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Confessions of a Mall Santa

Chubby children aside, there’s a lot of weight on the lap of a shopping mall Santa.

Encased in fur and velvet, cinched into gut-crushing belts and boots that don’t breathe, these rock stars of the holiday stage not only have to hawk overpriced 8x10s. They bear the burden of keeping the season’s magic alive for hundreds of increasingly incredulous youngsters. One tug on that gleaming white wig could be all it takes to convince them that holiday wishes are for patsies. One harsh word aimed at an incompetent elf could Dasher their hopes forever. Blitzen them, even.

Who are the brave men who accept this challenge year after year? And what, with all due respect, could they possibly be thinking? I did some in-depth research this week (can I just say, how cool is this job?) and discovered there are three basic types of Santa stand-ins.

The Old Softie.

In the half dozen years that Leonard Atkins played Santa at La Cumbre Mall, he worked his sleigh-sittin’ fanny off. The job didn’t pay much, and required him to work almost every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He wrangled wailing toddlers. He kneeled on the ground to pose for photos with dogs. And he wasn’t allowed to use the closest men’s room, at Sears.

“It would be awkward if a kid came in and here’s Santa going potty,” explained the Santa Barbara grandpa, now 80. Still, the musician, substitute teacher, and member of the city’s Fire and Police Commission says playing Santa is the best job he ever had, thanks to the kids whose faces went sparkly at the sight of him.

“There was a girl about seven years old who spotted me outside of Sears one year,” says Atkins, whose sing-song speech is punctuated with high-pitched giggles. “She came running at me, took a flying leap, put her arms around my neck, and I got the best hug. I just wanted to tell her mama, ‘Give this young lady anything she wants for Christmas!'”

The Consummate Professional.

Flying reindeer and sugarplums notwithstanding, Riverside resident Tim Connaghan takes his role as Father Christmas quite seriously. He takes meticulous care of his naturally white beard all year long and goes on scouting missions to Toys R Us to keep up on the season’s hottest toys. Even on the phone, he sounds exactly like St. Nick, if St. Nick were Gary Owens. The license plate on his truck says “Santa” and he wears a ring with the initials AORBS carved on the side: Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.

As president of the group, he organizes workshops for hundreds of Santa impersonators nationwide. One is on the proper care and bleaching of beards. Another is called “You Are an Artist: Act & Think Like One.” He advises fellow Kirs Kringles on how to avoid back strain while hoisting 100-pound kiddies, and how to stave off a virus when you’re being repeatedly sneezed on. After 38 years, the 58-year-old is making a living shaking his sleigh bells at parades, parties and photo ops.

“I’m putting a daughter through college,” he says.

The Reluctant Red Elf.

My favorite faux ho-ho-er is the one who gets roped into it because the costume has been rented and, well, someone’s got to do it. A former colleague of mine was coerced into the red suit for a company party one year. He had the flu, his wig was unruly, and his glasses fogged up as he was reading The Polar Express to a group of dubious looking children.

He had these bon mots to offer other poor saps who get duped into donning a strap-on belly and answering to incredulous kids: “Turn it back on the little snot-nosed skeptics,” he advises, “so they have to ask themselves if they really want to take the chance of calling Santa’s bluff.”

A simple “So many believing children, so few toys” will do the trick nicely, he says. “As with most big philosophical questions in life, self-interest in the end usually will carry the day.”

Published inColumnsParenting
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