For seven weeks leading up to Christmas I sat in the big red chair at the local shopping centre. My friend Nigel, a giant round Yorkshireman with a booming voice, did it in 2022 and convinced me to join him as a Santa character in 2023.
I even dragged my cousin Peter ho-ho-ho-ing along for the ride.
My wife bet that I wouldn’t last a week. “You. Santa,’’ she roared laughing. “You don’t like people. I give it seven days.’’ She couldn’t have been more wrong.
Becoming Santa ranks highly as one of the best experiences of my working life. Without doubt. I started growing my beard on July 1 (you get paid more if you have your own beard) and before we began in earnest on November 12, I made it through a Santa job interview, and passed Santa school. My first duty as Santa was to lead the welcome parade, arm-in-arm with Mrs Claus, from one end of the shopping centre to the other.
Putting on that suit changed me. Not like Superman, Batman or Spider-Man, I didn’t have any special powers. But when you are wearing the suit, it is plain to see that everyone loves Santa. People were happy to see me, people I didn’t know were hugging me, high fiving me, and even occasionally running from a distance through the crowds and jumping into my arms.
I embraced the spirit of Christmas quickly and got swept away ringing the bell, asking kids what they wanted as gifts, and nursing babies, lots of babies, who more often than not, screamed at me. For the most part it was fabulous. There were some interesting moments with wannabe Instagram famous mums who seemed to think the photoshoot was about them, not the children, and insisted that the photographer kept shooting until they were happy that their fake lips and other fake parts were picture perfect.
But they definitely were in the minority.
My favourites were the kids, and adults, with special needs. We did sessions that were just for special needs people, so the lights were kept low, and the music muted. Much as everyone tried you just couldn’t contain their excitement when it was their turn to meet Santa. One young woman repeatedly hugged and squeezed me as she told me how she had survived a brain tumour by praying for help from God and Santa. Another young boy, smiling from one ear to the other, squealed so hard every time I asked him a question, I thought he was going to burst. And then one man came up and presented me with a list containing 25 items. As he gave me the list, which contained things like a $25 JB HiFi voucher, some chips, water, paper, pencils and other small items, he very respectfully said he hoped that he wasn’t being too greedy. I wanted to run and buy him everything that was on his list.
And then there where the kids, who were just being kids.
A four-year-old twin boy, after making sure he was on the nice list, told me that his seven-year-old brother should definitely be on the naughty list. Why, I inquired. “Well Santa, he kicked me in the nuts!” I laughed. His mother almost sprayed us all with the banana smoothie she was drinking. He was thrilled when I eventually regained my composure and told him that his brother would be getting a lump of coal for Christmas. He punched the air with joy. One young girl, holding her dolly told me she was happy with whatever gift Santa brought her this year. I could sense that she had more to say so I asked what dolly she wanted, and then the real story came out. “My dolly would like an Apple Watch thank you Santa.” I guess if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
At Santa school we had all been warned that at some time we would get asked something that would break our hearts. Apparently, kids often ask Santa to help their mums and dads get back together after a separation. Or they ask Santa to bring back a grandparent who has just died. My moment came when I asked a young girl what her Christmas dream was, and she told me that she wanted “Guardianship”. A foster child, all she wanted for Christmas was to be officially a part of a family. She looked to be about eight or nine. Her tone gave me the feeling that she had had a pretty tough life up to now. I bit my lip, hugged her and told her Santa loved her very much as my glasses fogged and tears streamed down my face.
On the other side of the coin, Santa Nigel provided the biggest laugh of the season. During a pet session (these book out almost as soon as they become available) someone brought seven Spring lambs to the set. Most people bring a dog. Some people bring cats and sometimes you might get a snake or a hamster. But, according to Nigel, not even Mary could control these little lambs. They started by eating the fake greenery on the Santa set. They then took a liking to the reindeer and Christmas trees chewing oh so close to the flashing lights. When Nigel hoisted one on to his lap for the photo it peed all over him, spilling down on to Santa’s big red chair. Luckily it was the last shoot of the night. Unluckily for Nigel, the place where all the Santas store their gear, had shut. Nigel’s keys, wallet and street clothes were locked away for the evening.
He got quite a few strange looks as he stood outside the shopping centre wearing his pee smelling Santa suit while he waited for his wife to pick him up and drive home home. I must ask if Nigel had lamb for Christmas? Even that though wasn’t enough to dampen Nigel’s spirit. He, like me, plans to return to the big red chair in 2024.
There was a shortage of Santas last year, and no doubt there will be a shortage again this year. So, if you have the time and inclination, then I’d encourage you to jump on board the Polar Express and be part of the Christmas experience.