What is Christmas without Santa Claus? Three men represent different approaches to being Santa. Each story is unique, but all share one goal – to spread joy on a very human level.
What do you want for Christmas? Would a visit to – or from – Santa help? Perhaps you’d just like a little of that good old Christmas magic to envelop you and wipe away some of the stress and anxiety you might be feeling around this time of year.
These three gentlemen are here to help. You’ll see that, even though each portrays Santa, their individual expressions are unique: One is a “stylish Santa,” another a “buff Santa,” and the third is a rather more traditional mall Santa (with all the trimmings, including a $1,000 custom-made wool suit). Each of them shares their inside perspective on what it means to be a Santa in today’s environment, and how, for all, the priority is to bring a memorable moment of joy and wonderment to the people – and even animals – they encounter.
For more on the origins of Santa Claus, check out In Search of Santa Claus 4K on MagellanTV.
Santa Robert: Mall Santa Par Excellence
For the past seven years, between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, each morning has started the same for Robert W. Wilson. He wakes up in his hotel room near Paseo Nuevo Mall in downtown Santa Barbara, California, makes breakfast in his hotel kitchenette, and quietly prepares for his day. These moments of calm are rare for him, because he will soon be immersed in the cacophony of screaming children, pleading parents, and the general hustle and bustle of being centrally located in a very active commercial institution during the holiday season.
Santa Robert poses in front of Paseo Nuevo Mall in downtown Santa Barbara, California. Note his “magic key” and pocket watch chain attached to his belt. (Photo used by permission of owner)
In this season, Wilson is on duty in Santa’s chair every day without fail. But he doesn’t mind the daily uproar of the crowds jostling to spend a moment with him. Rather, he enjoys the contact. “When kids leave happy,” he says, “that makes this Santa happy.”
Being at the same location for so many years has added to the joy he brings to growing families. “I’ve had families call the mall to make sure it’s the same Santa,” he says. He will talk to the children as equals, often quieting them down with his own tempered words. When he’s tipped off that he has met certain children in prior years, he makes a big fuss. “Look at you! I remember you from last year. My, how much taller you’ve grown!”
And when he sees that children’s mothers are expecting another child, he’ll place a gloved hand on the mother’s belly (with permission) for a photo. Then, in future years, he can remind the older children that the infant they have in their small hands was once too tiny to photograph.
Wilson got his traditional Santa outfit from a special outfitter in Los Angeles. He says there are three main styles for Santa’s duds: There’s the “Coca-Cola Santa,” which has buttons down the front; the “Father Christmas” style, with a long robe; and his more traditional look, with fur instead of buttons.
Santa Robert reveals that he has two special props on hand to display when needed. First, if a child asks how Santa can get into their house without a chimney, he points to a specially decorated key attached to his belt. He says, “This is a magic key. I can use it one night a year all across the world to leave presents in houses with no chimney.”
He also carries a pocket watch that’s a replica of the conductor’s watch from the film The Polar Express. He displays it to kids to show that it not only tells the time of day, it also shows how long he has before he needs to leave for his Christmas gift-giving duties. After all, Santa has to be on time each year.
Santa Robert at work. (Photo used by permission of owner.)
Every night, after all the children and their parents have left the mall, he retires to his room for some restorative peace and quiet. To calm himself, he’ll have a nice dinner, check his emails, and watch a little TV. Nothing too special and exertive for this mall Santa. After all, he has another day of teeming crowds and anxious parents to deal with starting the next morning.
‘Buff’ Santa Andy Gives Back to His Community
One day, not so many years ago, a Coloradan named Andy, who asked that his last name not be used, was visiting his doctor for a checkup. The doctor, who was also a friend, leveled with him. “You’ve got to change your life, and you need to start today.” With his health at risk of serious complications, he showed up at his local YMCA soon after and, as he says, told them, “Save my life.”
This was the beginning of Andy's transformation from an overworked and overstressed air traffic controller into a figure now known in Santa circles as “Buff Santa.” He got a trainer, changed his diet, and began a serious, motivated fitness routine with exercise and weight training.
Santa Andy poses with a miniature mule to bring in the Christmas season. (Photo used by permission of owner.)
It also gave him, in his mind, an opportunity to work off his “karmic debt” to the YMCA once he established himself as a Santa, which started almost accidentally. As president of his neighborhood association and organizer of its annual holiday party, he stepped into the role with a borrowed “shaggy suit” and did the gig when the expected Santa fell ill.
Later, he began to grow a beard, which came out full and white, and his fellow air traffic controllers started to call him Santa. Then, he says, “I decided it might be a good side gig in retirement.” He enrolled in a professional Santa training program at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan, founded in 1937. He liked it so much he attended three times.
“It’s a very rewarding experience,” he commented. “Training at the school was everything from beard care and makeup to taxes and small business,” he explains. “The biggest thing I learned is that you’re not Santa until the outfit goes on . . . and you are then entirely Santa. You never break character, even with friends or photographers.”
Santa Andy says, “My niche is specialized. The beard is magical [and] seemingly has given me a perpetual smile that attracts people and comments, both in and out of costume.”
Andy is also a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (IBRBS). He says, though, that being a Santa is more than just putting on an outfit. “I have a huge personality matching my frame. (I’m 6’1” and 200-something pounds of muscle.) I think my big beard always makes people smile (or laugh), and my warm eyes and face make me look huggable and sweet always.”
“Buff Santa” stays in shape working out at the YMCA. (Photo used by permission of owner.)
One of his early gigs was volunteering at the Y that changed his life. He did a promotional campaign showing him in his Santa gear lifting weights with the slogan, “If Santa does it, so can you.” Now that he’s retired, he spends much of his winter in the Palm Springs, California, area. And that’s led him to encounter a broad variety of families. As a Santa, he says, “You do get a look into people’s lives.” And “Santa is for everyone,” he emphasizes.
“I think my skills are best suited to memory care patients, people with autism, and animals. . . . Children with families that aren’t ‘traditional’ are so glad to see that Santa embraces them fully, and families with children who don’t conform to a set gender or identity are delighted that Santa wants to hear their stories.”
Looking as massive as he does, he does have to be on the lookout for overly affectionate (adult) Santa fans. “I was ‘molested’ once by a woman at an office holiday party,” he laughs. “She tore my suit!” Eventually, the inebriated woman was pulled off him by two men, as he finally broke character and said, “I’m not Santa! I’m some dude in a suit!” He smiles, recalling the look on her face when she realized how she had humiliated herself in front of her entire office. “She probably didn’t remember a thing.”
He sums up his experiences, revealing that his encounters with families are “not for the kids [but] for the parents. . . . Santa lives in an artificial world. Parents want to create an idealized memory with the photos . . . where the kid looks sweet and magical. In reality, this doesn’t exist anywhere except in Hallmark movies.” Nonetheless, Santa Andy concludes, “a positive, lasting memory” is the result.
‘Stylish Santa’ Daniel Adds Flair to a Traditional Role
In Atlanta, there is a Santa who, like Andy Farr, breaks the mold of the traditional appearance of St. Nick. Rather than the traditional suit, as worn both by Farr and Santa Robert, this Santa wears finery more associated with male models than a pot-bellied, cherry-cheeked figure from the North Pole. This is “Stylish Santa” Daniel Slack, and he’s proud to fly a somewhat different flag than his fellow Santas.
Stylish Santa in a shopping center promotional photo. (Photo used by permission of Stacy Schuch.)
His route to becoming Stylish Santa was as circuitous as Andy Farr’s. Slack, who works in marketing and merchandising, got a call one day from a friend, Stacy Schuch, who was a marketing director for shopping centers. She had seen an article in Adweek on “alternative Santas” and asked if Slack would be interested in portraying a more modern take on Santa Claus for her malls. Slack, who says that being a Santa “was never on my radar,” took the challenge and ran with it. “It was a hit,” he says, “and took off from there.”
Interestingly, it was actually his brother who “always wanted to be Santa,” even though the brother had been in a motorcycle accident and suffered a brain injury. Daniel attended a Santa college weekend in Atlanta as a guardian to his brother and received an honorary diploma for helping him. The training has assisted him in playing the role, though he says, “I honestly go out and be myself.”
Stylish Santa says, “My motto is, I’ll start the smile for you. . . . To treat each other well . . . as corny as it sounds, it’s all you need to do.”
It has evidently worked. Photos of Stylish Santa have gone viral on the Internet and been translated into memes, one of which carries the caption, “After Santa changed his diet and started using essential oils.”
Stylish Santa comforts and welcomes a child at Christmastime. (Photo used by permission of owner.)
He has a special place in his heart for “special needs” kids. They “have certainly been a part of many events, and they are just kids too. [The] same love and joy I share with others I can share with them.”
When working onsite, his style is to be casual and understated, but to share joy in each interaction. “I tend to walk the property, approach folks with a greeting, smiles, conversation, and the opportunity for a selfie. . . . I actually use the hashtag #ideliversmiles as I really feel that is my job. Seeing the joy in someone’s eyes, hearing how you ‘made their day,’ what’s not to love about that?”
Follow Daniel's cheery adventures online @stylishsanta.
Carrying Joy into the World
These three Santas are hardly a cross-section of all seasonal Santas working across the world. In fact, these days there are Santas of all races and both sexes. Santa Larry, for example, of the Mall of America in Minnesota, is an example of a Black Santa who, over the years, has broken stereotypes of what a Santa “should” look like. And another Santa who has worked at a casino in China reports being pursued by patrons unfamiliar with Western Santa traditions who tug at his sleeves and rub his costume, assuming that doing so will bring good fortune, or guanxi.
The bottom line for all these Santas is one of giving. Not of giving presents, per se (Santa Robert says, “Don’t promise anything”), but of giving joy, smiles, even hopefulness. And in this holiday season, that’s nothing to be cynical about. Public Santas – at least the best of them, as the Santas interviewed for this article represent – carry that joy into the world, and for the five or six weeks of the holiday season, that’s an important, even essential, job.
Kevin Martin is Senior Writer for MagellanTV. He writes on various topics, including outer space, the fine arts, and modern history. He has had a long career as a journalist and communications specialist with nonprofit and for-profit organizations. He resides in Glendale, California.
Title Image: Santa Andy reminds children to eat their vegetables to grow tall and healthy. (Photo used by permission of owner.)