It's that time of year when Santas of all shapes and sizes deck the halls of local malls, street corners and holiday parties. These truly jolly men all have something special in common: a little bit of magic that comes straight from the North Pole.
Les Hulke, a Minnepolis-based Santa, celebrates the joy of the season with his wife, Janine. As Papa Santa and Mrs. Claus, they travel around the city, bringing joy to everyone they meet. They especially enjoy bringing their sparkle to private events.
"At parties, Mrs. Claus arrives and says that Santa is parking the sleigh," Hulke said with a conspiratorial laugh.
While she warms up the children of all ages by reading stories and talking to guests, Hulke prepares his entrance with a jingle and a full-bodied "ho, ho, ho!"
This spirited impersonation gives the Hulkes the opportunity to spread joy and remind people of a childhood enchantment that doesn't have to be left behind. They visit and listen to the children in their audience, and they can bring the children gifts if they've been prearranged.
"I love looking into the children's eyes and seeing the joy that Christmas brings," Papa Santa explained.
Most professional Santas put their hearts into their seasonal jobs, and they take pride in learning how to handle sticky situations, navigate children's rambling thoughts and manage distracting parents. These are not teens popping gum and watching the clock for closing time; they're gentlemen who want to share the spirit of Christmas with children around the world.
Of course, commercialism does play a part, and there are some places where Santas are paid a commission on the number of Christmas portraits they inspire. Instead of going to avenues where visitors are hustled quickly past the jolly old elf, it may be wise to arrange a separate visit with Santa at a local school, portrait studio or private event where he can spend more time and be more interactive with the kiddos. In other places, Santas are paid by the hour -- often quite handsomely -- and can spend as much time with children as they're asked to.
Santas face some challenges, including managing hard topics -- such as death and divorce -- with small children who feel safer opening their hearts to Santa than anyone else. Such topics must always be handled with patience and tender care. But Santas also have to have strong memories and quick recall when harried parents return after a visit to ask what their children really want for Christmas. And in their off time, Santas have to study hard. They pore over catalogs and learn about popular games, TV shows and movies so that they're not stumped by a precocious, modern media-savvy child.
Many dedicated Santas even use their summers to share experiences, learn tricks of the trade and work toward perfecting their Santability. The Hulkes both have degrees in Santa Clausology from the International University of Santa Claus and have plans to continue their education at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School. This Michigan-based school has been coaching Santas for 80 years, and their students collectively represent more than 1,000 years of Santa experience.
At such schools, Santas and their Mrs. Clauses learn how to make the holidays magical wherever they may be. They learn practical skills such as how to manage media and how to communicate with sign language, and they learn how to stay healthy through the busy holiday season, when children are prone to spreading viruses. Aging backs and knees can take a toll when hundreds of children are climbing on and off Santa's lap, so it's important that Santas learn how to move children efficiently and safely.
Many experienced Santas also learn how to manage children who might be frightened by the red suit, strange beard or jolly laugh. They try to be gentle, talk quietly and understand the fear in these kids. They recommend taking children who might be overwhelmed by Santa to visit him early in the morning, when crowds are thin, voices are quieter and mall energy is more peaceful.
At the Professional Santa Claus School in Denver, Santas and Mrs. Clauses have been learning the tricks of the trade for three decades. Topics covered at this school include how to make moments special and how to keep audiences entertained. Student Santas practice tricky conversations and learn how to be radiant and jolly in their photos. But their greatest lesson is how to be believable. For most Santas, this is an easy task. They believe in the magic they share, and so it is easy for them to pass that along to the children and adults with whom they visit.
Hulke has perfected his explanation of how he came to be Santa. He says that the real Santa couldn't possibly reach every child in the world, so he had to appoint helpers who were carefully selected for their kindness, generosity and love. Those helpers, he says, were whisked away to the North Pole, where Santa shared a part of his heart with them and sent them home with no clear memory of the journey but a deep desire to carry on the tradition. And so they do.