In defense of Santa.

I was distressed to run across a television news story about a “bad Santa” out in Maine. I won’t throw a link to the people that did the story because it was shoddy journalism in my less than humble opinion.

A candid photo taken while Santa is lost in thought.

I take being Santa seriously. I come home exhausted from turning up the dial to “11” when I put on that suit. My back hurts and my arms and shoulders ache from picking up and holding little ones on my knee from 7:30 until 9 pm. Up to 400 repetitions in a day, much more than that for mall Santas. It’s physically demanding work on occasion. That toy bag will weigh up to 50 pounds when people load you up heavily. But to the parents and children it no doubt seems effortless. After all, it’s just one small child at a time.

The story portrayed this man as being a grouch and not willing to have children sit on his knee who didn’t pay for the picture package. I’m not at that mall. I don’t know what the rules are for that mall. But the simple fact is that many photo’s with Santa at the mall are a pay-to-play kind of a deal. Everywhere I appear the photos are someone else’s problem these days and I’m just there to smile and have a good time.

Why? Because I used to have a business that made money taking those photos and selling the prints to people. Tax number, sales tax, insurance, the whole ball of wax. That also included the cost of a good camera (and a backup as well as 3 sets of batteries,) a set of commercial lights, a backdrop, the bench we posed on, the printers, the paper and ink-jet cartridges, the receipt forms, the Pay-pal Merchant Account and the fees for that. I should probably also mention having to pay a helper to run the camera, do the pictures on the printer, take the credit cards/checks/make change for cash. And it would be beneath me to mention the need to go to a printer and get special items like posters and Christmas cards printed and shipped in a prompt manner. (My car runs on air and I have all the free time in the world.)

And do you know how that whole equation suddenly just becomes a big ball of debt with no reward?  Mom with her I-phone 4 taking the picture on the set I have paid for and lit and sending it to all her relatives. I have just handed her a free service that cost me upwards of $3,000 to provide.  Worst of all, I’m a jerk if I don’t do it. After all, it’s just one picture, isn’t it?

In addition to all the material stuff involved, and the fatigue of the Santa, there’s the child waiting in line who isn’t on Santa’s knee. The child who’s parents are going to pay for what that mom just got for free. Trust me, next time they’re bringing the camera with them to save the $20 as well. 

The figures above were just when I did my own pictures. The mall Santa photo companies have much bigger budgets. They absolutely forbid free pictures in some locations. It’s not Santa’s choice. If you don’t buy the picture package you don’t get to see Santa. Those Elves on the set are there to prevent it and to sell pictures. Sorry, but that’s how they guy in the red suit gets there for you to see the final magical product.

Is that fair?  I think so. Because in addition to all the other stuff I listed above, there’s a pile of red suits and other wardrobe to maintain. (All of my wardrobe is hand-made and custom fit just for me. I currently have 7 red, 2 purple, 1 blue, and 2 green suits in the closet along with 1 cape, 3 vests, 8 or 9 hats of various colors, and 12 or so hand-made shirts. These go along with the custom fit boots, the giant belt with the hand-made buckle, the eye-glasses that I will only buy in “Santa” style, and 5 toy bags.)

Toss in the 4 or 5 visits to the stylist to get the beard looking photogenic and you start to see the picture. We (the average top-shelf Santa) only work about 7 weeks a year.  We spend a good share of our visits on charitable causes. In essence, I do over 50% of my work for no financial reward. I can do that: I command a good fee and I have a “real” job the rest of the year. Some of my retired bretheren count on that income to make it through the year. The rumors of mall Santas making $50K + are hogwash. I was offered a very large and prestigious mall a few years back as the lead Santa. The dollar-per-hour figure was less than I make at my “day” job. And it meant 7 days a week for 7 weeks. You have no time to do anything but eat and sleep and be Santa.

Please don’t get me wrong. Being Santa is a wonderful job in many ways. The emotional rewards are spectacular. But I couldn’t watch this poor guy (whom I’ve never met) being mocked and ridiculed in the hit-piece on the news and in the internet pieces I saw. One of the things he was criticized for was not waving to a child who waved at him. I try to respond to each child. But think about that scene at the mall and how many children are trying to grab his attention at any given time. You’re bound to miss a few. It’s the sad and unfortunate truth that we’re all human, including Santa.

So give the man some slack. For all I know he’s a terrible person with halitosis. On the other hand, perhaps he’s a gentle soul who loves being Santa but has poor eye sight and doesn’t see well past 20 feet. Maybe his employer won’t condone free pictures. But to go after him like the parents did is a bit unseemly. Perhaps the reason he didn’t wave and smile to someone’s child was because he was lonely and sad over the death of his wife the month before and lost for a moment in the memory of their wedding day.  Or his beloved dog had passed away the previous morning. Santa has those issues as well and the man may have just been taking a moment to center himself and get ready for the next child to sit on his knee. He wasn’t trying to be rude, he was just trying to get by and make it through the day with a little something for each paying customer.

I have one last tale to tell and then I’ll let this topic go. The parent in the piece is portrayed as the injured party.  What, exactly, was done wrong to her or her child is beyond me. It seemed to me that the poor woman had grown up in the “everyone is a winner, everyone is special, everyone gets a trophy” generation and since she wasn’t the focus of the universe for that moment she was being slighted somehow. Granted, no free chance to talk to Santa. But… is that worth destroying the man and costing him his job? I think once the Facebook avalanche started he was doomed. I don’t know her. I don’t know her child. But it made me wonder if she might be related to Mrs. X. And I’ll tell you why one woman, in a single day, ruined one of my favorite things to do as Santa.

A number of years ago I used to lug a big bag of toys around with me and randomly give them out to children who visited with me. Sometimes it was because they were cute. Sometimes it was because they were the 15th child since some arbitrary mark on the clock. Sometimes it was because they wanted a stuffed Giraffe and I just happened to have one in my bag. It was a magical thing to do, producing the exact toy the child had requested on the spot. I got more of a kick out of it than the children did.

And yet one smug mother with a sense of entitlement that made her eligible for some kind of an award ruined it for me forever.  Her child had already seen Santa. But she noticed that a few of the children had toys from Santa and her child didn’t. She marched right up to my chair and interrupted my time with the child on my knee. I asked her to wait and once the child was done I asked what she wanted. She held out her hand and said that she wanted the toy that was due her child. The exact words fail me but that was the spirit of the thing. Mind you this woman was wealthy. All the families were wealthy at this event. A private event. The average car in the lot probably cost as much as my house (I bought on the cheap and fixed it up!)

I explained, politely, that I randomly gave out toys to a few children at each event and that there wasn’t a toy for every child. She turned bright red. She said (and I do remember this exchange verbatim): “That’s not fair!”  My response, just loud enough for only her to hear was: “Lady, that’s the meaning of the word random.”  She then got a look on her face that would scare the Grinch and she left the room.

From the hallway I could hear her shout to the entire group there for the party, “Hey, everybody:  Come and get your free present from Santa!”

Mind you, up until that moment the children were cool with not everyone getting a toy. I’d done it dozens of times before with no blowback. But now I had a mob of small people who had just been promised a toy from Santa. Mrs. X stood in the doorway and smirked and laughed as I handed out all of my toys to those children. Thankfully I had just enough to meet the need. But it meant that the next 3 events that day got nothing. Not a single child would get a toy the rest of the day.

And on that day I quit buying toys. I used to buy them by the case. But now, in 2012, years after that sad day, I’m down to about 10 stuffed animals in my attic. They are all going to be given away at an event in two weeks. An event where I don’t have to defend my actions. I can just be kind at random.

You see, I can’t risk another mom like that making a complaint about me being “prejudiced” against their child. Santa is disposable as far as most venues are concerned. You might be there 10 years and the first “oops” or complaint from  a parent *(justified or not)* is the last chance. And in the era of social media, you are tried and convicted before you even leave the mall that night.

It’s Christmas. I should hope that each of us would cut each other a little slack this time of year. Not that we shouldn’t all year long, but this is a tough time of year for many people. Sometimes that includes the man in the red suit.

Take a moment to be kind today. Is there someone who’s day you can brighten?  Is there some small gesture you can make to help lighten the load for a little while?  I hope you take that challenge and make it happen. God is love. Aren’t we supposed to be a reflection of that love?

Most of all, be nice to Santa. He’s one of God’s children as well.

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