o many of my tales seem to start with the phrase "So I’m talking to this guy in a bar one night", and this one is no exception. So many good things come from that 1:45 am conversation when you’re seemingly invincible.
Anyway, I’m in a bar one night in November of '92, talking with a friend of mine that is complaining that he is having trouble running his Santa booth in the mall this year. I didn’t know that he ran a Santa booth, or what type of troubles one could have running one. It turns out he is the manager in charge of the Santa booth at the King of Prussia mall in PA, which is one of the largest and ritziest malls on the east coast. The problem is that he only has 2 Santa’s to work the booth for the entire season, and he is required to have the booth open and manned during all mall hours. So, very jokingly, I said I’d help him out and be a Santa.
He took me up on that offer.
Before I knew what was happening I was in that chair. I was never given any formal training for this job. Just put in my suit, and told to go do my thing. The mall wanted a Santa there, so that was my job. That, and to have little kids sit on my lap and tell me what they want as their parents part with eight bucks for that photographic memory that will last forever.
Now lets paint a picture. I’m 6’0", and all of 180lbs, and at the time, the ripe old age of 21. I've got an athletic build in a scrawny sort of way. By no means fitting the description of a fat, jolly, grey haired older man as our old Saint Nick is usually portrayed. Which brings me to the costume. I get this thick, heavy red suit, some padding for my belly, a black belt with an enormous gold buckle, a hat, some glasses, a pair of gloves, a fake beard which really wasn’t all that authentic, some of this gooey cream for my eyebrows, and big furry shoe covers that look like black boots. I learned quickly what real sweating was all about.
The changing room was on the second floor of the mall, and I would make my way down to my booth at 8am sharp. The stores didn’t open until 9am, but it was in the contract that Santa was there when the mall opened, not the stores. Going to my booth was fine, nobody really saw me. It was walking back around lunchtime and at shift change that bothered me. This is when the mall was full. Notice in the costume description above that I make no mention of leg padding to make my legs look like those of a larger man. I looked like a red, furry bell. A red, sweaty, furry bell. I don’t think I made that walk once without someone making a wisecrack about Santa’s skinny legs.
Lunchtime was fun though. I would never take off the white eyebrow makeup, as it took 3 minutes to get off and 2 to get back on, seriously cutting in to my 30-minute lunch break. I’d walk the mall in plain clothes with big white bushy eyebrows. Kids weren’t at eye level with me, and they wouldn’t have put it together anyway even if they saw it. But those that noticed, knew. That was cool. We’d make eye contact, they’d figure it out, I’d nod my head, and they’d laugh.
Another fun game I’d do at lunch is when I packed and brought my brown-paper-bag lunch, I’d go out to the car to eat it there so I could listen to the radio and be out of the mall for 25 minutes. So, imagine this. It's Christmas season, there are no spots in the entire parking lot, not even the ones that are far, far, far away. You’ve been circling the lot looking for a parking spot since the 1970’s, or so it seems. You see someone walk up and get in to the best spot in the lot. You know, the spot right next to the entrance, in front of the handicapped spots. He gets in, and starts the car. How long do you sit there and wait for the spot? I think the longest anyone waited for my spot was about 10 minutes. I’d always make an attempt to motion that I wasn’t leaving, just sitting in my car. It never worked. Besides, once they pulled off, someone else would come by and see the car running, and stop and wait. It was classic fun.
And then there was the actual work of the Santa job.
The first day on the job wasn’t that bad. I had that first kid sit down, and all of a sudden, I realized it was up to me to start this dialog. So many times I had been in this chair before, but never as the man behind the beard. It had been so many years, I had no idea what any of them said to me. Then I thought briefly that in 10 or 20 years none of these kids will remember either, so maybe I didn’t need to be eloquent and verbacious. However, I was determined to be the best Santa this planet had ever seen.
It was a challenge honing the skills, but after about a week, I’d say that I had it down. I had a list of questions that were second to none. I got the kids excited, got them thinking, and got them eager to say what they wanted as gifts. With this list of questions I developed, no one doubts you’re the real McCoy. I mean, would a fake Santa really be asking all these questions? Probably not. Well, the questions could be broken down in to three phases. You’ve got your informational questions:
Depending on the answers, I could breeze through these in 20 seconds or 3 minutes, but most of the time, one question will hit something they want to talk about and get the kid chatting. This is important. It's good to open up the lines of communication, and get some friendly banter going. It makes everyone more comfortable, especially when you’re coming up on the… qualifying questions:
They wonder how I know that last one. I’m Santa, I know these things.
Then you come up to the big question. It’s a category all by itself:
I had a lot of tots that would try to jump the gun and answer that one early, but I wasn’t going to let it happen. I would talk with the kids for anywhere between 3 and 15 minutes depending on the length of the line and how ancy their parents looked. I loved every minute of it. Talking with all of them made me feel like I was three again, or as the kids put it "this many" as they held up the appropriate number of fingers. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough digits to do that any more, even if I took off my shoes.
I would have to honestly say that I enjoyed every visitor that I had to my lap. I didn’t really have any kickers, and the screamers were few and far between, and even then they weren’t that bad. I had a few moments that stuck out in my mind.
I had a little girl come up with a small box of toys and hand it to me. I asked what it was and she said that it was for the poor people. I took that box to a church that I passed on my way home and asked if they had a toys-for-tots donation program. They did and I gave the lady the box of toys as she asked my name. I replied "I’m Santa" as I smiled and walked out.
I had a young boy who was there with his mother, and it was apparent that they were not from a wealthy family. It was tough to see the look of sadness in his mother’s eyes as the boy asked for all of the most expensive toys out there. He was very sincere about having been very good all year, and was hoping that Santa would bring him all the things he wanted. All I could say was that I didn’t have too much room to carry everything that every child wanted. Then I put on the most excited voice that I could and asked if he’d like Santa to surprise him with some other really neat stuff. He was a little unsure at first, but when the idea of getting a surprise caught on, he got real excited about it. His mother stopped to thank me on her way out.
A young girl had come up all on her own, with her mother standing back by the elves (the picture taking elves). When I got around to asking her what she wanted for Christmas, she replied "I want a new daddy because my daddy died". I was not expecting to have to deal with these kinds of situations, and I wasn’t expecting that comment from this little girl. She wasn’t weeping or even visibly upset. She was just very matter-of-fact about it, she wanted a new dad. I don’t remember fully what I said, but I remember telling her that there were some things that I couldn’t do, and that I wanted her to try to help mom and help her brother because I’m sure that everyone misses daddy. There isn’t much else to say. You just sincerely hope to yourself that everything works itself for the best.
I never did get a picture of myself in that chair. I was always going to wait until my family came in to see me, and the day they did, the lines were long, and they didn’t stay for a photo. Neither did my girlfriend at the time. The booth had a policy that all photos were accounted for. They were around $8, which as a college student making $4.75 as Santa, I didn’t have. I should have got one anyway, and in hindsight, it makes me realize today that it's important to spend money on things that will give you great memories even if you think you can’t afford them now.
I did however get to keep a lot of the letters. I think I have about a dozen or so, and they’re buried in my mom and dad's house somewhere. Some parents of the kids sitting on my lap would pull a stealth move and take the letter back when their kids weren’t looking. Sometimes I nearly refused. I mean, these are my letters. They are written to me. See, right here, it says "Dear Santa". I did get a SantaComplex at points. Every now and then I’d tell people that I was the real Santa and catch myself really believing it. Picture it, you’re there for 8 or 10 hours a day, and you’ve got kid after kid really BELIEVING that you’re Santa. It’s hard not to believe yourself. When reality sets in around January, it's a little hard to accept at first.
You learn a lot of valuable information from these kids, and it goes far beyond the lessons in life that they seem to be able to teach you. You get valuable marketing data, and it’s only a matter of time before some large firm finds that out and begins to plant microphones in all the Santa chairs around the country. By the end of the season, I could have told you what the hottest selling toys were, no doubt. There were about 5 constant winners, and I still remember most of them. Most girls wanted PuppySurprise or KittySurprise, which were little beanbag toys, and the boys mostly wanted K-Nex, a souped up version of Legos. In my opinion there is no toy cooler than Legos ever, but I kept those opinions to myself whilst in the chair.
I had several parents come up to me as they were leaving the booth and say that they thought I was one of the best Santa’s that they had ever seen. That is the kind of thing that really makes you love this job all the more. My friend left the SantaBooth company the next year, and I tried to get a job as Santa at the mall near my college. They only accepted real beards, and to this day I still can’t grow one.
I listed that job on random job applications for some time to come. It always read a little funny, and here’s how it went.
Any questions or comments, please feel free to e-mail me. Santa@Travelhead.com