“A lot of Santa portrayers say they started out when they answered a spiritual calling,” said Santa Steve of the North. “But for me, putting on the red suit for the first time was a financial decision. I was a young father working as a printing press operator back in 1985, and needed a little extra part-time work that would help me pay for Christmas. I saw an ad hiring Santas to appear at various locations around the Twin Cities. I thought that would fit nicely with my community theater background, so I gave them a call and got hired.
“Santa school was seven days of intensive training. I still have the manual: ‘Be on time; be dependable; be friendly; dress neatly; the parents are always right.’ With that, a little padding, and a very warm suit and false beard, I was ready to start visiting homes and taking Polaroid photos with children at a local shopping mall.
“I remember one of my first home visits very well. I was sitting on the couch with the whole family gathered around to pose for photos. I didn’t know this while I was smiling for the camera, but a teenage girl was cradling her pet cat just over my head. The cat, startled by the flash bulb, decided to let out all of his frustration on me. He ripped off my hat and wig and scratched up my face until I was bleeding.
“All I could do at that point was remain calm – I didn’t want to lose any more face than the cat had already taken from me. I got up, thanked them for letting me be part of their special day, and told them my manager would be in touch. It was disheartening, going from mall Santa to mauled Santa just like that, but I wound up finishing the season with the money I needed to give my two-year-old son a good Christmas.
“That was the only year I worked with that service. I did portray Santa again at my own family Christmas party about 15 years later. Time must have made me look more convincing, because even the kids who had seen me earlier that day had no idea who I was. They looked at the boots and the beard and the costume, and they were certain I must have been the real deal.
“I wouldn’t portray Santa professionally again until 2009. By then I had grown my own beard, which only needed a little spray to whiten up the areas that hadn’t turned snowy on their own yet, and my padding had become all-natural. I was a much better performer by then as well, having acted in community theater productions like Fiddler on the Roof, Anything Goes and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, played bass for several rock bands, and given hundreds upon hundreds of magic shows to kids at festivals and fairs. My wife surprised me with a beautiful outfit from Twin Cities Magic & Costume, and with that I was all set to become Santa Steve of the North.
“I don’t approach Santa like a typical acting gig. In my mind I am the modern incarnation of Saint Nicholas, which I convey through my own emotions and body language. Magic has also helped me portray the saint more convincingly. If a kid is skeptical about whether I’m really Santa, it’s fairly easy to win them over once I’ve floated Rudolph’s red nose around their head and snatched a chocolate gold coin from out of thin air.
“But I never lie. If a child directly asks whether I’m the real Santa, I just ask them back: ‘Are you the real John?’ Assuming their name happens to be John, that is.
“Promising gifts takes a certain amount of tact as well. When a child asks me for something specific (especially an expensive piece of technology), I tell them I can’t make any promises but will be certain to bring them something they’ll like. I’ll only plant an expectation with the parent’s approval, which they usually give as a little nod.
“I also teach children about the equality of Santa’s love. This philosophy means not boasting or bragging about their bounty to their friends at school, who may not share all the same advantages they enjoy. I also encourage parents to accompany a costly gift with an inexpensive one. That way their kid can talk about it like it was the best thing they received, which can help prevent a lot of bitterness and envy from arising out of what really should be the most peaceful time of year. They often thank me for this advice.
The Magic of Believing in the equality of Santa’s love. The philosophy of not boasting or bragging of your bounty to your school chums after the winter vacation, was missed. I have been complimented for reminding moms and dads and relatives of this concept. Perhaps you can include a mention of this advice that prevents jealousy between the “Believers” and their peers at school. If a child is fortunate enough to receive a costly item as a gift, another inexpensive gift must accompany and be considered as the best and most desired for the sake of those that will not receive a costly gift. I hope you understand the significance of this approach.
“This job can really get to you sometimes if you’re not careful about it. One time at the mall I met a little boy holding a toy truck. I said ‘Oh, what a nice truck you have there!’ The boy looked up with half a smile and handed his toy over to me. I admired it and proclaimed it to be the most wonderful truck ever to exist in the world. Then he finally spoke: ‘I like you. I like Christmas.’
“At this point I noticed the boy’s mother had tears in her eyes. She explained to me that her son had autism, and this was the most he had spoken with another person in the last two years.
“I’ve performed for many groups centered around autism since then. They are all wonderful people.
“What do I love about being Santa? Well, I have to be honest – I’m not a wealthy man by any means. I spent my life working in the printing industry, doing everything from handset type to web-fed printing presses to envelope-making machinery. I took great pride in that work, making certain to read everything I ever produced from front to back whether it was just a letterhead or a complete technical manual. As rewarding as I found that career, it wasn’t very lucrative. Being Santa during Christmastime, on the other hand, is.
“But money is not the only reason I do this. Far from it. I also genuinely love being Santa. He’s the only person in the world who is appreciated by everyone whether they’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu. He always makes everyone happy. ‘Look – here comes Santa Claus!’ are the nicest words anyone can say to me.
“Last year was a difficult one, but I’m looking forward to all my special appearances this season. I welcome anyone to reach out to me for public events, family gatherings and photo shoots. I can come with reindeer if you like. I’m also especially lucky to be joined by Debra Claus, who is an experienced singer and entertainer herself. She brings so much more to my visits, and is available for her own solo appearances as well.”
To learn more about Santa Steve of the North and Debra Claus, please visit santasteveofthenorth.com.
By David Scheller