around for a parent, then when I located his father grinning at the scene, I became Santa in the middle of the plumbing aisle.

In 2004, I heard on the news about a Santa organization having their annual meeting at a restaurant in Long Beach, CA, so I showed up.  Soon I was enrolled in a Santa School, and I’ve been Santa ever since. 

There is no end to the training and preparation to be a quality Santa.  I have a Master Santa Claus certificate from one the Santa schools, and I study being Santa on my own.  I look like Santa every day of the year, so I must always be prepared to be the best Santa I can be even when I think no one is looking, and in the middle of June.

This means grooming the hair and beard every day.  No drinking or smoking.  No bad breath or spicy foods.  Language must always be guarded.  The list is long, but I have to remember that no matter what I’m doing, people (especially children) always recognize me as Santa.

This also means there are places I cannot go.  Disneyland is such a place.  Anyone whose appearance is of Santa, or a pirate, or any other recognizable character whose look could possibly be confused with the Disney characters, will be barred from entering the park.  Also, I cannot go anywhere there is another working Santa, such as a mall, but this extends to many stores during November and December as well.  Children do not need the confusion of multiple Santa’s in one location.

I have to be current on games, toys, and anything else a child may be hoping to receive as a gift.  I also have to be prepared for those tough questions such as, “Why didn’t you come to my house last year?” or “Can you bring my Daddy home?” or “Why do my Mommy and Daddy fight?”  There are many tough questions, and it’s always hard to hear them from a child, but Santa has to be ready for them.

I am often online with other working Santa’s sharing our knowledge and experiences.  We learn from each other, and we help each other.  Several times I have had the opportunity to be a mentor to newer Santa’s, but the learning process always continues for every one of us.

I was recently the first Santa for a child barely 24 hours old.  His mother said she would have brought him to see me the day he was born, but they wouldn’t let her out of the hospital.

And I have had children approaching 100 years of age sit in my lap to make their Christmas requests.  For many of these older visitors it’s a very emotional experience to be sitting in Santa’s lap for the first time in their lives.  It’s surprising how many older persons have always longed for a chance to get that special hug and attention that Santa provides.

Every year the request list changes a little bit from the year before.  Recently the list has included Angry birds, Barbie (and everything that goes with Barbie), i-phones, i-pads, electronic pets, anything Elmo, bicycles, Legos, Harleys, Cameros, Weii, Xbox, PS3.  It’s an unending list with a lot of surprises.  Many two and three year old children just want toys—any toys.  World Peace comes up a lot. 
 
I have had requests for a turnip, a can of chicken noodle soup, a hippopotamus, and a big box (I hope she wanted a present inside of the big box).  One four year old wanted deodorant.

I have been privileged to appear at tree lightings for cities and resorts.  I have also been privileged to appear at nursing homes, car lots, garden nurseries, corporate events, and private homes.  I’ve even been seen on national television shows.

Many Santa’s belong to organizations and groups across America and around the world.  Some are local, some are national, and some are international, but all promote quality.  These organizations are helping families and businesses (really, anyone who hires a Santa) to realize the difference between the professional Santa with a real beard, real suit, real boots, and real belt, and a boxed kit Santa with pillow falling out from under his jacket and a beard at a strange angle. 

These organizations also have created a network of many hundreds of professional Santa’s who are in contact throughout the year helping each other improve through training and advice.

In mentioning the Santa organizations, I have to recognize Santa Tim Connaghan.  Through his efforts, many of today’s groups have come into being, and several have reached national and international recognition.  Also, Santa Tim produces one of the most notable Santa schools in America.  Anyone seeking more information about his schools can reach him at santa@realsantas.com .

Today’s American Santa is the result of an evolution that only since WWII has become somewhat standardized.  In the late 1700’s the Dutch of New York celebrated December 6 (St. Nicholas Day) with the character Sinterklass who was included in Washington Irving’s 1809 comic History of New York.  Later Clement Moore gave him a more current description in his poem A Visit from St. Nicholas also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.  During the post-Civil War era, Thomas Nast continued the development of the appearance of Santa Claus through many illustrations for Harper’s Weekly, but nothing was consistent in the overall appearance of the person.

Santa Claus often appeared jolly and plump, as in Clement Moore’s poem, but just as often he was very thin.  His clothing was more often blue, or brown, or green rather than red.  And he often wore the long robes of the Dutch Sinterklass or other European versions of St. Nicholas.  It wasn’t until Haddon Sundblom began painting Santa for Coca-Cola advertisements in 1931 that the modern image of the jolly old elf began to take shape.  America was just beginning to accept this image of Santa when WWII began, so it was only after the war that the current Santa Claus really exploded with the post war prosperity.

Now this image of the American Santa Claus is spreading around the world.  Countries with a tradition based on St. Nicholas are not unaware of the American Santa even though they still keep their own customs and practices.  But in countries where there is no such tradition, the American Santa is becoming very popular.

Each year several hotels, malls, and large businesses in places such as Tokyo and Hong Kong import American Santas to visit with everyone.  These Santas are treated almost like movie stars as the people celebrate the season (even if they don’t know what the season is about).  Everyone enjoys having a photo made with Santa.

It is believed that the first printed use of the name Santa Claus is found in Rivington’s Gazette (New York City), December 23, 1773.

A Philadelphia merchant J.W. Parkinson may have been the first person to have a store Santa when in 1841 he hired a man to dress up as Kris Kringle and climb the chimney of his department store.

And “Jingle Bells” was originally written as a song for Thanksgiving.

A little more about me can be found at www.NeedSanta.com .

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