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Being Santa

Home > Everywhere > Christmas | Family | Free | Performing Arts
by Peter Hancock (subscribe)
Journalist, historian and naturalist living in Perth's eastern suburbs.
Published December 17th 2018
It's jolly ho-ho-hot but very he-he-heartwarming
For the past few weeks I have had the honour of playing Santa in a major city retail store and I thought I'd share the experience of what it's like to don the Santa suit.

My role is as a 'sitting Santa' as opposed to a roving Santa and involves occupying a big red throne and posing for photos with customers. The photos cost money, of course, but any child is welcome to come and talk to Santa.

Believe it or not, sitting through the four-hour shift is exhausting. Not only is the suit bulky and hot (I have to have a fan trained on me, despite the air-con), the beard and wig, blown by the fan, are a continual irritant to the eyes and face. And taking a break is more trouble than it's worth, unless you experience an urgent call of nature, because the costume takes a good ten minutes to get in and out of, so you're effectively trapped in the Santa persona for the entire shift.

Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Christmas Spirit, Merry Christmas, toys, fun, photos
The experience of playing Santa is eye-opening, thought-provoking - and lots of fun.
Add to this the constant chatting to and dealing with children and parents and non-stop waving and laughing for the camera, and you get some idea of the pressure a Santa's under.

That said, being Santa is an uplifting and revealing experience. From the first time a youngster takes your white-gloved hand and gazes adoringly into your eyes, you realise that you're not acting Santa, you are Santa or at least as much Santa as anyone who's put on the suit since the real Saint Nicholas died some 1600 years ago.

It suddenly occurs to you that you're as real to the kids as the Santa whose knee you sat on during your childhood was to you, and that carrying on that tradition convincingly is an onerous responsibility. The imperative not to disillusion or disappoint a child is priority number one.

Over the past month, I've posed with hundreds of children and parents from all social classes and backgrounds and had a lot of fun doing it. Some of the biggest challenges are the infants between about six months and three years old. When they are younger, they're oblivious to Santa, but after that the majority of them have a healthy distrust of strange old men with long beards and react accordingly, usually by bursting into tears and/or tantrums.

Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Christmas Spirit, Merry Christmas, toys, fun, photos
Babies up to six months old are often happy to sit on Santa's lap.

To capture photos of the younger tots alone with Santa before they burst into tears, the photographers and I developed the 'ambush tactic'. This involves the parents sitting next to me on the throne then, on the photographer's command, quickly stepping out of frame, while the photographer snaps the shot before the baby realises it's been abandoned to a scary stranger and lets loose.

Some little ones are happy to see Santa. At first. From a distance. They'll call my name and return my waves from a few metres away but become more and more nervous as their parents bring them closer until, by the time they reach my throne, they're either burrowing their faces into their parents' necks and holding on for dear life, hiding behind their parents' legs, or running away as fast as they can, with the parent in hot pursuit.

These boys and girls usually end up sitting fearfully next to me on their mum or dad's lap while the other parent stands behind the photographer and tries to raise a smile from their child, using all kinds of strange expressions, funny voices and quaint antics.

The photographer, armed with a squeaky toy or a rattle, often joins in as well, while I chuckle at their grotesque efforts and maintain my poise for the camera. I wish I had a video camera mounted on my red cap so that I could record some of these scenes. They certainly make for some entertaining viewing!

Then there are the true believers the children who arrive dressed in Christmas regalia with a letter for Santa. These sometimes charge at me from the other end of the store, leaping into my arms and giving me a big hug, before blurting out what they want for Christmas, but usually, they too are somewhat shy when they draw near, so I put them at ease in a variety of ways.

Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Christmas Spirit, Merry Christmas, toys, fun, photos
Santa is often given a big hug by the true believers.

The first is the 'high five', which some will only do after their parent has set an example. The first high five is usually tentative and gentle but when I laugh and tell them to do it 'hard!' the vast majority put all their effort into the next hand slap. A couple of hearty two-handed high and low fives, and I've usually got them laughing and relaxed.

Another ice-breaker is my bell. When I offer it to children to ring it's hard to resist and if, like the high fives, they start tentatively, I tell them to ring harder, then chuckle 'Ho ho ho!' and rock back and forth with glee when they let themselves go and make a racket.

Once they're relaxed in my company many children treat me like an old friend and don't want to stop talking. If they're a bit quiet I follow my questions about what they want for Christmas, with questions about whether they have a Christmas tree and what's on top; if they have a chimney or a door for me to come through on Christmas Night ("I prefer doors because I keep getting stuck in chimneys and need to throw a rope to Rudolph to pull me out"); whether they'll leave me and the reindeer some snacks, and whether they have any special plans for the Christmas holidays. Pets are another good conversation opener.

Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Christmas Spirit, Merry Christmas, toys, fun, photos
If this youngster seems rather familiar with Santa, it's because he's my grandson, Lior.

The older kids provide some awkward moments with probing questions that you're not certain how to answer because you don't know if they still believe in Santa or not. One asked me if I'd met Jesus ("No, I was born 400 years later"), and another asked why, if the elves made toys, his presents still had barcodes on them ("Sometimes there are so many gifts required that I get outside help.")

One little girl set me aback when she held my hand, gazed sadly into my eyes and told me that I hadn't come to her house last Christmas. All I could do was promise that I'd be there this Christmas, and hope that she wouldn't be disappointed.

To raise a smile I tell youngsters who ask about my reindeer that Rudolph's so excited about Christmas that he keeps waking up in the middle of the night.

"When he does his nose lights up and wakes all the other reindeer," I tell them. "Then Dancer starts dancing, and Prancer starts prancing and all the other reindeer start playing around and making a noise, and Mrs Claus has to send me downstairs to make them quieten down so that we can get some sleep."

I've even invented a bit of Santa lore that I reveal as a whispered 'secret': Mrs Claus's first name is Sandra, Sandra Claus.

As well as youngsters there is a steady parade of teenagers and adults turning up for their traditional family Santa photos. Some teens particularly girls have their photos taken under protest and getting them to smile rather than pout can be as hard as getting a grin from a baby. Most, however, take it in the spirit in which it's meant and have a lot of fun.

The youngest member of one set of three siblings a sister and two brothers was 28 years old and they had been having the Santa photo taken since birth. Another young bloke in his thirties had his photo with me to send home to his Mum on the first Christmas he hadn't been able to get home to celebrate with her.

Adults' almost instinctive reactions to the red suit are informative. Although they know full well that I'm only a stranger in a costume, I must remind them of the simpler and happier times of their childhoods and they invariably wave and greet me with "Hello Santa" or "Merry Christmas, Santa", as if I'm an old friend.

And I suppose I am. An old friend who comes every Christmas to remind people of the Christmas Spirit and inspire them to be light-hearted and kind to one another. Merry Christmas, everybody!

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Why? Find out what it's like to take on the persona of Santa Claus
When: Christmas
Where: Any major retail store and shopping centre until Christmas Day
Cost: Priceless
Your Comment
You make a fine Santa Peter.
by May Cross (score: 3|7861) 870 days ago
Good job Peter! Great article from a different view.
by Michael Genrich (score: 3|1750) 871 days ago
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