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SocietyDecember 22, 2017

Life behind the white beard: Shopping mall Santas reveal all


If you thought your Christmas mall visits were bad, how about donning a fake beard and a velvet suit? Alex Casey talks to two professional mall Santas about becoming The Big Man. 

When I was about three years old, Santa Claus himself visited my daycare Christmas Party. He was as jolly as expected, with a predictable twinkle in his eye, and patiently listened to every little kid yarn about what they wanted under the tree that year. Well, almost every kid. Not me. I was instantly suspicious of him, and spent the day slowly orbiting his throne with narrowed eyes, coming closer only to get my present before scurrying away again. Something just wasn’t right about him.  

Years later, I found out that it had been my own father masquerading as Santa that day. I had been betrayed by own flesh and blood, and at Christmas no less.

The Santa Clause came out that same year – coincidence?

Although that particular experience instilled a very cool, unshakeable distrust in basically everyone and everything around me, it’s also left me deeply sympathetic to working Santas of all kinds. Look, I don’t care how old or how cool you are, if you hit the mall this weekend (wtf are you doing!) and don’t wave at the poor Santa sitting in the sweltering heat, no offence but you are literally a bona fide monster.

That’s someone’s son, someone’s brother, and almost certainly my dad, for god’s sake.

Or, it could even be Chris Parker from Hudson and Halls and Funny Girls, who worked as a mall Santa in Christchurch in his early 20s. “It’s one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever been through,” says Chris “I was far too young to be a Santa.” Forced to don a fat suit with extra padding, Chris’s two year Santa career took him to Riccarton mall, appearances in Harvey Norman and a brief stint in Porirua for what he describes as “the hardest acting gig I’ve ever done in my life.”

Yung Santa

Regan Crummer, also a theatre-maker, juggles Santa jobs in Botany, Pakuranga, MOTAT and at various private Christmas functions. “As a kid, I was obsessed with Santa. I stumbled across a photograph of me the other day as a five year old dressed in a Santa suit, and I used to make videos pretending to be him.” His childhood dream came true a few years ago, when he was asked to play Santa in a community production. He’s being donning the red suit come Christmas time ever since.

Christmas grinches might think a Santa gig is as easy as plonking yourself down in a Look Sharp suit, but transforming into The Big Man is serious business. Bluestone recruitment, the kingpins of the mall Santa trade in New Zealand, run rigorous training sessions every year to ensure their mall Santas are up to standard. “I had to drive to the middle of nowhere and there were maybe 50 old men and me,” says Chris, who was 20 at the time. “One guy had been the St Luke’s Santa for 25 years – he’s a living legend.”

Regan as Santa Claus (not pictured: hearty laugh)

A key part of the training is how to nail Santa’s hearty chuckle. “It comes from deep within your belly,” says Regan. “It’s not so much a ‘ho-ho-ho’ as a ‘hur-hur-hur’.” You are also taught how to respond to tricky questions from youngins in the jet-fuel-can’t-melt-steel-beams camp. Any scepticism around Santa’s physics-defying transportation is to be referred to as “magic”, because you can’t argue with magic, and the cardinal rule is to never, ever, promise gifts to a child. Urban legend tells of a Santa who once promised an Xbox to a kid. Let’s just say he was never seen in the North Pole again.

There are also, as you would expect, incredibly strict guidelines on how Santa Claus should pick up and handle children. Never reach down to a child, instead let them approach you as they feel comfortable. Obviously, no inappropriate touching is allowed because go to jail if so, and Santas must ensure that both of their hands are plainly visible in every single photograph taken. “It’s sort of a bit sad really,” says Regan. “That’s why we wear the white gloves over our hands, so you can always see where they are.”

Chris in full Santa garb modelling white gloves

Once training is complete, two regulation suits are issued (not to keep) along with a lush beard and wig (yours forever), and the hard work begins. “You have to start work in November when absolutely nobody wants a photograph,” says Chris. “I used to sit and watch the sun move across the floor. When it hit a certain tile, I knew that three hours had passed and I could leave.” Not many people know this, but a childless mall is kryptonite to Santa. Just ask Newmarket’s 277 Saint Nick, who famously fell sound asleep on his velvet throne one particularly quiet afternoon.

When the Christmas season kicks off proper, you’d be hard pressed to find time for a sip of water, let alone a snooze. Regan arrives – often on a Rudolph red motorcycle – half an early to get changed, ensuring his real hair is hidden under a hair net and he has enough deodorant, cologne and breath mints to get him through the day. “There’s always a big rush, for the first hour and a half people are just swarming in.” Playing Santa also requires an intense, Daniel Day Lewis-level of focus. “You can’t ever drop the ball,” says Chris, “even when it’s hot and the beard hair is in your mouth.”

Regan takes the stage as Santa Claus

The clientele is a lot more varied than you might expect. In one job, Chris encountered both a four day-old baby (“It still had its hospital tag around its arm. I could feel its bones”) as well as a frazzled mother who was out late-night shopping. “She said to me ‘now listen Santa, I have been lapping the mall up and down. All my daughter wants is a pink whistle and I just can’t find one. I don’t know what to do, I’m at a total loss.’ I just had to say to her [affects a deep Santa voice] ‘Have you tried Stirling Sports?’ She looked so disappointed in me.”

Of course, there are horror stories. “I’ve definitely had my fair share of kids shitting themselves in my hands,” says Chris, and it’s to be expected that majority of younger kids are always going to cry in the picture and try to get away from Santa. “The first six or so times it happened I felt a bit hurt, but after 200 kids you stop caring. If they are one? They’re going to cry. If they are two? They are going to cry. They just don’t really know what’s going on, their parents just handed them over to a strange man to have a photo with, y’know?” 

Not a strange man at all

So yes, you get the screaming children and the sweating and the shitting and the occasional projectile vomit (they have two rotating suits for a reason), but mall Santas also get unparallelled insight into what toys are hot or not each Christmas. This year, Regan reports a high volume of requests for both electric scooters and Lego, but also noted that over half the kids have no idea what they want at all. In Chris’ heyday (2010-2011), at the top of the Christmas wishlist was Zuzu Pets for girls and Ben 10 watches for boys. Oddly, there was only ever that one request for a pink whistle.

Even if our concept of Santa was dreamed up by the Coca-Cola corporation, there’s clearly more to the job than frothing capitalism. “The joy and the smiles are wonderful,” says Regan. “It is a paying job but I wouldn’t care if it didn’t.” Chris particularly felt the significance of the role when working in post-quake Christchurch in 2011. “It really felt like people were leaning harder on Santa to bring a lot of joy that year,” he remembers. “There were a lot of kids worried I wouldn’t be able to get into the house because the chimney fell down. I’d tell them I would use the front door instead.”

Tfw nasty Coke habit

For Regan, his ongoing commitment to the Claus even forced him to stop smoking. “I used to be a chain smoker, but I stopped because it was too hard to disguise the smell in the Santa suit.” The health benefits don’t stop there. If you are looking to inject some PMA (positive mental attitude) into your new year, then maybe consider a future career in the Grotto. “I’m blessed to have the opportunity to do it,” says Regan. “Sometimes you are so hot and wanting to go home, but then that one kid walks up with a big smile and turns your day around.”

“There is something so sweet about talking to kids who don’t have any millennial angst,” says Chris. “They’re just positive beings who radiate joy and hope, and to be surrounded by that constantly was really uplifting – you are reminded of why we bother with Christmas at all.” And if that’s not enough to win over your icicle heart, perhaps the promise of fame will. “When you’re in the suit everyone wants to talk to you, but then you change back into your normal clothes and you’re invisible again.”

“It’s literally like being Hannah Montana, you can be a celebrity and then choose not to be.”

Keep going!