In episode four of Get It to Te Papa, a Lightbox Original made by The Spinoff, Hayden Donnell goes on the hunt for Auckland’s infamous winking, come-hithering Giant Santa.
As we headed in to interview Mayor Phil Goff for this episode, a call came through to our producer Amber. It was the communications spokeswoman for Heart of the City, the central city business organisation that owns Auckland’s Giant Santa. She wanted to know why we were still pursuing Santa. Her organisation’s chief executive had turned down an interview on Santa. She thought that would be the end of the matter. That we’d drop the case and pick another subject. Amber explained that Santa still mattered to us. We wanted him to be a part of the show. Then the spokeswoman dropped a bombshell: She knew what we were doing. She knew we were about to interview the mayor. There were eyes on us inside council. We’d been asking too many questions about the Santa, and people were starting to take notice.
Things had started out so well. Auckland’s Giant Santa is a unifying landmark, and finding people with a connection to him is easy. He’s remarkable, mainly because he’s both an overbearing, obvious presence, and a bizarre mystery. Why does he exist? Even if you could find the precise series of decisions that lead to its creation, you could never recapture the inexplicable mindset that led scores of otherwise normal working professionals to craft a Santa twice the size of a humpback whale.
It’s now been 58 years since the Giant Santa was first erected on the Farmers building on Hobson Street in central Auckland. Like several of the artifacts in Get It to Te Papa, he has woven his way into New Zealand’s cultural fabric through sheer resilience. At first he would have been an attraction. Then a curiosity. Now he feels like part of Christmas itself in Auckland, as if the festive season will not arrive without a giant Santa beckoning it in. He has been in our collective life for so long, he’s become part of the city: familiar as the Sky Tower; eternal as Rangitoto.
Still, many of the people we interviewed had mixed feelings about him. Masterton resident Marama Fox told me the Santa was “shit”. Wellingtonian creative Toby Manhire dripped with scorn. Even many Aucklanders had mixed feelings. They remembered Santa’s iconic winking eye and beckoning finger – both of which were removed in a 2009 renovation – with a degree of suspicion and even, in some cases, fear. Comedian Michele A’Court said the beckoning finger was creepy. She was glad it was gone. So were Spinoff writers Alex Casey and Leonie Hayden. They performed impressions of Santa’s slow wink and “come hither” finger, laughing unkindly.
But there was one group who still showered Santa with uncomplicated, unmitigated love: middle-aged white men from Auckland. When they saw Santa, it was with the innocent eyes of a child. They never projected adult angst upon him, refusing to concede he was ever “creepy”.
Stephen Hanford, who bought Santa for $1 and met the challenge of erecting him when Farmers refused to in 1998, was filled to the brim with affection for Santa. In many situations you could mistake him for another dry businessman, but as soon as he talked about Santa, his eyes lit up like he was talking about an old friend. Hanford was genuinely hurt by the accusations of creepiness. “They don’t believe in the spirit of Santa,” he said, angry and incredulous.
Gary Young, construction manager at Mansons Property Developers, was less demonstrative, but still clearly touched by Santa. His company shoulders the annual cost of storing and erecting this mammoth Christmas landmark. He said they were doing it so that people could revisit their Santa memories, and so they could take their kids to the city to create new ones. “We think we’re doing the right thing here.”
Santa was innocent. Santa was pure. You had to believe in Santa. If you couldn’t believe in Santa, what could you believe in?
Why then was Santa causing us so much angst inside Mayor Phil Goff’s office? It’s something I’ve never resolved. Maybe the answer is entwined with the weird case of Alex Swney. The former Heart of the City chief executive was convicted in 2015 of swindling the organisation out of $2.5 million, which he did partly by creating false or exaggerated invoices.
Swney put the cost of storing Santa in the non-festive season at $180,000 per year in 2014. A reliable source told me the actual cost of storing Santa now amounts to only half the figure quoted by Swney. Could Santa have been at the centre of some economic mismanagement?
Maybe the answer is a little more simple though: Santa is at risk. He has been at risk, on and off, for decades. He’s huge. Storing him 11 months a year is a big ask. Putting him up is a big logistical and economic challenge. At the moment, that cost is met by Mansons – but is it reasonable to expect a private company to shoulder the burden alone?
The truth is Santa belongs to every Aucklander. He has winked his way into all of our hearts, and reassured us all that Christmas is on its way for more than 50 years. Surely it’s time for Aucklanders to repay the favour, and jointly take on the cost of ensuring Santa lives on forever.
Read more about Get It to Te Papa and its genesis in Hayden Donnell’s brain right here.
Get It to Te Papa is a Lightbox Original, made by The Spinoff. Episodes 1 – 4 are streaming now on Lightbox.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.