Secret Santa: Confessions of a Department Store Santa Claus

Fart guns, screaming parents, and gin-and-tonics.

Santa Claus

Many of the people who play Santa Claus for major department stores are contractually forbidden from talking to the press about their jobs. But we found one department store Santa Claus willing to cross the thin red line, under the condition that we protect his identity. Here, a man who puts on the Santa suit for a popular Philadelphia-area department store for seven hours a day tells us what it’s like to do so in an age of helicopter parents and Xbox One. It’s not easy being Santa.

How does one become a department store Santa Claus?
Well, in my case, you run into someone whose job it is to hire Santas, and they think you’re fat enough to fill the suit. I ran into this guy, and he said, “You’ve got a good Santa face.” At first I had to think about that, whether to take offense. But it’s not an insult. It just means you have rounded cheeks.

Did you have to audition?
They brought me in, I put on the suit, they took a photograph, and then once the photograph got whatever the necessary approval was, and pending a background check, I was in. That was it.

What do you make playing Santa?
$16 an hour, which is higher compensation than a lot of jobs I’ve had. I also get a pretty nice discount on any shopping I do there.

Is the suit as uncomfortable as it looks?
Yes. The suit I’m wearing has multiple parts of padding just to fill it out, and the pants are huge and held on by clasps over the top. My face is covered in fake beard, eyebrows, a mustache. There’s a wig. It’s warm and heavy and awkward.

I’m sure the kids love you, but how does the company treat you?
Like a rock star. When I’m transporting through public areas, there’s usually a security detail of sorts to open doors. And everyone is aware of how warm it is inside the suit, so they’re always there with water. They’re always asking, “Are you OK?” They check in pretty constantly. There’s an element of celebrity to it, if only on a very, very, very, very small scale.

What toys do the kids want this year?
The Furby Boom, though I have no idea what it is. I didn’t even know that Furbies were still a thing. And then there’s the Rainbow Loom, which apparently lets kids take higher-strength rubber bands and turn them into jewelry. Julie and McKenna appear to be the big American Girls this year. And there’s a Nerf crossbow that a lot of young girls are asking for. Whether they know what Hunger Games is or not, they still see the poster on the subway platform. It’s interesting to see the visual imprint that leaves on kids.

What about electronics?
I’m being asked for iPods, Kindle Fire HDX, Xbox One, PS4. And phones. From a very young age, they want phones. I try to dance around it a little bit, since you don’t know what the home situation is like. But you want to keep hope in a kid’s heart.

Any requests that make you wonder what’s going on inside a kid’s head?
Well, a young child just asked for a fart gun. I was also a bit perplexed by “orange bouncy,” but it turns out that an orange bouncy just translates to basketball. I had a 5-year-old ask me for gift cards to nowhere in particular. Just gift cards. From a 5-year-old. I had a kid ask for a washing machine. Another, a lawnmower. Not a toy lawnmower. A real lawnmower.

Are all the kids happy to see Santa?
Well, I have had the Linda Blair-head-turn scream the minute they lay eyes on me, a real shriek of terror. Initially, it was hard not to laugh when that happened.

Tell me about the parents.
When they’re good, they’re great. But for the most part, they are manic and singleminded in trying to get their child to smile, not cry, and stay still for three minutes, and between the ages of one and three, that’s a borderline impossibility. As soon as the parent sees it’s Santa, the parent’s voice goes up, and they yell, “Oh my God, it’s Santa” to the kid. And it scares the kid. The worst is when you have three kids who are friends, and their six parents are in there, and they all have their cameras, iPads and cell phones out trying to get the perfect picture. “Smile, Haddie!” “Jackson, c’mon! Smile!”

Do you wish the parents would just shut up?
Yes, the parents try to run the show. I have a set way of getting through the ask, asking for the list. What good things have they done? Have you done all your homework? Have you eaten all your vegetables? But the parents interrupt and rush it: “Just tell Santa what you want!” I’m trying to make it a more special interaction for the child. But if the parents just want me to say, “What can I get for you?” well, I can do that, too.

I guess after waiting in line for so long, it can be especially stressful.
True. But I am really surprised at how some parents come to the logical conclusion that yelling and screaming at their crying child will make them smile. “I can’t believe you’re doing this right now, of all times!” I understand you’re frustrated, but raising your voice trying to elicit a response of happiness from a child just eludes me. At that point as Santa, there’s nothing you can do.

How do you deal with germs?
I’ve been using hand sanitizer like it was my job and taking Emergen-C every day. But it’s absolutely an incubator.

Be honest: Do the lists wind up in the trash?
I’ve thrown some out. But I save some with the really unique requests. And the hand-drawn pictures.

Do you find yourself drinking more these days with the pressures of playing Santa?
Actually, I drink less because of the adhesive I use to keep my mustache and eyebrows on. One night, I had a couple of gin and tonics and the next day, I realized that whatever was in my sweat that day was affecting the adhesive. The drinks were the only thing different in my routine, so I cut back. I never want to have that moment where the child’s eyes are twinkling, they are feeling Yes, there is a Santa Claus and then my eyebrow falls onto their head.

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