Pulling Santa’s beard: Reporter reflects on role as local St. Nick
By Steve Lord slord@ stmedia network.com January 5, 2013 9:18PM
Mayor Kevin Burns of Geneva introduces Mr. Clause during Geneva's Annual Holiday Celebration in Geneva, IL on Friday, December 07, 2012 | Sean King~For Sun-Times Media
What kids want
So what did Fox Valley kids really, really want this Christmas?
The most popular things asked for: Legos; American Girl dolls; video games and gaming systems; electronics, such as tablets and phones; pets (dogs, cats, horses, ponies, a turtle and a hamster).
The most unusual things asked for: garbage trucks (toys, not the real thing, I’m pretty sure); bringing back a relative; coal; world peace
The most classics asked for: Barbie dolls (yep, still a favorite); My Little Pony; E-Z Bake Ovens (I had no idea they were still being made).
One little boy handed me a list with “lots of candy” topping it. The second item? A new toothbrush.
There were plenty of kids who asked for new cars for their parents, or toys for their brothers or sisters. One girl told me it didn’t matter what I brought her: She was going to give it all to the poor.
Many asked what kind of cookies I like so they could leave them out for me on Christmas Eve, and many more took the time to draw and color pictures for Santa.
I cannot tell you how many kids said “please” before they asked for their presents, and almost every person said thank you when they were done. And despite the seemingly long shifts and endless lines of kids, parents and other adults, the crying babies and the children terrified of meeting Santa, the enduring memories I have will be of politeness, and children running toward me, arms stretched out, as I described before.
The toughest day was the Friday of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. That night, I looked at hundreds of kids about the same ages as those senselessly taken, smiling at me with innocent trusting faces. I had to work extra hard to be Santa that night. But I was determined, because I realized that for those young believers, the window is small, the time is short, to have some real magic in their lives.
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:11AM
It is etched in my mind.
A girl, about 5 or 6 years old, running toward me, in slow motion, her arms wide open, her lips in a wide smile, her young, clear eyes sparkling.
It ends with her reaching me, her small frame pushing against me, her face pushing up against the length of my beard, her short arms trying to get all the way around me in a resounding hug.
It is a pure moment of love and happiness, of innocence and joy, and perhaps the defining moment of my three-week stint as Santa Claus for one of our local communities.
It started with an e-mail from the local Chamber of Commerce, where many of the employees know me through my work in community theater. As a sometimes-actor, surely I would be able to be Santa Claus for a limited, three-week engagement, two and three hours at a time.
At age 57, I have plenty of memories of Santa. In fact, I would hope people consider me one who keeps the spirit of Santa and Christmas alive, all the time. But this stint reminded me of the iconic way a small child holds Santa Claus, the shock and awe with which a child approaches the Jolly Old Elf, even if it is simply seeing him come across a parking lot or walking down the street.
She was the sweetest little girl, maybe 6, sitting on my knee with a big smile. Some five feet away, her mother was down on one knee, focusing her cell phone video camera on us, ready to capture that moment when her daughter and Santa get to have a conversation.
I asked her name, and then what she wanted for Christmas.
“Uuuuhhh …” she said, twisting and turning as only children do, “… underwear.”
I shot a glance toward mom, who had a resigned smile as she buried her face in her hand.
My first night as Santa included a non-stop, solid line of kids of all ages and size from about 6:45 to 10 p.m. I was exhausted. When Mrs. Claus finally said, “OK, we’re done,” shut the door and turned the deadbolt, I sighed and said “Thank God” under my breath.
Underneath the Santa suit, I was drenched. It was not just the suit, and the relatively warm evening, but the three solid hours of adrenalin brought on by being tense and “in character,” if you will, for all that time. It was like performing opening night of a brand new play with an audience filled with all the world’s top critics and reviewers. I had to be on — really on — for the entire night.
In many ways, being Santa was the most responsibility I’ve ever had. I know, that sounds like a weird thing to say considering I’ve covered governors, senators, mayors, county board chairmen and even met two presidents in my time as a news reporter and editor. And I’ve been married, paid a mortgage and raised three of my own children, a daily responsibility for 27 years and counting now.
But being Santa, I had to watch every word I said or heard. One wrong move or word could be a childhood trauma — and it’s not even my own child I’m messing up.
My training was unofficial and brief. Rule Number One was, don’t promise the kids anything. Rule Number Two was, well, see Rule Number One. Even if the child asks for something simple — like underwear — do not promise it.
Eventually, I got good at sounding excited at whatever a child asked for, no matter what, without promising.
For instance: Santa: “And what do you want for Christmas?” Child: “Legos” Santa: “Oh, those are cool. Do you like to build things?”
Often, I would shoot a glance at the parents to see if I got a reaction. For the most part, the parent already knew what the child was going to ask for. But there were surprises. More than once, the child blurted something out, and the parent said, “What?!” One child asked for something — I forget what — and when I glanced at the mother, she was shaking her head back and forth violently. Those were good cues to back off.
One child asked for an iPhone, and the mother, smiling, said, “Don’t you think he’s a little young for a phone, Santa?” I didn’t need to get hit over the head on that one.
Upon further reflection, perhaps Rule Number Two is, the parent is always right.
The beard puller
When the boy, maybe 7 or 8, sat on my knee, he had a mischievous grin on his face that suggested he could be on the cusp of being a believer, that maybe he was wavering, and had something planned to satisfy his growing curiosity about Santa Claus.
That should have tipped me off, but this was my first night, and I still was not picking up on all the signs.
When he finished, the boy hopped off my lap, stood smiling at me for a moment, then said, “Sorry, Santa, but I have to do this.” Then he said, “beard check,” as he simultaneously pulled at my ample but fake beard. I grabbed the beard and put it quickly back into place, and the boy’s mother pushed him quickly out the back door. As she pushed him, I could hear him saying, “but it was fake, Mom, it was fake …”
The postscript is that the same boy came back about a week later. When he sat on my knee, I recognized the grin. This time I was ready for him. “Do you remember me?” he asked. I answered, firmly, “Yes I do.”
This time there was no incident, and I decided he was hedging his bets, just in case Santa turned out to be real and was bringing some coal his way.
Good suit a must
I began Santa with scant preparation, but a really good Santa suit. The outfit is more than half the battle. There’s an old story among actors about Jack Nicholson giving advice to Michael Keaton on the set of the original Batman movie, which ends with Nicholson saying, “You know, sometimes you just have to let the costume do the acting.”
That’s how I felt about Santa. All I had to do was add a little character.
The story of Santa is the story of Santa, but it’s always been a little short on details. We know reindeer can fly, but HOW do they fly? We know elves make the things they bring kids, but just what do they make? Can they make electronics (phones, pads, laptops, computers, gaming systems)?
Think of any detail you would forget, and some kid asked about it. So, the story of Santa — at least this Santa — unfolded as the days wore on. Sometimes, I thought about it ahead of time, but sometimes I had to think on my feet.
The way I described being able to deliver to the whole world in one night was to say it’s not nighttime throughout the whole world at the same time, so I just follow the earth’s natural turning on its axis. I got so good at the explanation that I almost convinced myself it was possible.
An assistant — like St. Nicks’s loyal wife — is also helpful in providing plenty of backstory. For instance, I didn’t know Santa had 25,000 elves with a head elf named Bernard.
Mrs. Claus also had answers for difficult questions, like what to say when a child didn’t know what he or she wanted.
I guess that’s Rule Number Three: get a good Mrs. Claus.