It's the season to be jolly, or at least smile, especially if it's your job to be Santa


I was at the mall the other day and saw my first Santa Claus of the season, a tall, stringy guy who looked like he just got out of rehab.

That's a terrible thing to say about a Santa, I know. And the other thing was, this particular Santa didn't really seem into it either.

Even when the little kids climbed on his lap and babbled about what toys they wanted, he kept glancing at his watch, like he couldn't wait to get outside and fire up a Marlboro Light.

The whole thing confirmed a suspicion of mine that's been growing for years: When it comes to the hiring of mall Santas, there has been an alarming decline in standards.

There was a time in this country when, by God, you knew who Santa was.

Santa was this ruddy-faced 5-foot-7 guy -- 5-8, tops -- who looked like a cholesterol nightmare.

Sure, maybe he was working his tail off up there at the North Pole, banging out toys for all the good little boys and girls.

But you knew as soon as it was quitting time, Santa was hitting the nearest Happy Hour and doing a one-and-a-half gainer into a platter of Buffalo wings.

All you had to do was look at that gut hanging over that black belt.

Now what you have playing Santa are a lot of thin, edgy-looking guys who, if you take away the fake beard, look like they should be in cologne ads in Vanity Fair.

The other thing about these mall Santas is this: They keep getting younger and younger.

Santa's supposed to be a guy in his 60s, maybe even his 70s, am I right? Take away the red fur outfit and you should be able to picture him wearing green Bermuda shorts and black knee socks, standing in line outside a Miami Beach steak house, waiting for the Early Bird special.

This Pearl Jam disciple I saw playing Santa the other day, he couldn't have been more than 25. I'm surprised he wasn't wearing a Walkman.

Apart from their physical limitations, what a lot of today's mall Santas lack can best be described as the jolliness factor.

Speaking from a purely personal point of view, I don't want a Santa who looks like he just watched an Oldsmobile slam into one of his reindeer.

That's not what Santa's all about -- at least not in my book.

Santa isn't about gloom, OK?

BTC He's not about "attitude," either, which some of these Santas try to inject into their acts.

If you're playing Santa and you're not relaxed and smiling and tossing out a few "ho, ho, ho's" every once in a while, you're in the wrong business, mister.

Speaking of "ho, ho, ho's," I found out something interesting about them some years ago when I did a story on a "Santa School," where they instruct people on how to play mall Santas at Christmas.

There were six men in the class. And, boy, were they a shaky-looking bunch.

If you lined these guys up against a wall and shouted: "All right, everyone make a quarter turn to the right," it would have looked like a police lineup.

Then they could have brought in some old lady dabbing her eyes with a hankie and said: "Ma'am, I want you to study these men carefully. Tell us if you see the man who stole your purse "

Anyway, the instructor quickly ticked off the do's and don'ts of the job: Be relentlessly cheerful, don't forget any part of your outfit, never promise the little brats anything, in case their parents can't deliver the goods, etc. Then he said: "Oh, and no ho, ho, ho's.'

All of us were stunned.

We were like: What?! No ho, ho, ho's?

"It scares the children,' the instructor said.

It scares the children?

"Absolutely. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence to back me up."

Well. Anyway, I kept my mouth shut. I guess I could have stood up, pointed a beefy finger at him accusingly and shouted: "You, sir, are full of it!"

But I didn't. Because I didn't want to get tossed out on my rear end and blow the story.

You do something like that and pretty soon word gets back to your editor: Hey, one of your reporters was causing a ruckus at Santa School.

And next thing you know, you're out of a job. And your journalism career's pretty much shot, too. Because if you go mental at a place like Santa School, there's no telling what you'll do at a city council meeting or a Pentagon briefing or whatever.

Covering Santa School was pretty stressful, too.

But of course nobody wanted to hear that.

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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