Most writers go to great lengths to try and get the details of their books right. I’ve worked with homicide teams and private investigators so as to allow me to write authoritatively about characters and investigative work. I have traveled to unusual and remote locations to get the feel and essence of that place. As a writer, I am always seeking out that ever elusive verisimilitude – I want my books to have that “truth-like” feeling.
When envisioning my novel ST. NICK, I knew my main character was going to be a reluctant mall Santa Claus, but everything else was still fuzzy. Because I didn’t know much about the world of Santa Claus, I decided the only way to write about that character was to experience the life of a mall Santa.
The first year I applied for a job as Santa I wasn’t hired. Maybe I was lacking in Christmas spirit. Maybe I looked too big to be Santa Claus (I’m 6’ 7” which isn’t exactly jolly old elf height). And so I took it as an omen that I wasn’t yet ready to write that book (I remember my tentative title was SANTA’S HELPER, but that was before my main character solidified in my mind and I decided upon ST. NICK).
A year later I again applied to be Santa Claus, and was hired as the full-time Santa (two other Santas were also hired) of what was then called the La Jolla Village Square. At the time of my hiring, I was working as a hotel manager. Luckily for me the slowest time of the year for San Diego hotels is the stretch from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and by taking vacation time off I was able to work both jobs.
Many of the things I experienced as Santa I was able to have my main character, suspended cop Nick Pappas, also experience. One of the “hazards” of being Santa Claus is that there is no place for your body to breathe. You are wearing a large layer of padding, and have a heavy uniform draping your body. On your face is a beard, on your head is a wig, and atop your head is a hat. Your hands are covered in white gloves, and on your feet are black boots. It’s crazy hot, and I perspired copiously, even though people couldn’t even see me sweat because of the beard and wig. The “elves” that I worked with were constantly filling my water bottle. Every day I had to carefully dry my sodden mass of batting (padding). On one occasion I didn’t do a very good job of that, and suffered much like my character in the book did.
Another on the job hazard comes from the overactive bladders of young boys. I missed that bullet, but one of the other Santas I worked with took one for the team.
At La Jolla Village Square there were three mall Santa Clauses, and one of them was an actor (because of that, I decided to have “actor Santa” in my novel). The thespian Santa approached the character as he would a role. He loved the theatrics, and “ho ho hoed” with the best of them. Although I was no thespian, I did respect the fact that when the Santa Claus uniform went on, I became the legend. The third Santa took on the job as part-time work. I didn’t get to know him very well, but the elves were never happy working with him. Because the Santa display was a revenue center, part of our job was getting our lap-sitters ready for the best possible picture, and this Santa Claus invariably shut his eyes whenever the flash went off. Believe me, it’s hard enough getting a toddler to pose for one shot. If multiple shots are involved, you can be sure the toddler will be crying by the end of the shoot. I like to think I was a professional Santa – when it came time for my close-up, one take was all that was ever needed.
Working as a Santa Claus proved to be invaluable to writing the book. I learned firsthand about sore backs (inevitable when you lift so many children into your lap), how to divine mumbled youthful toy requests, the brainwashing effect of Christmas Muzak, and the North Pole politics among elves. I can tell you the only thing shriller than an air raid siren is a terrified five-year-old who is letting the world know he wants nothing to do with a bearded stranger in red pajamas. And then after a day of such screaming, and just when you’re thinking Jonathan Swift might have been on to something with his “A Modest Proposal,” you get dewy eyed when another five-year-old wraps her arms around you and says, “I love you, Santa Claus.”
As Santa Claus I learned that many women love getting their picture taken kissing St. Nick. The head elf always kept soda water handy to remove the red lipstick on my beard. I also learned that women enjoy confessing to Santa that they’ve been “a bad girl,” but still ask him for a Mercedes or diamonds.
Like my character Nick, I was terrified working my first day in the North Pole. Seeing a line of kids waiting to talk to a legend will do that to you. I had stage fright and doubts. Was I the right person to make a child’s visit with Santa special?
The more experience I had at being Santa, the better I got at the job. Masks give the wearer a certain freedom, and it soon became apparent I was all but unrecognizable in my Santa outfit. People I knew quite well passed me by and never recognized me. On one occasion I saw a basketball referee named John. Over the years John had refereed dozens of league games in which I had played. I dispatched one of the elves to bring him over to our sleigh.
“I am concerned, John,” I told him.
John immediately freaked out. “How do you know my name?” he asked.
“Santa knows the names of all,” I said. “And I am worried about you, Johnny. If you don’t change your ways, you will soon join the rolls of the Bad Boys, and all you will get for Christmas is a lump of coal.”
As I continued talking with “Johnny,” his mouth kept dropping. Because I was privy to personal information, Santa was able to express “his” disappointment at Johnny’s various shortcomings.
“Who are you?” John kept asking.
Finally, I told a perplexed John away that I would be giving him a gift that hundreds of people thought he needed: eyeglasses.
As he walked away, John kept turning around and shaking his head. He never guessed Santa’s true identity.
Seeing Santa brings back memories for many. Some remember their first visit to Santa Claus. Some remember taking their children to see him. As for me, I’ll always look back fondly at my four weeks of being Santa Claus. My novel ST. NICK shares those times, and is my grown-up letter to Santa.
– Alan Russell 3/1/2014