Archive for the ‘Confessions of a Shopping Mall Santa’ Category

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Confessions of a Shopping Mall Santa, Part 2

November 16, 2008

(This is the second in a series that will appear occasionally, leading up to Christmas. The first part is here.)

The biggest problem with being a mall Santa in a downtown shopping centre is the people who spend their days there.

I’m not talking about the shoppers and the employees. I mean the people who park their asses in the food court five minutes after the mall opens and stay all day, nursing cups of coffee and carrying on with whatever they’re not supposed to be doing. This mall was like that. Back then, people could still smoke indoors in Ontario, so the food court was a grey-clouded wasteland of empty lives, its regulars sitting at orange molded plastic tables and chairs, arguing, sneaking booze into their Pepsi cans, dealing drugs on a very small scale and all in all just hiding from life.

Some of them would occasionally wander, or stagger, past Santa’s Workshop. For the most part, they treated me as an interesting diversion, and with good humour. Once in a while, one of the hookers would come sit on my knee and flirt a bit, and I would stay in character, and everyone would have a good laugh. It has been my experience, after all, that people at that low end of our food chain tend to be the most genuine, and good company on a limited scale.

One morning, during the first week on the job, a couple turned up at Santa’s Workshop with their little boy. It was about 10:30 a.m., and Mom and Dad were completely smashed. The reek of liquor was like a plasma in the air around them; it was clear they were still going from the night before, or maybe the week before.

And they had this cute little guy with them. Maybe four years old, big dark eyes, scrabbly hair, dirty clothes … and a winning smile. The elf and the photographer greeted this little family; Mom and Dad said no to the $10 photo package and shoved the kid at me. “Just tell him you want the free fucken colouring book,” the mother growled.

The kid crawled onto my knee. Mom and Dad stayed back a bit, but I could still smell them. My elf, a high school girl, was visible distressed. “So, what can Santa bring you for Christmas?” I asked my new young friend, knowing the odds were good that he wouldn’t have a Christmas tree at all, and if he did the only thing under it December 25 would be a passed-out friend of his loser parents.

“Can you bring my mom a nice ring?” this kid asked.

I was taken aback. “Don’t you want some nice toys?”

“Yeah, but my mom needs a ring,” he said again.

Well, there’s the spirit of Christmas, I thought. I’ve already told you how the spirit had filled me up when I started doing this, and now it was clear I wasn’t alone. I wanted to rush down to the department store on the main floor and buy every toy on the shelf for this kid. I wanted to bring him home with me to play with my own son, who was about that age. I just wanted him to have a real Christmas.

But before I could say anything, his mother staggered up, laughing. “He isn’t even the real Santa Claus!” she shouted. And she grabbed my beard, and she yanked.

Now, remember that I glued that puppy on. With spirit gum, which doesn’t come off easily. So when she pulled it hurt, almost as much as if she had pulled my real beard. I yelped, an Irish-accented Santa yelp, still in character. The beard didn’t come off. Mom stumbled backward. And this wonderful little boy looked up at me, beaming, and said “He is! He is the real Santa Claus!”

And I was.

I still wonder what happened to that kid. He’d be in his late teens now, or maybe even 20. I can imagine that he didn’t have much of a childhood, and I hope he’s okay, but I spent a lot of time reporting in the courts and I know where kids like that end up.

But wherever he is, I hope he has at least a slight memory of the year he met the real Santa Claus.

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Confessions of a Shopping Mall Santa, Part 1

November 9, 2008

(This is the first in a series that will appear occasionally, leading up to Christmas)

I believe in Santa Claus. And here’s why:

In 1996, I was laid off from my job as a daily newspaper reporter. I had some assurances that it would be temporary, so I was hesitant to uproot my wife and son and move to a new city. A friend who handled marketing for a local shopping centre called one day and offered me a job: Santa.

This wouldn’t be my first time in costume. I had been working as one of those giant mascots for a while, dressing up as a big cookie, a dairy cow, a rolled-up newspaper and various strange creatures on both a volunteer and paying basis. It was a lot of fun. I love kids, and love entertaining them. The first time my little guy realized it was his daddy under the mask was one of the best moments of my life.

Santa Claus, though, was a different challenge. For one thing, I was 28, tall and skinny and pretty brown. “No problem,” my friend assured me. “We have a top-of-the-line Santa suit.”

She wasn’t kidding. This thing was gorgeous. Red velour, white faux fur, real leather boots and gloves, a big lush cap … the beard and wig were snow-white. We had to invest in a second artificial belly to fill it out, but once it was on and I was parked on the big throne in Santa’s Workshop for our test run, I looked the part.

I used spirit gum for the beard. For one thing, it felt better. For another, it looked more real. I have never liked fake-looking mall Santas; this beard was of such good quality that once it was glued on, it looked like part of me.

My first appearance was scheduled for right after the city’s Santa Claus Parade. I was to make a grand entrance, work the crowd, and head to the Workshop to start visiting with kids and getting pictures taken. I thought there might be a hundred people. There were more than a thousand. And I don’t like crowds.

I stood there, panicking, my “helpers” urging me forward, and I pretty much decided “Nope, this is not for me.” I almost quit right there. But then … I still can’t explain it, but everything changed. I was suddenly an ancient elf, smaller, fatter and, for some reason, Irish. I moved through that crowd, my eyes twinkling, my fake belly indeed jiggling like a bowlful of jelly. I was hugged by about 500 children in less than 20 minutes. And when I sat down on that big chair, I had a line of visitors that snaked off past the Saint Cinnamon in the food court, which is pretty far, trust me.

That first night was a blur. I barely remember any of it, except that I was chatting with kids in a lilting brogue (and I can’t do accents, not then and not now) and somehow, miraculously, knowing exactly what each kid wanted for Christmas, almost all the time. I had a wonderful time, but I did not feel like myself. Someone, something, was speaking through me.

I had been hired to work every day, seven days a week, from mid-November until Christmas Eve, 9 a.m to 9 p.m., noon to five on Sundays. It was a big workload. And I loved every minute of it. Because whatever Santa Claus is, whatever the spirit of Christmas is, it parked itself in a skinny brown mall Santa and brought the real deal to a lot of kids.

That’s not to say there weren’t some bizarre misadventures mixed in with the shining moments. I’ll share more of them in the weeks to come.

Ho ho ho.

Part 2

(Note: I’m looking for the photos from that Christmas.)