Santa's WorkshopApril 6, 2013
Story by John Seasly
Photos by Matthew Busch
The shiny red hook soars through the air, propelled by the weight of a rubber worm. It plunks in the murky green water, sending ripples across the tranquil pond. A solitary Santa reels the line back in.
“It’s private time for Santa Claus,” Santa Jeff Curtis says on this warm Saturday afternoon. He pauses, and corrects himself. “Private time for Jeff is what it is.”
With a fishing rod in one hand and a Marlboro in the other, Jeff is taking a break from the workshop going on inside the hotel, Santa’s Lodge, and throughout the town of Santa Claus.
Santas and Mrs. Clauses from New York to California and beyond have gathered for the 2013 Jim Yellig Santa Claus Workshop, sponsored by the Santa Claus Oath Foundation. It is the third free workshop of its kind, and the last large workshop in the town of Santa Claus until 2017. (Until then, similar events will be held in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Tampa, Fla., and Albion, N.Y.)
Nearly 400 Santas and Mrs. Clauses are in attendance. In general, the Santas fit the description you are likely imagining, with a beard as white as snow, and a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly. Or as 60-year-old Santa Rex Ray of Chipley, Fla., put it when he first entered the hotel: “I’ve never seen so many fat old guys in red in one place in my whole life!”
There are Santas in shorts and holiday-print Hawaiian shirts. There are Santas with puppets. There is a Santa in a red-and-white letter jacket, with the word “Believe” stitched on the back. There is a Santa drill team representing the military and decked out in red, white, navy and gray camouflage uniforms. There are Scottish-themed Santas in kilts (who are wearing something underneath, Mrs. Claus Kathi Gant of Cleveland said. If they weren’t, she said, “That would just not be right.”). There is a 12-year-old Santa, who has been at it since he was 6.
And there is Jeff, 57, from Bartlett, Ill. For an hour or two, he has escaped from the hubbub of the hotel’s Celebration Room, which is Santa central. Vendors — most of them Santas or Mrs. Clauses themselves — have set up shop, offering makeup, suits, accouterments, even liability insurance. More than one vendor sells cookies.
On this sunny spring day, Jeff is wearing a red baseball cap and sweater, boots, blue jeans and sunglasses. But for the collar-length beard, he wouldn’t stand out in a crowd.
“We’re all pretty normal people,” he says. He took over the role from his father 16 years ago.
“Once you do it, you’re hooked,” he says. “We’re all addicted to that red suit.”
Ron and Bonnie Halderman of Erlanger, Ky., wear matching red velvet tracksuits for their visit to Santa’s Candy Castle. To complete the ensemble, Ron, 72, is sporting red sneakers and a plush red cap, with a puff of white at the top.
Outside, chain-saw artist Willy Loper arranges his carved wooden creations. One of them, a Santa face etched into a board, catches Ron’s eye.
“How much for that Santa?” Ron asks.
“$75,” Willy tells him. “I can make one like you, if you want.”
Ron pauses, considering. “Yeah, let’s do it,” he says.
Willy takes a pencil and, glancing up at Ron, sketches a quick likeness on the top half of a 4-foot-long plank of wood.
“I’m gonna get that hat in there somehow, I like that hat,” Willy says. He props the board against a stump. He listens to 2Pac on headphones underneath his earmuffs. He revs his chain saw four times, and it sputters to life.
The smell of gasoline saturates the air and sawdust litters the ground as Willy makes his first incision. He shaves the puff of Santa’s cap and then its curve. Ron stands so that Willy can see him. A crowd has gathered to watch the artist at work.
With nicks and bites Willy whittles down Santa’s button nose, his round cheeks, his bushy mustache. He traces the semicircle curve of Santa’s beard. For the finishing touch, he plunges the chain saw through the arc of the beard, severing the head from the rest of the plank. He flips the board around for his model and patron to see.
Ron takes the face in his hands, admiring the work.
Normally, Willy says, he tries to get more than $75 for personal work.
“But, you know... It’s Santa.”
Father Joseph Marquis, executive director of the St. Nicholas Institute in Livonia, Mich., leads an ecumenical Santa service on Sunday at St. Nicholas Catholic Church.
For years, Fr. Joseph, 64, has studied the history of Christmas and specifically that of St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra (located in present-day Turkey). Fr. Joseph is a devoted admirer of St. Nicholas, on whom the modern idea of Santa Claus is loosely based. The way he tells it, St. Nick was more of an action hero than the portly, rosy-cheeked figure we think of today.
“He was not a sissy, let’s put it that way,” Fr. Joseph said.
With a square jaw and muscular build, the bishop delivered gifts to the poor under cover of darkness, to protect their dignity.
“I’ve always loved St. Nicholas and what he represents as a Christian,” Fr. Joseph said.
Santas, Mrs. Clauses and local residents fill the pews for the special service. Fr. Joseph, with a salt-and-pepper beard and deep basso profundo voice, opens with a rendition of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” His voice would carry to the back of the room even if he weren’t using a microphone.
For those who are interested — and almost everyone is — he offers a blessing of manna from St. Nicholas’ tomb. The manna, a clear liquid, has been emanating from the saint’s bones for 17 centuries, Fr. Joseph explains. Every year it is extracted from his crypt in Bari, Italy. This year, Fr. Joseph was given a vial of it.
“It’s the closest physical contact you or I will have with St. Nicholas,” he says. The blessing is “a sign that we want our friends in eternity to be with us.”
A line forms in the central aisle. One by one, Fr. Joseph blesses each person. With his right hand, he dips a gold stylus into the vial of liquid and traces a cross on each forehead.
“In the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit who is the Christmas spirit you are now knighted in the service of God and in imitation of St. Nicholas of Myra,” he says, gently pressing his palm against the mark.
One by one, the Santas and Mrs. Clauses return to their seats, their bond with Christmas newly reinforced.
A Bearded Brotherhood
The ceremonial aspects of the gathering are in full swing on Monday at the Heritage Hills High School auditorium. In an emotional moment, six Santas and two Mrs. Clauses hold a moment of silence for the Santas who have died in the past year.
Santa Everett Johnson, 69, of Knoxville, Tenn., reads from “Santa’s Final Journey,” by Philip Gurganus. The poem describes one final sleigh ride that takes Santa to heaven.
“The angels replaced his red suit with a beautiful robe of white,” Johnson reads. In the last line, Jesus takes Santa’s hand and tells him, “It’s time to open your gifts.”
Above the stage, a PowerPoint presentation displays the names of the Santas who have died. “In loving memory to our departed brothers,” it begins. Twenty-three names appear on the screen, one at a time. Some in the audience stifle their tears. “We will miss you,” the screen reads at last.
Outside, it is snowing.
It takes a fair amount of bravery to be Santa, especially a real-bearded one. People stare at you wherever you go. You are asked to pose for pictures, even in the off-season. And attitude matters, too. Nobody likes a cranky Santa.
The men’s reasons for doing it were a variation on a single theme: the joy of children.
“Just to see the smiles and to be able to share with them the joys of Christmas,” Santa Tom Pellitieri, 51, of Toledo, Ohio, said. “To be able to put a smile on a child, from 3 to 93,” Santa Don White, 61, of Fullerton, Calif., said. “You get to sit and talk to kids about toys. It’s pretty good,” Santa Jeff Curtis said.
The pay varies, but can reach impressive levels for Santas with the right credentials and ZIP codes. In Atlanta, a mall Santa can earn $275 an hour, said Santa Denzil Beeson, 53, of Augusta, Ga. Private events, usually with photographers, can pay even more.
But there are easier ways to make money, and real-bearded, round-bellied Santas take on full-time responsibilities for seasonal gigs. They do it because they are committed to Christmas. They do it because they believe.
On the last night of the conference, the snow continues to fall. About 20 Santas and Mrs. Clauses huddle around a bonfire, singing carols and swapping stories. Every Santa has both funny and tragic stories of Christmases past. They share some of them tonight. The fire hisses and snaps, and the wind blows from the north. As the hour grows late, their ranks thin out. Santa Paul Raines of Phoenix decides to head back to the hotel.
“I’ll see you old men later!” he tells them. “I gotta get in out of the cold.”
Contact John Seasly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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