“Throughout the 90s my wife and I volunteered a lot for Toys for Tots — we love kids and the Marines,” said Santa Joe. “One year the volunteer Santa had to bow out. I was working in the warehouse that day, because I know how to use a forklift, and I thought ‘well, I’ve got a beard, and I’m fat,’ which were my two goals when I got out of the Navy, so I offered to be Santa that year.
“I called up another Santa whose wife tailors his suits by hand, and she made me the most beautiful outfit. I got a jug of commercial makeup to color my beard, which was red and black back then. Picture a 40 year old guy with a gallon of whiteout on his face and you get the idea. Fortunately the kids didn’t care, even when it started raining and the whitening all ran down my chest. I’ve been Santa ever since.
“My first Santa suit was made from this gorgeous quilted fabric. The only problem was that it was insulated — it was good at 20 below, but under studio lighting I’d lose three or four liters of sweat in a single session. Now I’ve got an extraordinarily lightweight suit, with a custom belt buckle made by another Santa out in California. I’ve gone a little more casual in succeeding years, with red pants, festive shirts and colorful vests, and a beret with a candy cane on top. I find that casual Santa clothes can make you a little less imposing to the smaller kids. My beard has gone white for real since I first started, and I’m still fat.
“Free cookies are good, but the reality is that if you’re Santa, you shouldn’t eat everything that people give you. Santa season is pretty compressed, so you can’t risk eating something that might get you sick. There are just too few pinch hitters who can fill in for you if that happens. Also, Santa’s not very appealing if he’s got crumbs and gravy all over his suit. I stick to Clif Bars and bottled water when I’m on the job, which can be tough when I’m at a venue with a good buffet. There I am, only six feet away from a Black Forest ham that I can’t touch, but that’s the kind of sacrifice you have to make when you want to make a difference in the world.
“To provide kids with the genuine Santa experience, you should have the clothes and the white beard, true, but you must give them the special attention that they deserve. Kids will see the heart inside of whatever you’re wearing. I pay close attention to each individual child, and give them the appropriate feedback. Some little guys are quiet, and even with my hearing aids at full blast I have trouble hearing them. I’ve learned how to at least act like I understand everything they say, and I always remember their names when I see them the next year. I’m coming up on my third generation of work with some families.
“I’ve been very blessed with my work as Santa, so I get to give back at least one third of my performances to charity every year. I have been Santa for several children’s hospitals, as well as HopeKids — a lot of children who are too sick to make it to the mall. Being a special needs Santa is phenomenally rewarding, but it’s not easy. It takes a little piece of your heart every time. I shed a few tears, but I get a lot more smiles out of it. To a lot of those kids I’ll be the only Santa they’ve ever known.
“One year I was doing an event for HopeKids, and a little boy came up to me. I asked him the standard Santa question: ‘What do you want for Christmas this year?’ He told me that he just wanted everyone to be happy again. I looked up at his family, all holding back tears. I told him that I would pray for him. His prognosis would only take him a couple more months.
“When you’re Santa, you can’t promise kids something that you can’t give them. You just want the person who’s on your knee to be a little happier when they walk away. I think the essence of Santa is just being kind to everyone you meet. That might just be the essence of life itself, too.”
Santa Joe was a Cryptologic Technician Interpretive back in his Navy days, which he explains is a fancy way of saying he was a spook. Along with his experience as a missionary in Haiti, that means he can converse with children in Creole, German, Spanish, Arabic, and “even English on a good day.” You can arrange for Santa Joe to make any kid’s Christmas special by visiting santajoe.com.
By David Scheller