Will the real Santa please stand up?

A day in the life of Mr. Claus

By Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin

 

 

THE BEGINNINGS

It’s not every sunny October afternoon you get to sit down with Santa Claus; that sort of thing is usually reserved for the frenzied days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But this lucky writer got to meet and chat with not one but several Santas in preparation for this exposé on the story behind the Claus.

As I walked into the coffee shop to meet my first Santa, I felt a familiar twinge of uncertainty that tends to strike when entering a situation sight unseen. But when Santa John Kern, Downtown Dayton Partnership’s (DDP’s) go-to guy for the Tike Shop and Dayton Children’s Parade, turned and smiled at me, I felt as much at home as I ever have.

“Santa!” I cried, before I could help myself. Although he sat in everyday attire, there was an unmistakable twinkle and jolliness about him. Without too much how-do-you-do, I found this was a man filled with patience, acceptance and light, and his whole nature makes you feel so darn good about yourself. And all this even without the red suit and reindeer!

Santa John has been in the business for 22 years, getting his start at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church (now Saint Peter’s).

“They had a Christmas Bazaar, and I played Santa for them,” he says. “They had me a suit and everything. I says to my wife, I says, ‘You know, this works out pretty good. Maybe I should invest in a suit and get some business cards.’”

So that was exactly what he did, working private home, schools and parties. Six years ago Santa John landed the gig with DDP. Now, hundreds of families see him as they enjoy the downtown festivities. Santa John is part of a vast community of Santas around the world, the folklore of which stretches back generations.

“The men who portray the role of Santa are the storytellers, the tradition keepers, the holders of the secret of Santa for children everywhere,” explained Santa Gordon who began his Santa career following a motorcycle accident in 1980.

“We (Santas) are the luckiest people I know,” says Triangle Santa, a Santa from down south. “In the Santa World we have a saying: ‘One does not choose to be Santa, Santa chooses you!’ I don’t know of anyone that woke up one day and says, ‘Hey, I think I will be a Santa Claus.’ It just doesn’t happen that way.”

 

THE LOOK

Demeanor goes a long way, but you must have certain things in place to keep up the Santa mythos.

 

Beard

Nothing gets quite the attention that wearing a big, white beard does, so it must be in order.

“I am now a ‘Real Beard Santa,’ but my first 15 years I was a ‘Traditional Beard Santa,’” says Santa Gordon.

Some Santas have a hybrid approach, dying their natural beard to a more … distinguished hue.

“I used to dye mine, but now I don’t have to,” Santa Rick smiled. Rick and Robin Heaberlin, also known as Santa and Mrs. Claus of the Miamisburg Holiday Parade, have been spreading Christmas cheer for more than a decade, mostly at private parties.

“Long hair and a long natural beard are a ton of work,” says Triangle Santa. “You wouldn’t believe the hair care products I go through. It now takes me longer to get ready to go outside the house than my wife. Even when it’s off-season everything has to be perfectly groomed. […] Sometimes, even without wearing red, a little one will recognize me. Can’t have Santa looking like a hillbilly can we?”

 

Ensemble

You have the beard under control, now you need the trademark suit. Every Santa has his own signature flair.

“I have many custom made items that help with the authenticity of my appearance,” says Santa Allen, who got his start at his company’s Christmas party handing out gifts and bonuses and entertaining. “From my one-of-a-kind real boots and belt to sleigh bells straps that I personally made in my workshop, I work all year to make sure that I am the best Santa Claus that I can be.”

If you think one suit will be enough, you are unfortunately mistaken.

“Doing as many appearances as I do, it became apparent that one suit wouldn’t do the job,” says Triangle Santa. “I also knew that if I was going to represent one of the greatest legends of our time, Santa Claus, well … a cheap costume wasn’t going to cut it.”

Triangle Santa had his first outfit made by Adele’s of Hollywood, one of the best suit makers in the business.

“Maybe doing hospital work is what sparked this concern,” says Triangle Santa. “Children in the hospital are in the last place they want to be at Christmas. I was their Santa, the Santa, and by golly they were going to have the best Santa Claus I could possibly be. […] By the time I went to that hospital the very first time I had my Adele suit, real black leather boots, a real leather belt, and a set of custom sleigh bells for my hand, antique glasses made with gold frames from the 1800’s. Why if I do say so myself, I looked pretty sharp.”

His wardrobe has grown over the years.

“I now own five full suits, 30 or 40 special shirts, a dozen or so vests, three pairs of boots, six belts, etc. […] I’m sure you get the idea. Typically, when I go out in full suit I’m wearing about $1,500 to $4,000 in costuming.”

 

THE SKILLS

 

Laughter

“One of my favorites is teaching how to laugh like Santa Claus,” says Santa Allen. “I get everyone to stand up and go over the three basic things that make a great Santa laugh. I have heard from mothers that their children show schoolmates and relatives how to laugh like Santa weeks after I taught them.”

 

Storytelling

“Stories are what make it real for the children,” says Triangle Santa. “I absolutely love telling stories.”

He includes prop-making as an integral part of his storytelling.

“If one uses fairy dust then why wouldn’t one have fairy dust to show the children?” says Triangle Santa. “If you tell a story about any one thing, well then you had better have that one thing to show.”

 

Improvising

Improvising is what this writer has chosen to call “lying through your teeth.”

When I asked Santa Rick what Santa-specific skills he’s gained over the years, without hesitation he heartily laughed as told me, “I can look at a kid and lie to him so good. You just have to be on your toes with the kids. Kids will ask you some of the craziest things, or they’ll ask you for things like puppies, kittens. They ask you for one of those things, you know you can’t promise them you’re going to get them.”

So how does a Santa handle the inevitable puppy request?

“If you can’t catch [a parent’s] eye real quick—because you’ve got to respond now—so if the parents aren’t paying attention and they didn’t catch it and didn’t give you a head bob one way or the other, you have to go in and explain to them, ‘Look, you’re talking about a live animal. Live animals on the sled are dangerous. They can cause problems. Toys don’t cause problems, but live animals do,’” says Santa Rick. He continues, “I have found in the past that I have to talk to parents about live animals. If your parents are willing to let you, there’s a good chance that you will have one. But if your parents aren’t in a position to have an animal at their house or a yard big enough for them, then I can’t say I’m going to bring you one of those because it’d be bad for the animal. And they go along with that pretty well.”

Avoiding false promises is a language of its own.

“I don’t promise them the world, you know,” says Santa John. “I try to say, ‘Hey, be thankful for what you get.’”

 

Voice and Stage Presence

“You have to know how to make an entrance, how to be larger than life,” says Triangle Santa. “Yet you have to be able to read children and know when to be soft spoken so as not to frighten a child. Santa’s voice is very important.”

 

Performing

“I pride myself as being a Santa Claus performer and not just a ‘guy in a Santa suit,’” says Santa Allen. “I have a unique first-person version of T’was the Night Before Christmas and perform it as well as some great interactive games that children and adults love.”

 

Literacy in Child Psychology

Triangle Santa can’t stress the importance of literacy in child psychology enough. “The entire reason for being Santa Claus is for the children so make sure that you learn everything you can about them,” He says. “Study their toys, study their questions. Know what works with sick children in the hospital. Study autistic disorders and find out as much as you can.”

We’ve all witnessed the terrified child tearfully enduring a forced pose with Santa. Time is the key to avoiding such a situation and instead accomplishing a pleasant exchange (and perhaps a few photos).

“If you give me time, a couple of minutes to talk with them, we can get there,” Santa Rick says.

Santa Rick recalled a young girl, Laura, with muscular dystrophy. She refused to go to a mall Santa, but given time with Santa Rick, Laura crawled to his lap on her own. “Then I about couldn’t get her off of there,” Santa Rick says, with what maybe looked like a tear.

 

Patience

“I just learn to be patient and to be kind,” says Santa John.

 

THE SCHOOLING

While becoming Santa does require a certain inherent jolliness and knack for merriment, formal schooling exists and is not limited to locations at the North Pole.

The world’s oldest Santa Claus school was founded by Charles W. Howard in 1937 and is located in Midland, Michigan. Students learn about capturing the Spirit of Santa Claus including proper dress, Santa Sign Language, live reindeer habits and the history of Saint Nicholas.

It was Howard who once observed: “He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.”

Triangle Santa recalls an important lesson he learned from Tom Valent, dean of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School: “[He] once told me that a child will remember their visit with Santa forever. Think about that! They will remember forever! That’s a huge responsibility.”

Conferences and conventions offer year-round opportunities for Santas to learn the latest. Santa Gordon gave more than a decade’s worth of lectures at regional, national and international before starting his own school, Santa and the Business of Being Santa, in 2014.

And the more one learns, the more can be shared with others, allowing the spreading of joy to extend past one Santa’s reach and transcend generations of Santas.

“What I love the most is being Santa for the children, but what I love next is teaching other Santas the things I do,” says Triangle Santa. “I can only see so many children a year. I am almost at my max and can’t see many more. But every time I share a really cool idea or teach a technique to another Santa, I know that I’m spreading something magical that all the children that come in contact with that Santa will experience, and I’m a small part of that.”

 

THE SANTA COMMUNITY

Organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas and the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas also foster a primo Santa community with agreed upon goals such as endeavoring to “foster the spirit of Christmas and the love of children” and a pledge to “help each other in the best interest of serving children and the community.” There is an agreement to maintain the Santa persona and to recommend fellow Santas for engagements they cannot attend. These organizations knit a useful and memorable collective.

Santa Gordon remembers attending the first Discover Santa convention in Branson, Missouri, in 2006.

“That whole event was very special for so many Santas,” he recalls. “[Next year] will see the 10-year reunion of that event, and I hope to be there.”

Locally, Santa Tim is one of 12 founding members of The Buckeye Santas, a group which has grown to more than 100 members since its founding in 2007.

“We are a group of like-minded individuals who get together to fellowship, share ideas, help train fellow Santas and have a few good laughs together and share a meal once a month,” says Santa Tim.

 

THE RETURN

While mostly about spreading holiday cheer, there is the return on a Santa’s investment to be considered, and that often comes in the form of heart-touching interactions with overjoyed souls.

“It’s very heartwarming,” Rick says.

“You actually get more joy from it than you give, I think,” Robin says.

“Some of the kids, they always are so thankful just because they have family,” says Santa John. “Some of them don’t want anything.”

“I carried in two bags of gifts for this little girl, and all she wanted to do was talk to Santa Claus,” Santa Rick recalled. “That was the only wish she had in life. She wanted to visit with Santa Claus. There is a lot of joy.”

“Any time I get to interact with grandparents or ‘older children,’ I especially enjoy it,” says Santa Allen. “You can almost see them relive Christmases from the past when you talk about their favorite toy they received from Santa so many years ago. The warmth and gentleness they give off is fun to be part of.”

And for those looking to get into the Santa ring, Santa Tim has these words: “I think what I can tell you is that you should just keep doing your very best and treat people the way you want them to treat you, and everything else will work its way out for you.”

Sage advice for all seasons.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin at JenniferHanauerLumpkin@DaytonCityPaper.com. To read more from Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin, visit her website at jennerlumpkin.com.

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About Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin

View all posts by Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin
Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin
Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin is a writer and amateur cartographer living in Dayton, Ohio. She has been a member of PUSH (Professionals United for Sexual Health) since 2012 and is currently serving as Chair. She can be reached at JenniferHanauerLumpkin@DaytonCityPaper.com or through her website at jennerlumpkin.com.

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