Chubby children aside, there’s a lot of weight on the lap of a
shopping mall Santa.
Encased in fur and velvet, cinched into gut-crushing belts and
boots that don’t breathe, these rock stars of the holiday stage not
only have to hawk overpriced 8x10s. They bear the burden of keeping
the season’s magic alive for hundreds of increasingly incredulous
youngsters. One tug on that gleaming white wig could be all it
takes to convince them that holiday wishes are for patsies. One
harsh word aimed at an incompetent elf could Dasher their hopes
forever. Blitzen them, even.
Who are the brave men who accept this challenge year after year.
And what, with all due respect, could they possibly be thinking? I
did some in-depth research this week (can I just say, how cool is
this job?) and discovered there are three basic types of Santa
The Old Softie. In the half dozen years that
Leonard Atkins played Santa at La Cumbre Mall,
he worked his sleigh-sittin’ fanny off. The job didn’t pay much, and required him to work
almost every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He wrangled
wailing toddlers. He kneeled on the ground to pose for photos with
dogs. And he wasn’t allowed to use the closest men’s room, at
“It would be awkward if a kid came in and here’s Santa going
potty,” explained the Santa Barbara grandpa, now 80. Still, the
musician, substitute teacher, and member of the city’s Fire and
Police Commission says playing Santa is the best job he ever had,
thanks to the kids whose faces went sparkly at the sight of
“There was a girl about seven years old who spotted me outside
of Sears one year,” says Atkins, whose sing-song speech is
punctuated with high-pitched giggles. “She came running at me, took
a flying leap, put her arms around my neck, and I got the best hug.
I just wanted to tell her mama, ‘Give this young lady anything she
wants for Christmas!’ “
The Consummate Professional. Flying reindeer
and sugarplums notwithstanding, Riverside resident Tim
Connaghan (pictured) takes his role as Father Christmas
quite seriously. He takes meticulous care of his naturally white
beard all year long and goes on scouting missions to Toys R Us to
keep up on the season’s hottest toys. Even on the phone, he sounds exactly
like St. Nick, if St. Nick were Gary Owens. The license plate on
his truck says “Santa” and he wears a ring with the initials
AORBS carved on the side:
Order of Real Bearded Santas.
As president of the group, he organizes workshops for hundreds
of Santa impersonators nationwide. One is on the proper care and
bleaching of beards. Another is called “You Are an Artist: Act
& Think Like One.” He advises fellow Kirs Kringles on how to
avoid back strain while hoisting 100-pound kiddies, and how to
stave off a virus when you’re being repeatedly sneezed on. After 38
years, the 58-year-old is making a living shaking his sleigh bells
at parades, parties, and photo ops.
“I’m putting a daughter through college,” he says.
The Reluctant Red Elf. My favorite faux
ho-ho-er is the one who gets roped into it because the costume has
been rented and, well, someone’s got to do it. A former colleague
of mine was coerced into the red suit for a company party one year.
He had the flu, his wig was unruly, and his glasses fogged up as he
was reading The Polar Express to a group of dubious
looking children. He had these bon mots to offer other
poor saps who get duped into donning a strap-on belly and answering
to incredulous kids: “Turn it back on the little snot-nosed
skeptics,” he advises, “so they have to ask themselves if they
really want to take the chance of calling Santa’s bluff.”
A simple “So many believing children, so few toys” will do the
trick nicely, he says. “As with most big philosophical questions in
life, self-interest in the end usually will carry the day.”
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