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Ho! Ho! Is More Like Uh-Oh

Times Staff Writer

Some days, the fat man just wants the fat lady to sing.

He wishes the holiday season would end already. His back aches, his red suit feels like a spacesuit, his cheeks have gone numb from smiling for 12 hours -- and still the kids keep coming and coming, like ants at a picnic.

“When the last gig of the season is finito,” says Victor Nevada, 61, a professional Santa Claus in Calgary, Canada, “I have a bottle of rye whiskey and some Diet Coke by the bed, and a couple of novels, and I’ll phone in for pizza, and I won’t get out of bed for two days, and if I don’t see another child again till next Christmas -- that’s OK with me.”

It didn’t used to be this way. For a century or so, being Santa was something like being a golfer on the senior tour -- a leisurely, seasonal pastime for men of a certain age and genteel demeanor. But being Santa has changed dramatically in the last few years, say Santas across the U.S. and Canada. More taxing, more complicated, the job now comes with grueling hours and hidden pressures.

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As Christmas becomes more commercialized, so must Santa. As the holiday begins earlier each year, so must its spokesman and standard-bearer. What used to be a three-week gig has become a two-month grind, from the day after Halloween to New Year’s. Often you answer to three equally demanding bosses -- the parent, the mall, the photographer -- and one all-powerful overseer, the child, who has come to view Santa as a cross between a birthday party clown and a miracle worker. A hybrid of Bozo and God.

Carl Anderson, a psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote his dissertation about the effects of Santa on children. He’s read widely and deeply on the subject of Santa, whom he calls a hopeful and comforting figure that historically provides solace during times of war and economic hardship. “You go back far enough,” Anderson says, “that’s the whole origin of the custom. Whenever there’s a need for hope, there’s more turning to Santa, more energy given to it.”

It’s a lot for one man to carry on his red velvet shoulders.

Maybe all this added pressure isn’t the reason a Santa in Atlanta earlier this month knocked a woman cold with a 2-by-4. Maybe it’s not why 30 Santas got into a drunken street brawl two weeks ago at a charity fundraiser in Wales. (Five Santas were arrested.) But it’s undoubtedly why so many professional Santas sound edgy, spent, as if they might come down with the flu before they come down the chimney.

“It’s changed a lot,” Nevada says wearily. “It’s gotten to be more professional.”

As “Canada’s Top Claus,” according to one Canadian newspaper, and as headmaster of his own Santa school, Nevada knows the Santa business inside out -- from beard to boots -- and he laments how much “civilians” take for granted. “Everybody thinks it’s easy,” he says in an accent that splices traces of Burl Ives, Austin Powers, Dylan Thomas and Mike Ditka. “You put the suit on. If you wear a fake beard, great, go for it. You practice your ‘ho-hos.’ Great. You’re ready to go. But you’re not. Not psychologically.”

For starters, the questions from children these days are tougher than ever. True, for as long as children have climbed onto Santa’s lap, they have been tenacious interrogators. But now, with thousands of children pining for a father or mother serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, the questions are as heart-rending as they are unanswerable. Can you please bring Daddy home from the war in time for Christmas morning?

Sometimes children stare intently and ask for peace on Earth. What’s a Santa to say?

“I had a little girl on my knee,” Nevada recalls, “and she said she wanted ‘a happy home’ for Christmas. I looked up at the mom, and mom had bruises on her face. Now, what can I do? I can’t phone the cops. I can’t tell the child, ‘Don’t worry -- Santa will send some hit men over and they’ll take care of the old man.’ I called Mom over, and she sat on my right knee, and mom and daughter faced each other and we had a little visit. What I could do was give that mom and daughter three or four minutes of peace.”

Anderson -- who has not only studied Santa, but played him at NorthPark Center in Dallas for the last 16 years -- says he starts to feel it right about this time each December. “Late at night, I’m a lot more emotionally vulnerable,” he says. “You feel the physicalness of it -- the aches and pains of constantly lifting -- but then there’s the emotional exhaustion.”

Also, there’s the competition. Top Santas can earn $60,000 a season working the ritziest malls, says Nevada, who charges $500 an hour for his ballyhooed appearances. With so much money on the line, the need to be realistic, to be relevant, to be the best, is intense -- and competition among malls is that much stiffer. Every mall wants to say it’s got the real Santa under contract, to attract the maximum number of shoppers. “There’s a saying in the Santa business,” Nevada says. “Santa doesn’t drive a sleigh -- Santa drives sales.”

Cherry Hill Photo Enterprises Inc., in Cherry Hill, N.J., is thought to be the nation’s largest supplier of mall Santas, mobilizing a battalion of more than 750 this season. Before hitting a mall, each Cherry Hill Santa has graduated from the company’s “Santa University,” according Chief Executive Bob Wolfe. Cherry Hill Santas are given common-sense Santa lessons -- bathe daily, use strong deodorant -- and politically correct caveats: Only refer to a child’s “folks,” in case the child doesn’t have a traditional mother and father.

Nevada has done the math, and he says 40,000 men throughout North America are working the same side of Santa Street, vying for the same malls, parades, private parties and corporate events. And more are coming. As baby boomers age, Nevada says, they will seek ways to augment their retirement income; in the next few years, thousands will bleach their beards, suit up and demand entry to what’s routinely called “The Brotherhood of the Fur.” The planet, Nevada warns, is about to be lousy with Clauses.

That doesn’t even count the Internet, where a booming Santa industry is taking shape. Alan Kerr, founder of EmailSanta.com, says his website has received millions of e-mails in its seven years of existence -- 500,000 this season alone. Many e-mails, he says, contain requests even more wrenching than those made in malls, as children turn to Santa for help not only with parents in the military, but parents who are sick, parents who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, parents who are abusive. So Kerr has teamed with child psychologists and police to develop special software that identifies those “in dire circumstances,” whom he then directs to the proper social agency.

If the child-Santa relationship has taken on shades of the patient-doctor relationship, some Santas point a white-gloved finger at Oprah and Dr. Phil. In a culture that encourages everyone to discuss their feelings, children apparently have gotten the message. Ten years ago it was relatively rare for a child to open up to Santa. Nowadays, it’s de rigueur.

As children open up more, so do Santas. A chat room called Santas Across the Globe is beset by Santas worried about things like flu shots, head lice, the most effective antibacterial hand soaps, the pros and cons of fake beards made from yak hair -- and “inappropriate offers while touring seniors centers.” There is also some troubled discussion of how to respond to certain photographers who want to pose Santa in unsavory positions and settings, sans red suit.

A reporter recently posted a message in the Santa chat room, saying he was seeking Santas to interview for a piece about the stresses of the job. There was an immediate outbreak of suspicion and alarm. The Santas accused the reporter of being a “hoaxter.” “Fellow Kringles,” cautioned Kennison Kyle, a 35-year-old Santa from Memphis, Tenn. “Answer at your own choosing. I for one won’t be until I know more about the reporter.”

When the reporter chided the Santas -- “I’ve heard of people not believing in Santa Claus, but this is the first time Santa Claus didn’t believe in me” -- the Santas were instantly ashamed. Kyle apologized and vowed to “eat crow with my milk and cookies.”

Each year Santas throughout the nation come together in greater numbers for ever larger conventions. They not only share information about costumes and children’s questions, but they help one another negotiate the legal complexities of being Santa. Before getting hired by a major mall or photo company, Santas must typically undergo stringent background checks and fingerprinting. After getting hired, they must carry insurance.

“When I started doing this years ago, I never even thought about liability,” Nevada says. “But Santas have a pretty good chance of getting sued. You got the obvious things: You drop a child on its head. Then there’s Santa saying the wrong thing.... I had a Santa working for me a couple years ago; he had a girl on his knee, and he commented, “You have nice eyes and nice hair.’ She claimed sexual harassment.”

Such scenarios have led Nevada to labor hard on a comprehensive Santa manual, which he intends to hand out to all students and to the five Santas he employs in his booking agency. It’s 260 pages of information every Santa should know, he says. Where to keep your hands. How to paint or bleach a beard. What to say when a child asks for his recently deceased grandma to be resurrected.

“Here at the school,” Nevada says, “we instruct the lads to think of any possible situation that might arise, any possible question you might ever get asked, and pre-think those situations ahead of time.”

Tim Connaghan, 56, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, which has 451 members around the world, says he always mentally prepares himself while driving to his next job, just like any other actor in town. The other day, however, talking on his cellphone while racing to an appearance at a Brentwood art gallery, Connaghan sounded too pooped to prepare. He’d just finished a visit in Hollywood with 400 children of soldiers, and many of the exchanges were traumatic. “When I started years ago, the only thing you really asked was -- Have you been good? We didn’t get into discussions.”

Ed Butchart, 69, a Santa for 17 years in Stone Mountain, Ga., and the author of “The Red Suit Diaries,” says one of the hardest challenges for Santas lately is the expense and sophistication of the toys. Years ago it was Barbies and firetrucks. Now it’s iPods and Xboxes. As toys get more expensive, more involved, so does Santa paraphernalia. Fake velvet won’t cut it. Kids react to it like sandpaper. They’re as picky about the velvet on Santa’s lap as some grown-ups are about thread counts in their bedsheets -- and the good stuff doesn’t come cheap. “The velvet in my costume sells for 25 dollars a yard,” Butchart says. “And there’s a lot of velvet in it.”

Also, Butchart had to shell out recently for a pricey pair of steel-toed black boots, “because of kids jumping off my lap and killing me. A kid jumped off last weekend, came down like a load of bricks on my toe, and I grabbed him and said, ‘Ha ha, you missed me!’ You got to protect your private parts too. I don’t wear a cup or nothing, but it’s all in how you sit on your throne. That kid can really hurt you bad.”

When a Santa feels put upon or anxious, he often shows it in the same ways civilians do. Nevada has one friend, an immensely popular Santa at a large mall who just completed counseling for job-related depression. “I’ll get calls from people wanting to engage my services,” Nevada says, “and I always ask, ‘Would I be right in thinking you had a Santa at your event last year? I’m curious why that Santa isn’t there this year.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, the guy showed up drunk.’ That’s common.”

Or else, Nevada says, stressed-out Santas will morbidly overeat. “The show is done -- and the Claus hangs around at the buffet table! God almighty. I tell my guys, ‘Listen, boys, I don’t want you scrounging any bloody food off any client!’ ”

Santas think themselves justified in bingeing, because being a fatty, after all, is part of the territory. But soon, Nevada predicts, there will be a health-conscious backlash against fat Santas, just as there was an outcry years ago about Santa’s pipe. (A trim man, Nevada uses “anatomically correct” padding to replicate the requisite belly.)

Nevada says that, when an event ends, many Santas think it’s their right, and a perk of the trade, to demand “a reindeer bag,” which is like a doggie bag, only bigger.

“Forget that reindeer bag [expletive],” he tells his students and employees. “And don’t think you’re going to pass that buffet table and snaffle a couple of sandwiches into your bag. If you do that, and I hear about it, you’re fired.

“And this ain’t a union shop.”


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