10 Questions with a Mall Santa

Justin Vanderstraaten

All images by Zachary Tang.

As a child, my favourite thing about Christmas wasn’t the break from school or the copious amounts of turkey to be eaten. It wasn’t even about presents. I just loved meeting Santa.

Each year, my parents would take me to the neighbourhood mall so I could sit on the jolly old man’s lap and tell him everything—from what toys I hoped for to whether I had been a good boy. Of course, I was much too young to understand that Santa was just a regular dude in a red fat suit. I didn’t realise it was a job. To me, he was the real deal. 

After 20 years, I finally bumped into Santa Claus again at Cluny Court. Like how I remembered it, children stood patiently in line, and I couldn’t help but smile as I watched child after child bounce up to say hello to Father Christmas.

Then a thought hit me: somewhere along the way, I figured out Santa wasn’t real, and the magic evaporated. But watching those kids, I also realised that they were just kids—free from the cynicism of adulthood. They still wholeheartedly believed the man they were speaking to could help with their problems

But what if it was all an act? What if being Santa Claus was just another job to him and he didn’t even like children? Was there any Christmas magic left for children to believe in? Or would we all be better off if the illusion was shattered sooner?


Justin: Hi uhm, Santa! Why did you choose to be a mall Santa? Is this just a gig to you?

Santa: At first, it was something I thought would be fun. I’m an actor back home [in Australia] and looked at the character as any other. However, as I looked more into the character, I realised it also came with great responsibility—not only to children of all ages but also to adults who still hold the magic of Christmas dear to their hearts. 

For me, Christmas is a time for family and getting together. Being a Santa can never be ‘just another gig’, there is so much more to the character than just putting on a big red suit!

  

Justin: So instead of hailing from the North Pole, Santa’s from Australia. Cool. How did you arrive in Singapore’s Cluny Court?

Santa: Once I decided being Santa was for me, I looked around for an agent or agency that could get me the work. Luckily I found one that started operations the same year I looked at being Santa. This agency still finds work for me. Initially, I travelled to where the agency was based and learned a few of the basics about being a Santa, what to do/say and how to best portray the jolly fellow. My second year as a Santa, with the same group, I became a Santa trainer, teaching other hopefuls how to best portray the role. I’ve been doing this for 9 years now!

 

Justin: What’s the training like and can anyone be a mall Santa?

Santa: No, not every man is cut out to be a mall Santa. Just putting on the big red suit, false beard and wig do not make you Santa. It takes a lot of patience and dedication to the role. Training is also essential!

To be a good Santa you need to be able to engage with young people and really listen to them. I used to train other Santas and I’d tell them that every child is different and has different expectations. Of course, we also never make any promises the parents can’t keep.

Other than that, Santa needs to know or be able to adlib the basic information about elves, Mrs Claus and the reindeer. Before each Christmas season rolls around, Santa needs to do his homework too, going into the big stores to see what the best-selling toys are. He needs to know the difference between a ‘Hatchimal’ and a ‘LOL Doll’, on top of the many different types of Lego sets that will be available that year. A general knowledge of video games and books is also an advantage.


Justin: What happens when a child comes to you with a serious problem you know you can’t solve?

Santa: Santa doesn’t try to fix anything. What Santa does is listen, empathise as much as possible and offer positive verbal support. I’ve personally had children asking for the family to be able to stay together because of a divorce or to help heal an ailing parent or sibling. In situations like these, the Santa has to draw on personal experiences and try to be as supportive as possible, but not offering any possible solutions.

Like I said, we never make promises the parents cannot keep. We’ll ask the child what they would like or hope for Christmas then tell them that Santa will do his best. All we can really do is offer a listening ear and wish for the best outcome on their behalf. Many times having someone listen is enough as the person just needs to vocalise their fears/wishes to help them find their own solution.

 

Justin: I understand. How do you deal with the mental or emotional toll it undoubtedly takes on you, though?

Santa: For me, I try to ’turn the page’ as best I can. A child might be all happy and looking forward to Christmas while the next might have a heavy burden due to problems in the family. I listen to them both equally and wish them the best of luck with what they hope for the future.

Sometimes, I do think about things later but when meeting so many children face to face, Santa has to maintain a positive attitude at all times. It would be unfair to the happy child if I was still dwelling too much on an unhappy experience with the previous child. It’s important to keep smiling and not let negative thoughts impact the next visitor

 

Justin: Are children the only ones who come to you?

Santa: Nope! I’ve had adults come to me with their personal problems and asking Santa for help through tough times as well.

I guess people just want to believe in a happy being that makes Christmas a magical time for everyone. Some adults come saying they want to get a photo for their kids but you can tell from their body language that the photo is really for them because they enjoy being with someone who reminds them of their childhood. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever waved or smiled at an adult and not received a like response.

Once, in Sydney, I was in costume across the road from a construction site. I looked up at the workers, waved, and every one of them stopped what they were doing to wave back. Some called out, others took photos. I love the character and what it does for everyone who comes in contact with him.

 

Justin: Santa, can you tell me about the most memorable person who’s spoken to you? 

Santa: Wow, that’s a tough question. Once, a teenage boy visited me and said he really believed in Santa even though all his friends kept telling him Santa wasn’t real and that he was being a child. But he said he knew better and would always believe. 

We chatted for a while about the elves and what Mrs Claus was up to. He also told me about his hopes for the coming Christmas with his family. I would like to think that that young man will instil the same beliefs into his children, to keep the magic alive.

That conversation also reinforced my belief in the character and what I was doing.

 

Justin: What are the best and worst parts of being Santa Claus?

Santa: In our part of the world, we celebrate Christmas at the hottest time of the year. The suit can get very hot, but there are ways around that. Not being too graphic, but there are cooling underwear products available (I have t-shirts that are made to keep the wearer cool!). However, sitting in or walking around in an air-conditioned environment is helpful. I have worked outside, but in those situations, you must take regular breaks to cool down. That’s about the whole of the negative side for me. Its manageable, so not a big problem.

The best parts? Everything! This persona, Santa, is a magical being that brings joy and hope to so many people of all ages, regardless of language, religion or ethnic background. The job satisfaction level is sometimes through the roof!


Justin: And is there something people might not know about being a mall Santa?

Santa: That there’s a man inside the suit! Have you ever been to a McDonald’s where there’s a plastic Ronald McDonald sitting on a bench for people to pose with? Many people seem to think that Santa is similar to that. Children get unceremoniously dropped into the lap of Santa for a photo. Some toddlers tend to start kicking when they are frightened or distressed. And those kicks can hurt! Plus it damages the suit.

Many mall Santas put in long hours and often need to have a short break to rehydrate or water the reindeer—a few visitors don’t get that!

 

Justin: Okay, last question: has your life changed after being a mall Santa and will you ever stop putting the suit on?

Santa: Of course my life has changed! For the better, I hope! I don’t think you could be a good Santa without something growing inside that’s for the better. I don’t want to sound pretentious but I would like to think I have ‘grown’ into the Santa persona over the years. Just recently, in the past three years, I have grown a beard which, luckily for me, grew out white so I actually really feel more like the character I’m portraying.

I also think I might’ve mellowed a little in my outlook on life too—dealing with so many people, young and old, has definitely had an effect on me.

Will I ever stop? Not while I’m still able to get around and sit in the chair and meet people and have fun! There is no upper age limit to this person that is Santa.

 

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