Every November when holiday decorations start to twinkle from street lamps and shop windows, I think about getting my crimson costume out of mothballs and suiting up again. Yes, I was – and still am in many ways – Santa Claus, or a Santa Claus, anyway. Ho ho ho. I'd like to say that I became a professional St. Nick out of Christmas spirit, fondness for children, elfin yearnings or as a writer in pursuit of a good, first-person story. Truth is, as in many tales, it was out of desperation.
My trip to the North Pole started at the turn of this new century as I pushed past my sixth decade on planet Earth. As you may recall, the third millennium's opening act proved a great disappointment all around. No flying cars. George W. Bush, arguably America's worst president and certainly the stupidest, was handed the White house by its conservative crony majority. Horrific terrorist attacks; followed by ginned up wars: We all know the sorry history. At least the millennium bug didn't destroy the economy. That would be the job of Bush and friends.
Ever ahead of the curve, I hit the skids early. The high-flying tech startup where I had been a handsomely salaried, digital content editor with gilded stock options, vaporized with the dot.com implosion when panicky Silicon Valley investors called in their bets.
In decades past, I'd been lucky to have never gone more than a few months between jobs or book contracts. I never got rich, but I got by, thank you. Now, all of a sudden, I was “overqualified” for everything – code for “your white hair is creeping me out. You remind me of my dad. Go away.” Also, you might expect to be paid too much, so go away. Younger faces twitched in tight-lipped discomfort interviewing a white bearded prospect, and smiled as they shook hands. I took to communicating mainly by phone and email and never giving my age.
Well, I could always freelance – except for the publishing trade imploding too, big fish eating all the little ones, transitioning to a digital future that I had thought I was pioneering a scant summer ago.” I had run through what cash I'd saved from my dot.com job trying to make ends meet. I got a part-time gig producing special sections for a weekly rag in Sacramento, California. It was Halloween and I was going as a ghost, figuratively, as I prowled craigslist and other online sites for ghost writing and other freelance assignments.
Christmas was right around the corner. My daughters were grown, my son half grown. What could I put under their trees? A promissory note? One day, I saw an online ad that read: “Real-bearded Santas needed. Good pay....”
I looked myself in the mirror. The once-trim San Francisco denizen who ran six miles a day along the beaches had gone paunchy and gray. The freelance writer's beard I was cultivating had flourished whiter and bushier with passing months. Still, I didn't look anything like those classic St. Nicks on Christmas cards and wrappings and I felt anything but jolly. I wondered if someone really would pay me to clomp around spreading the holiday cheer expected of a self-respecting Santa Claus. I might just as well have offered myself as an Elvis impersonator. In any case, I had thought that playing Santa was all volunteer work, with helpers commuting by sled from the North Pole.
I found the Santa-for-Hire Website and filled out an online application form, though that was still a fairly new thing to do back then. A cheerful voice answered my follow-up call. The company turned out to be a family run affair and one of many theatrical-type agencies who book Santas, I discovered. It thrives to this day from sunny Newport Beach, California, a pricey, oceanside town with which I was well familiar from the L.A. days. “Do you have a Santa suit in good condition? Can you send us some photographs in costume?
I had to scramble. Photogenic, authentic-looking Santa outfits are costly. I combed through thrift shops and costume stores for a reasonably priced, right-sized second-hand one. I put on the suit, applied a bit of clown-white makeup to cover what few gray and black highlights remained in my beard, rouged my cheeks slightly, worked up my most jolly smile, shot and sent in the required photos. The woman followed up with a longer form asking professional and personal details and my okay to do a background check. The agency guaranteed their Santas had been thoroughly vetted. It helped that I listed my improv stage work. Show biz, at last, I mused ruefully, but had to admit that the pay, though seasonal, wasn't bad – anywhere from $200 to $400US an hour, split with the agency, plus travel expenses. My eyes widened, until I learned that most of the appearances wouldn't be more than an hour, some even a half-hour of hand-waving and bell-ringing.
A few more clicks and calls and my rosy-cheeked, white bearded visage showed up on the for-hire website as available for San Francisco Bay Area bookings. The agency identifies its jolly elf impersonators only as “Santa Jim,” “Santa Bill,” “Santa Ted” and so forth. I became the improbable “Santa Umberto.”
There was no Santa workshop, but the agency mailed me a guidebook with pages of dos and don'ts of good Santa protocol. Do smile a lot. Do pay close attention to each child and watch for signals from parents and caregivers. Don't shout “ho ho ho” near a child. It can frighten them. Reserve your ho hos only for entrances and exits. Don't promise the impossible. When a child asks for something out of the ordinary, refer them back to their parents and say Santa will do his best to bring something nice. The prime directive, of course, dictated that Santa must always behave in a kind and exemplary fashion There is a tradition to uphold. It's not just an acting role, this standing in for a saint or at least a meme with a fabled history.
I didn't see that many kids on my first assignments actually. The agency sent me to a series of office holiday parties, then walkabouts at posh stores like Pottery Barn, Crates & Barrel, Bed, Bath & Beyond. I'd rush to my assignment in my aging Ford Taurus sled – sans reindeer, but with droppings – find a back room to change into my Santa outfit, and appear with bells on, then step into a great beyond where folks happily suspended disbelief and addressed me as if really were Kris Kringle. The job took on aspects of a road show, exhilarating and exhausting in its own unheralded way. You play a famous character, but nobody wants to know your name lest it spoil the illusions.
I did appearances seven days a week, most on weekends, crisscrossing San Francisco and the Bay Area. The agency lady coordinated my bookings like an air flight controller, barely allowing travel time between same-day appearances, keeping me sweating it out in my Santa suit on expressways, praying for traffic to move because Santa can't be late. The Santa suit kept me warm outdoors, but proved uncomfortably hot in heated stores under the lights as happy customers and guests lined up for souvenir photos.
The best jobs, however, made the sweat and stage fright worth it. These were the less lucrative, discount appearances at daycare centers, grade schools and neighborhood parties packed with wide-eyed little ones who didn't have to suspend any disbelief because they knew Santa had come. I distributed sacks full of gifts provided in advance by the clients. To stave off feeling completely fraudulent, I started doing charity events gratis, when I could, and showing up in full regalia at the Yuletide family gathering of friends who wanted to wow their little ones.
The season would start the third week in November, just before Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with days of overeating and shopping while Native Americans post reminders of genocide on social media. Thanksgiving blurred into Christmastime. My assignments came quick and fast by the first week in December, nudging me into a surreal identity crisis. People – especially children – would yell hey, Santa at me on the street, even when I was in civilian clothes. Maybe traces of makeup remained, or elfin role-playing. I would give them a soft ho ho ho and wave.
One never knows if the Kris Kringle character in the original 1947 “Miracle on 34th Street” – staring the late Maureen O'Hara, Natalie Wood and a deliciously elfin Edmund Gwenn – is the real Santa Claus or a delusional old man, or an elderly eccentric channeling a beneficent spirit through the magic of an over-active imagination. I hadn't thought about the classic film, nor seen one of its several inferior remakes in years. I've never been a religious man. Yuletide decorations and carols cheer me through otherwise drab Decembers, but Christmas had become more a time of stress than celebration over the years as my own children passed from sweet innocence into adolescence and constructs of their own. Ho ho ho. Now, all of a sudden, I appreciated the Edmund Gwenn movie on a deeper level. Playing Santa wasn't just about making a quick buck anymore. My habitually reclusive writer self became a public persona interacting, one-on-one with scores of people every day, who light up, tease, cheer, chat and might just about anything to Santa.
Maybe I was getting delusional, but as a writer I'm always interested in seeing where delusions will go and hoping my sanity safety line doesn't break. “Oh, Christmas isn't just a day; it's a frame of mind,” says actor Gwenn's Kris Kringle character in the movie. Perhaps, like the Edmund Gwenn character, I might be obliviously crackers. I'd never been far from that state. Though I had to suspend any pretense of writing during what became a frantic four weeks, I realized that I was still spinning narratives in my frazzled brain. Writers can't stop telling themselves stories.
As with most pursuits, the Santa trade has a pecking order. At the bottom of the food chain are the fake-bearded Santas in ill-fitting costumes with padded bellies collecting for the Salvation Army on street corners, bless them, or dressing up for their little ones on Christmas Eve. Next come real-bearded Santas in well-crafted costumes playing public events and posing for photos – in which I found myself through the agency. Atop them sit the shopping mall and department store Santas – true-bearded in tailored, fully accessorized velvety suits, black leather boots and white gloves – holding audiences for hundreds of little ones lining up with their parents, cameras and credit cards at the ready.
Fast forward to my third Santa season. I had the hang of it by now, perfectly happy to go back on the holiday party circuit again. The woman from the agency phoned early one morning. She sounded stressed. “You want to play Santa at Macy's?”
“Sure. What day?”
“For a month. Morning shifts, from the day before Thanksgiving to Christmas eve, seven days a week. It's rough, but the pay is good.” She was referring to San Francisco's posh downtown Macy's department store adjoining Union Square, catty corner from the St. Francis Hotel. I was living in the East Bay at the time and would have to take the BART tube under the bay to the Union Square stop every morning. Driving was out of the question unless I wanted to spend half my fees on parking.
I sat back. Department stores like Macy's don't engage their own Santas, as a rule nowadays. They hire concessionaires to run their Santa operations, sell photos and souvenirs, provide the decorations, cameras, signs and the Santas themselves, usually at a lower hourly pay scale than freelancers, but certainly with more cache. “What's the deal?” I asked.
She let out a mirthful breath. “They lost one of their two Santas and don't have time to find another, so they called the agency.” She didn't have to add that agency, sensing distress, responded with a high quote. The concession's day shift St. Nick, one “Santa Bob,” I later learned, had violated the prime directive. He had shown up drunk at a pre-season dinner party for Macy execs and buyers and disgraced himself by playing grab-ass with a female vice president. Wow! I thought, just like in those old musicals where the leading lady breaks a leg and stand-in Ruby Keeler gets to be a star.
Better yet, it was like “Miracle on 34th Street,” except for being in San Francisco instead of the original Macy's in Manhattan.
“Sure!” I said, not realizing the adventure on which I was embarking – experiences I was later to incorporate into my novella, “Milagro on 34th Street,” whose 2nd ebook edition and new soft cover print edition was released this week for the 2015 holiday season.
(… to be continued on my next Authors Electric blog, December 3. Happy holidays to all!)
Umberto Tosi is author of Milagro on 34th Street, a holiday novella about a burned out department store Santa who must conjure his elfin spirit when a little girl asks him to save her mother from deportation – a retelling of the classic film story with a modern twist. Holiday season royalties from this novella will be donated to the nonprofit National Immigrant Justice Center Heartland Alliance Program. Umberto Tosi also authored Ophelia Rising, an historical novel about the life of Shakespeare's fair maid before and after Hamlet.