“Sometimes, the things that may or not be true are the things that a person needs to believe in the most.” That quote, from the 2003 film, Secondhand Lions may best represent the truth about Santa Claus.
It’s the time of year when Santa appears at almost every mall, parade, and special Christmas event and it’s small wonder that children may find the sheer volume of jolly red elves a tad confusing.
They can’t all be the real Santa, right?
“I get asked all the time if I’m the real Santa,” said “Santa” Bob Cristofoli. “I smile and tell them that, of course, Santa is very busy at the North Pole and that he has a lot of helpers. But then I warn them that Santa does go out regularly and you never really know if you’re with the real Santa or not. Then I wink at them and smile.”
Cristofoli is a B.C. resident who has been in the red suit for six years now ever since he was recruited to be a helper and he loves the job. He’s one of the hundred or so Santas that B.C. firm Hire A Santa operates.
Rozmin Watson, operations manager of the company based in B.C., screens the would-be Santas and coordinates their assignments to appear at locations right across Canada.
“They have to be the right fit. They have to love kids and be able to deal with some challenging situations,” said Watson.
And there is no shortage of challenging situations that transcend the children who are frightened by the stranger in the red suit. (After all, mommy always told them not to talk to strangers, let alone accept candy from them.)
“I had one little boy tell me that all he wanted for Christmas was to have his family back. He’d had a family tragedy that year,” Cristofoli recalled. “I told him that Santa can’t do that, but that Mrs. Claus and I would both say a little prayer for him.”
In another instance, Cristofoli had to think quickly when a child asked if Santa could see her when she went to the bathroom. He assured her that it wasn’t something that was being monitored.
“Engaging with the children is a real joy for me. I like to make them laugh,” said Cristofoli. ”They constantly make me laugh, so it’s only fair.”
He sometimes tells the wee ones that Mrs. Claus has him on a diet and that he can only eat two cookies at every house.
Then he’ll hold up three fingers and smile.
As large as Watson’s organization may be, it is far from the largest group of Santas out there.
We caught up with “Santa” Ed Taylor in Los Angeles, California, where he heads up a 3,000-plus member group called WorldWide Santa Claus Network.
Taylor lives the Santa experience year-round. If you’ve seen Santa portrayed in movies, television, or commercials, you’ve likely seen him in action. He’s partnered with everyone from Chrysler to Band-Aid to Reddi-Wip and appeared extensively on TV, movies, and special events.
“Over the years, I’ve raised the bar for myself. I want to live Santa in a way that is true to my highest self … the part of me that is kind and thoughtful and generous. It lets me aspire to be the best person that I can be,” said Taylor.
It’s a sentiment he instills in the members of his organization through near-weekly, year-round seminars.
“We talk about how to control our emotions when we hear tragic stories and how to bring joy into the lives of the children we meet,” he said. That ability has been put to the test for Taylor when he makes his regular appearances for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“I’ve talked to children who, you know, may not be around by Christmas. But you can’t break down. You have to save your tears for later and continue to be Santa for those children. They deserve it.”
The sessions that Taylor’s organization provides also include training in improv by professional comedians as well as character portrayal by professional actors.
“When you put on the red suit, you have to be able to think fast and be Santa, no matter what happens,” Taylor said.
And sometimes what happens is nothing short of magical.
“Santa” Jim Whitesell, a pre-eminent Santa in Edmonton for 13 years, tells of his personal favourite Christmas miracle that inspired him to take on the role of Santa.
“It was my first time, and I went to a school for children with learning disabilities. They had this ratty old suit but I put it on and got into character as best I could. That’s when a little girl came up and sat on my knee and, very shyly, said hello and started telling me about herself. I looked up and the teachers were watching with shocked expressions on their faces. Some were crying.”
It turns out that this 6-year-old had never spoken before that time.
“That convinced me that this was a big responsibility. I got myself a better suit and a custom-made beard (50,000 human hairs and a six-week build time) and I learned the reindeer macarena and all the stories about the North Pole workshop that I could ever need,” Whitesell said. “That’s when I found that being Santa coloured my outlook on everything, all year round. I find that I smile all the time.”
Of course, not all Santas out there are at the top of their game.
“Some people just can’t do it and there’s no sense in trying to cram a square peg in a round hole,” said Taylor. “It’s not just being Santa. It’s about how we carry ourselves – how we smile and laugh and behave. It’s not just how we are as Santa, but who we are as people.”
That still leaves the perennial question of whether a belief in Santa is something that parents should promote, or even allow.
“If you don’t want to believe in Santa as a real guy that’s fine,” said Taylor. “But realize that Santa is more than just a person, he’s an idea. He’s aspirational and the values that he inspires may be the greatest gift of all.”
There is undoubtedly a sense of wonder inspired by Santa that fits well with our best hopes and dreams. It’s about love, caring, and joy.
And with that, we’ll leave you with the last line of the Secondhand Lions speech, a line that sums up the truth about Santa.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a person should believe in those things because those are the things worth believing in.”
Have a very merry Christmas.