John Del Signore: When I Was Santa (Part Two: Where the Hand Has Been)

by John Del Signore


Previously in our tale of Christmas-time Santa-employment: Part One.

One my first day, Patricia the Saks Santa-wrangler and I rode the escalators up to the eighth floor and turned off into a long, gray hallway lined with lockers. Sales clerks squeezed by us carrying trays of food and drink.

“There’s an employee cafeteria back here in case you ever want anything to eat,” she said.

“Nobody likes a skinny Santa!”

“Right. Here we are.”

Patricia opened a door into a storage closet packed with boxes. On a hanger against the wall, my costume dangled like a velvet noose. It was a bulging one-piece padded shell with red velvet pants sewn into a candy-cane top with little pockets. The ensemble was accented with black boots and a floor-length red velvet cape that would get stuck in the escalator if I didn’t hike it up. The white beard, wig, red cap and gloves were piled on the floor.

She pointed out an enormous red velvet sack.

“That’s for the candy canes, which are in these boxes. Here’s a copy of your schedule. You get a half-hour break at 3:30. The men’s room is down the hall if you need to use that. So… What else? I think that’s everything. Any questions? Okay, great! Well, have fun.”

She stepped out of the room but immediately poked her head in.

“One more thing: there’s another guy who uses the costume on your days off, so just try to keep it clean, okay?”

And that explained why the inside of the suit was damp! At least now I know it’s not urine, I thought to myself.

Or do I?

Half an hour later, I stepped out onto the floor of Saks Fifth Avenue as the living embodiment of Saint Nicholas, Father of Modern Christmas, a 6’3″ elf-rustler in charge of churning out the cheer.

“Oh, look! It’s Santa! Look, hon! LOOK! SANTA!”

They set upon me immediately, at least twenty of them. Blinded by the flashing cameras, I sprayed candy-canes in a circle and yelled ‘Ho-Ho-Ho!’ in my jolliest James Earl Jones voice. My senses were swimming in the inferno of the suit.

It was that irritating sensation of wearing too many layers in a crowded shopping mall, cursing yourself for not leaving your coat in the car. But the Santa suit generated the warmth of not one overcoat, but four. Plus gloves. Plus a thick hat covering your head to make sure no heat escapes, and beneath that hat, a wig that hangs down the back of your neck, and a scratchy beard that smothers your face, so that the only part of your entire body exposed to the world is that small region beneath the eyes where your cheeks glow like jolly little blazing tree stumps.

Within minutes the inner foam of the fat suit had the consistency of steamed cabbage. But the perspiration didn’t stop there. My feet were pitiful little Pomeranians melting in a microwave set on high.

“Aren’t you a little young to be Santa?” one elderly woman quipped, the first of thousands to fire that hardball at me.

“Oh, young lady, flattery will get you everywhere,” I chuckled, hugging her with one arm and then staggering on through the throng.

Saks does Santa a little differently than most department stores. Instead of a single seat of power in the center of the store, they employ a ‘Roving Santa’ to wander around spreading the Good Consumer News. According to Patricia’s schedule, my day began up on the eighth floor at noon. Santa was to spend a half-hour on each floor, finally finishing on the main floor for the last hour, from five to six: prime time.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” I choked, passing out candy canes to customers as they stepped off the escalator on the eighth floor. “Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!”

“Come on, Santa, put a little more oomph into that Ho-Ho-Ho!” a woman with two teenage boys ordered as she grabbed a candy-cane from my hand.

It became immediately clear that I wasn’t going to cut it. Already I could feel a rash forming around my lips from the wet beard. My break was not for three more hours-and then it would be back in the suit for another three-hour shift of joy and cheer. I ducked behind a row of mannequins and yanked my beard down to breathe.

This wasn’t worth it. Not for the money, not for the power, not even for the chance to inculcate children with Marxist ideology.

But just when I was about to tear off the wig and head back downriver, I suddenly remembered my old friend alcohol. Yes, it made perfect sense. Santa has to get jolly somehow, doesn’t he?

The mere thought of oiling the furnace with the balm of cheap whiskey was enough to bring the sparkle back to Santa’s eye.

I slapped the beard back on and returned to the floor. Three boys stepped off the elevator with their mother.

“Merry Christmas, boys!” I cried.

“We’re Jewish,” said their mother. Yes, the boys did appear to be wearing yarmulkes. They were but the first of many Jews to receive accidental Christmas blessings from an insensitive Santa.

So my little life as a sodden saint began. I quickly found a nice routine for myself. I would swing by the employee cafeteria at eleven-thirty and fill up a giant cup halfway to the top with ginger ale and plenty of ice. (I’d also grab a large frozen yogurt.) Then I would lock myself in Santa’s little changing room, fill the rest of the Big-Gulp with Wild Turkey, and quickly consume the beverage and frozen dessert while putting on the sweaty layers of foam.

Time flies when you’re lost in a steamy, booze-soaked haze. In fact, the first three hours of my shift were usually when my most inspired work occurred.

It’s important to keep in mind here that unlike most department stores, there is no children’s toy department at Saks. This is not to say that a steady stream of li’l ones didn’t find me, but the vast bulk of my audience consisted of solitary women. Many of these women looked remarkably similar, inching up toward middle age. Nearly all were severely thin. They picked through the array of high-end merchandise with palpable ennui, but when their eyes fell upon the six-foot-four Santa, enormous smiles would creak across their faces.

As these women approached me to accept a candy-cane from my gloved hand, I would look into their eyes and sometimes glimpse the adult pushing the little girl aside. When they realized that standing before them was no geriatric elf, but a healthy young man buried away under all that hair and fat, the innuendo would begin.

The following are comments made to Santa Claus by women, either alone or shopping with friends:

“Ooh, Santa, you know how naughty I’ve been this year because you’ve seen me when I’m sleeping.”

“Oh, Santa, I’d like to see what you’ve got for me under that suit.” (Sometimes accompanied by attempted grab at Santa’s ass.)

“Oh, Santa, I want to come for a ride in your sleigh. Why don’t you to take me up to the North Pole — so I can melt it.”

“Santa, I’ve been so naughty, I can’t wait for you to stuff my stocking with your hot, black coal.”

I swear on Donner and Blitzen, these are actual quotes, to which I would usually respond with: “Ho! Ho! Ho! Why don’t you give Santa your phone number?” Never had one taker.

Why did these women feel such a feral need to sexual harass an innocent young (and pretty drunk) man drowning in his own sweat? One theory is the obvious some-kinda-Oedipal urge of the young girl for the old man. But I was not actually an old man, and they were definitely not young girls, so go figure. Maybe it had something to do with sexual-harassment payback. Now it was the man’s turn to be the (literally) hot young thing in uncomfortable shoes, and they finally got to don the hard hat and heckle.

Or perhaps they really did want to unwrap Santa’s package, but when he actually set it under the tree they were too timid to take it.

Tomorrow, our concluding installment, in which-well, did you think this was going to end particularly well for Santa?

John Del Signore is currently employed by Gothamist.