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Photo: Alex Casey / Design: Tina Tiller
Photo: Alex Casey / Design: Tina Tiller

Pop CultureOctober 18, 2023

What does it take to be a mall Santa?

Photo: Alex Casey / Design: Tina Tiller
Photo: Alex Casey / Design: Tina Tiller

New Zealand malls are facing a Santa shortage this silly season. Think you could take up the throne? The first step is enrolling in Santa School.

First published November 19, 2022

One must be extremely careful when deploying the “ho ho ho” in public. “You must adjust the ‘ho ho ho’ to every situation,” advises Tony Hooper, the facilitator of Scene to Believe’s annual Santa School, from beneath his thick white beard. “Use the ‘ho ho ho’ to announce yourself, but make sure you do the ‘ho ho ho’ quieter around children. Some children fear the ‘ho ho ho’.” Thankfully, there are no kids present at Santa School, so he leads the group in a hearty ho ho ho session before breaking for morning tea – marshmallow Santas for all. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The very first rule of Santa School is that everyone must be called Santa. “First of all, I’m Tony and I’m Santa,” says Santa Tony, pacing around like he’s delivering a TedX talk. “But lo and behold, you’re all Santa too.” On an overcast Friday in the Auckland United FC clubrooms, a dozen aspiring and well-established mall Santas have assembled to brush up on their Santa skills before the silly season. But first things first: phones off. “The first person whose phone rings has to buy the beers,” Santa Tony laughs. 

Santa class (Photo: Alex Casey)

It’s been a tough few years for Santas. With Covid-19 restrictions resulting in lower turnouts, socially distanced photographs and mandated mask-wearing, this is the first year that Santas are able to return to the “good old days,” says Santa Tony. Scene to Believe, the Australian based events company he represents, has “ramped up” Santa services to more malls than ever in Aotearoa this year. “Our investment in the Santa industry is huge, with over 2,000 seasonal staff,” says Santa Tony. “Our goal is to deliver a magical experience to each and every customer.”

A big part of that magical experience is embodying the Santa character from the very moment he steps his big black boots out of the dressing room. “You have to act like royalty,” says Santa Tony. “Nobody’s going to see you as Tom, Dick or Harry: you are Santa.” He instructs his Santas to sit in front of a mirror and assess the energy they are projecting, before practicing welcoming poses, lifting their chest up and taking big breaths to stay relaxed. Because Santa must always be happy and jolly, and Santa must never, ever stop smiling. “Even though you can’t see your mouth, you can still tell that the Santa is happy. It’s in the eyes.” 

Of course, what is concealing the Mona Santa smile is a big white beard, which Santa Tony says can only be washed using one method. “An old military trick” he says. “Wash it in lukewarm water, roll it up in a towel and stomp up and down on it half a dozen times. Lay that on the table or hang it out and it’ll be dry in the morning.” Much like counting the rings of a tree, you can usually tell how established a Santa is by the number of beards hanging out on the porch – “until my wife threw them all out,” laments Tony. “She didn’t think I needed them.” 

The beard is just one element of Santa’s festive kit, valued at over $1,000. Maintenance of the three-piece suit, false belly, resplendent hat, crisp white gloves and shiny boots is an essential part of Santa training. Santa Tony recommends turning the suit inside out every night and spraying it with Febreze. “I used to think that stuff was bullshit, but it works wonderfully,” he says. No alterations or drycleaning are permitted without strict supervision, and “moonlighting” at other Santa gigs with the Scene to Believe suit is a fireable offence. 

Much to think about (Photo: Alex Casey)

The morning tea break – “what do we have here?” says Santa Tony, coyly unwrapping a Marshmallow Santa – offers me a chance to get to know some of the aspiring Santas in the room. Santa Eric says he “came up on the sleigh” from Hamilton this morning. He used to be a manager in the dairy industry, but since retiring has found his dream job as Santa. “It’s the best job satisfaction I’ve ever had,” he beams. Santa Graeme, a former quarantine officer, started just two years ago. “I suppose I’m still dealing with the public quite a bit, just in a really different way.” He loves the role, and finds it fascinating how people respond to him in costume. 

“When you’ve got the Santa suit on, everyone’s looking at you. And then you go into the changing room and take it off, and nobody’s even giving you a second look.”

Across the room, Santa John has changed out of his Santa suit to reveal a tidy Ritchies Bus uniform. When he’s not Santa, he’s driving the bus for a special needs school in Auckland. “You’ve got to love children to do this and you’ve really got to love the job. Actually, it’s not a job – it’s a love. It’s a love job.” He’s been a Santa since getting the call-up from Papakura Countdown 20 years ago, and “has never looked back since.” Now a stalwart Santa at St Luke’s mall, Santa John still has one dream job on his Christmas list. “The pinnacle is the Farmers parade in town, that is as high as you can go as a Santa.”

“The closest I have been to that is a standby. I was all dressed up and so excited, but the guy turned up so I missed out.” Santa John is on standby again this year, but far be it from him to wish ill health on another Santa. That is not the Santa way.

Santa John holds up his favourite Santa portraits. (Photo: Alex Casey)

After morning tea, we get stuck into Santa lore. “You must develop your own repertoire of dialogue on the magic of Christmas,” says Santa Tony. “Fairies, magic dust, reindeer – we need to be able to put that across convincingly.” This includes learning the names of Santa’s reindeer, referencing the status of Mrs Claus and the elves, and having an arsenal of answers to tricky questions. How old is Santa? So old I can’t remember. How do you get down the chimney? Magic dust. How do you get in if there is no chimney? Magic dust. “Make sure you tell them the magic dust only works on Christmas Eve,” Santa Tony warns sternly. 

Later, Santa John reveals one of his favourite Santa tricks to me. “When kids say to me ‘you’re not the real Santa’ I tell them that the real Santa has a twitch in his right eye,” he whispers. Silence hangs in the air as he starts to subtly twitch his right eye.

Another genre of curly questions that Santa gets thrown are around presents and toys. Santa Tony advises the Santas to dip into their local toy store early on a Monday morning on a reconnaissance mission to brush up on the most coveted toys of the season. “Two years ago there was this thing called a Hatchimal that everyone wanted – I’ve still got no idea what that is,” he laughs. Electronics stores are also worth a visit. “Fitbits, iPads, I can’t pronounce half of them,” sighs Santa Tony. Whatever the kids ask for, the key is to not promise anything. “Don’t give them false hope, just say ‘I’ll see what I can do’.”

Santa Tony deep in Santa praxis (Photo: Alex Casey)

While kids make their Christmas wishes, the main goal of the mall Santa is to take a memorable photograph. To do this, Santa Tony advises having at least five different poses ready to go, and to not be afraid to get experimental. “I once tried lying on the floor, but the elf told me it wasn’t very good,” he recalls. “Another Santa I work with does ‘the dab’… that makes for a fantastic photograph.” When handed a sleeping baby, a classic Santa move is to pretend to be asleep too. “So you’re asleep and the baby’s asleep, and that’s another fantastic photo.”

Given that Santas haven’t had kids on their throne for the past two years, a large portion of Santa School was devoted to safety, beginning with mandatory police checks. People sometimes like to “level accusations” at Santa, so it is important to remain vigilant at all times, says Santa Tony. If children’s hair, clothing or position needs to be adjusted, a caregiver must be ushered over. Both of Santa’s white gloves must remain visible at all times. Never reach for a baby, always let the parent place the baby in the crook of your arm. Always ask for consent before putting a Santa hand on a non-Santa shoulder.

Textbook Santa photo (Photo: Supplied)

But Santas need to keep themselves safe too. “Never walk through a shopping centre on your own,” says Santa Tony, “you never know when a group of youths might want to razz you.” He shares horror stories of lewd comments and middle fingers, indecent proposals and frightening run-ins. “It’s good fun for a teenager to stir up a Santa,” he says, looking into the middle distance. “Always ring the bell to announce yourself and once again never, ever, walk alone.” Santa Eric recalls one particularly blue encounter. “I had two middle aged ladies who came up to me and said ‘I don’t want a lot for Christmas, but six inches would be good’.” 

Sometimes it’s not even people at all that Santas need to worry about. Paws with Claus photoshoots, where people bring in their pets to meet Santa, provide another set of challenges. “Someone brought in these two guinea pigs that were just two balls of fluff,” recalls Santa Graeme, “I said ‘you’ll have to tell me which way to turn them around madam because these look like slippers!’” Footwear or not, Santa Tony says it essential that all pet visitors are treated with the same enthusiasm as their human counterparts. “Treat the pets like they are children and the owners like they are parents – you must ask the pets what they want for Christmas.” 

In the middle of our session, one Santa’s phone goes off loudly with the uncensored version of Beyonce’s ‘Cuff It’. “We gon’ fuck up the night,” Queen Bey sings from beneath his leather phone case as he hastily tries to stop the music. This immediately identifies him as not-your-average-Santa, so later on I make a beeline for him to find out what his deal is. Hailing from West Auckland and working as a chef on Karangahape Road, Santa Cheyne says he decided he should embrace the fun in life after turning 50 in June. “I’ve been Zorbing and whitewater rafting, you know? Life’s for living.” 

As it turns out, Beyonce is just the opening act for the most electric session during Santa School: the improv game. One by one, the Santas are asked to react to an object as if it was a Christmas card made by a small child. I watch as a room of men who would have been readily dismissed as repressed “pale stale males” gush excitedly over a tatty exercise book. “WOW, thank you SO MUCH! I’m going to show this to Mrs Claus!” bellows Santa Graeme. “You’ve made me the happiest Santa in the world!!” roars Santa John. 

An evaporated Santa (Photo: Alex Casey)

Later, Scene to Believe account manager James Bennett tells me this is what’s known as The Santa Effect. “You’d be really surprised by some people, they may be quiet and not seem confident but then they really sort of shine as Santa.” Given that Scene to Believe are still on the hunt for aspiring Santas around the country, his hope is that a wider range of people will have a go at being Santa. Because Santa doesn’t have to just be a November-December role – the company puts on a mid-year “Jingle and Mingle” event where Santas can partake in a Santa’s Got Talent competition. Last year, a ventriloquist Santa took out the top prize. 

As I prepare to leave Santa School, buzzing with stories of synthetic beards, fairy dust and Mrs Claus mishaps, I meet another Santa John, let’s call him Santa John II, grazing at the table of mini savouries. He tells me he’s been out of the Santa game for a while due to health problems, and is looking forward to getting stuck back in this year. “It’s magic. You go out there and it’s just magic. When you put the suit on, you can be whatever you want to be.” He pensively nibbles a small quiche as he tries to express his love for the Santa role. 

“There’s this quote that I love: ‘Always be yourself, but if you can be Santa, be Santa’.” 

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