New year, new beginnings. But I'm starting to see this time of year as an ending — the annual end to my gig as a mall Santa.
2013 was my second year playing jolly old Saint Nick at a small but popular shopping district in the San Gabriel Valley. Believe it or not, I found the job through Craigslist.
I'd assumed some veteran character-actor type would get the part‚ someone who had loads of minor performing credentials and could Method-act his way into "becoming" Santa.
I had much less experience; I make my living working on a website. But I do have kindly blue eyes, and I fit the costume, so take that, long-form improv-actor pros.
I called the number in the ad, and the man on the other end of the phone asked me a few questions, like whether I had any acting experience. I didn't, but after a brief meeting, the job was mine.
I guess he liked me, which turned out to be key: The man doing the hiring was also the photographer and would need to work with me the entire time.
Technically, there's not much to being Santa Claus. You have to affect a sort of older, grumbly voice. You also need to follow a script that deals with both children and adults, with the main questions being "Have you been good?" and "What do you want for Christmas?" Wave at every person in eyeshot. Say "Ho ho ho!" every now and then, and bellow, "Merry Christmas!"
But along with the standard routine, there are a few major challenges, like stamina. That grumbly voice? Easy enough for one sentence, but Santa has to maintain it for hours. Plus the Santa suit can get extremely warm, and sitting in the same spot for as many as 12 hours does a number on your body‚ as does being tugged, hugged, squished and squeezed by hundreds of strangers.
Patience and composure help. It's also useful to remember the No. 1 rule of being Santa: Whenever you're in that red suit, you never stop being Santa. This can become difficult when a gaggle of drunk women tries to simulate sex acts with you, or when a heavyset man in drag wants to take your picture as part of a scavenger hunt. (Yes, both have happened to me.)
When people ask me what it's like playing Santa, I always say that it simultaneously destroys and builds up your view of humanity. Occasionally the kids blow my mind, and not in a good way. A surprising number of children ask for expensive electronics like the iPad Air, at which point I usually try to get a hint from the parent if the gift is possible. More often than not, I just say I make toys and don't know much about technology, because after all, Santa is old. I'm not sure what a 6-year-old wants with a smartphone, iPad or fancy computer, anyway, but whatever.
A lot of kids also ask for pets, which is understandable. I tend to respond, "No, a puppy wouldn't fare too well in a flying sleigh." But once a girl asked for a horse, and before I could deliver my usual response, the parent whispered that her child was indeed getting a horse for Christmas. I told the kid that my elves were working on a special equine sleigh that might be able to bring her the gift of her dreams, which means some kid out there actually got a pony for Christmas.
But the children usually are nowhere near as obnoxious as some adults. When my photographer informed a well-dressed lady that she had to pay $10 for pictures of her kid with Santa, she shrieked, "Santa's a capitalist!" before dragging her child and his $200 skateboard away. I assumed she meant one of those fat cats on Wall Street, or the CEO of some incredibly wealthy corporation that tramples on the rights of workers and outsources production to cheap labor in China.
The truth is, this Santa dodges credit-card collectors, and his annual income is below the national poverty level.
If Santa truly existed, I'd bet a good 90 percent of L.A.'s adult population would be getting coal in their stockings. But I couldn't tell the woman any of this, because I was too busy being Santa, working for a nominal hourly wage, plus tips.
I try not to dwell on the negatives, because the best part of the job really is the joy Santa brings to people. Like the kids who stare at you wide-eyed in wonder and truly believe that you're Santa Claus. Sometimes they're so starstruck that they completely forget what they want for Christmas. That's when I suggest boring items such as a bag of carrots, a jar of rocks, a loaf of dirt and so on. With those lousy prospects, the kids generally come up with something good fairly quickly.
But it's not just about the joy you bring to others. For me, playing Santa is also about the delight I get from the whole experience, because I manage to entertain myself in ways I never expect.
Take the time a kid asked me the question I had been dreading all year: "What are the names of Santa's reindeer?" I, of course, never bothered to learn, so I blurted out, "Richard Donner, Blitzkrieg, Scuba Steve, Ultravixen, Bruce Mandaro, Zoolander, Hormel and Rudolph." I don't think that's even the correct number, but the child seemed satisfied. Bullet, dodged.
And that's just it: In the end, my role as Santa is to maintain a sense of jolly dignity in the face of holiday madness. I'm a respite from the sales racks, the jostling shoppers and the Salvation Army solicitors.
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Aching ass aside, I'd definitely do it again next year — if they'll have me.
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