It takes more than a red suit and a booming laugh to truly embody Santa Claus. Just ask four men who have been spreading holiday cheer for decades.
“People think it’s easy, but it’s a tough job,” said Larry Jefferson, 57, a Santa at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., whose commitment to the gig is such that he bleaches his beard and eyebrows year round.
There are steadfast requirements (Make happy memories!) and tricks (Frightened kid? Stand behind them for the photo). But more than anything, Santas must promote love and the spirit of giving, by helping children maintain their belief in the Christmastime symbol, said Tom Valent, 72, who has portrayed Santa since the 1970s. He also runs the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Mich., which has been training St. Nick’s since 1937.
Here are some tips from seasoned Santas for doing the job right.
Find the right suit
They say the clothes make the man and, when it comes to Santas, that is especially true.
“You have to find which Santa portrayal brings out the best in you,” said Allan Siu, 49, who also works at the Mall of America and wears a bright red suit that reminds him of Santas from his childhood.
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Richard Reyes, 71, has worn a red and black zoot suit every December since he saw the 1981 movie named for the garment. His Pancho Claus persona has been called a Tex-Mex Santa. “I wanted to attract kids and that seemed to be the fad right then,” he said of his decision to put his own spin on Kris Kringle. “It really lends itself to the Santa look.”
Stay in character
Children ask tricky questions, and a Santa has to be prepared. At the Charles W. Howard School, Mr. Valent has his students make a toy, stand on a large sleigh and meet reindeer as part of their training so they can draw from firsthand experience when responding to kids’ inquiries. He said it’s helpful to have ready answers about the total elves in your employ (he goes with 886) and their names (Gino, Giuseppe and Spike).
“You’re creating a lifetime memory,” he said. “You’ve got to be on your game.”
People bring Santa their pain. “Show them empathy,” Mr. Siu said. “Show them that they are being listened to.”
Mr. Valent keeps a notebook on him so he can scribble down challenges that are beyond Santa’s control, such as a parental divorce or a sick family member. The important thing, he said, is that the child feels heard — that their feelings and problems are just as worthy of attention as a grown-up’s.
Never promise anything …
What if that promised gift never arrives for the child who has a long memory and visits every year? “Then you’re in trouble, Santa, because they’ll come back to you,” Mr. Valent said.
Better to say, “I’ll see what I can do.”
… but help when able
A boy once told Mr. Jefferson that his family wouldn’t have Christmas because his mother was unemployed. Mr. Jefferson, whose day job at the time was with the Texas Workforce Commission, pulled her aside afterward to offer help finding a job and direct her to places offering free toys. “She starts crying,” he said. “Then I start crying.”
Working Santas are still overwhelmingly white, but that’s changing — much to the delight of children. One boy who visited Mr. Siu to ask for Lego eagerly pointed out that Santa Allan, who is Chinese American, had eyes shaped like his.
“Has anyone told you your eyes are beautiful?” Mr. Siu asked him. “Well, be very proud of your eyes.”
Still, some hold on to a limited idea of what Santa looks like. In 2016, Mr. Jefferson, who is Black, applied to work at a big-box store. The phone interview was going great, he said, until the interviewer asked what his racial background was, and then told him they weren’t interested in hiring any Black Santas at the moment.
“It kind of hurt my heart,” Mr. Jefferson recalled. But he remained determined and, later that year, the Mall of America hired him as their first Black Santa. “It’s not about race,” he said. “Santa Claus can be anybody who has a good heart.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.