By Heidi Scott
For many, the approaching new year means tradition. For Christians, these traditions might include a nativity reenactment, a reading of Luke 2, and the distribution of sweets to friends and neighbors.
A common tradition for many children is, of course, seeing Santa Claus. Indeed, sometimes it is impossible to avoid him. At the mall, at the greenhouse, at the grocery store, and even at church. He seems to be everywhere!
Obviously, the big guy in the red suit can’t actually be everywhere. He needs helpers who are willing to stand in for him and do what he would do if he were there. We’ve learned that many these helpers are professionally trained. There actually is a Santa Claus Conservatory, offering “Soup to Nuts Training for Santas & Mrs. Claus’ of all levels.” But a majority of Santa’s helpers are just willing volunteers who want to continue the tradition of goodwill and magical memories.
Patrick Cabbage volunteered for his first time ever, sitting in for Santa at the Five Mile Prairie Grange’s annual “Pancakes with Santa” event. This event is held every year and has become an endearing tradition for local families. This year record-breaking numbers turned out, with 463 orders of pancakes. But when the last volunteer retired, the Grange was left wondering how to continue the tradition. Patrick, a member of the Grange, offered to help out.
FĀVs writer Heidi Scott sat down with Cabbage a week after the event to find out what the experience was like.
Q: I know you hadn’t ever done anything like this before. How did you prepare to be Santa?
A: Well, I did a lot of research. I Googled “How to prepare to be a Santa.” There are a lot of things that come up when you do that. There was a lot of bad advice online. I don’t really buy into the idea that we have to MAKE kids believe in Santa. In our house, Santa is a symbol of Christmas, rather than a real man. I made sure to learn the names of the reindeer, in case I needed them. I didn’t. One kid asked how Rudolph was doing, and I told him, “Oh, that Rudolph is a bit of a rascal,” but that was all.
I wasn’t sure what kinds of things the kids would want to talk about, so I figured I’d better cover my bases. I talked to my dad, who did Santa for many years. I interviewed my kids to see what they thought. My 6-year-old came up with three rules for me, with the help of his Grandpa: 1) Santa can’t lie, 2) Your belly has to jiggle when you laugh, and 3) You need to practice your “ho ho hos.”
Q: And did you practice them?
A: Oh yes. I spent a lot of time in the car alone, and with the kids. They critiqued me. They’d say, “No, that was more of a “ha ha ha.” Try again. I only had a couple of weeks’ notice, so I didn’t have a lot of time to get it right.
Q: What were your expectations on the big day?
A: I fully expected babies to cry. And they did. It’s an interesting mix of being both a piece of furniture and being the center of attention. The kids would come in and look for me, and then watch me the whole time. I also expected plenty of older kids who were drug there against their will, which there were a few. I was surprised by the number of adult women who used me as a piece of furniture or a backdrop for their pictures. They sat on my lap or around me.
Q: Were there any other surprises?
A: Oh yeah. I was surprised by how much parent interaction there was. Some parents were just “in and out, check that off the list.” Some would ask me to really play a part in getting their children to believe.
One woman approached me, leaned in, and whispered, “My daughter is going to ask you for a mermaid tail, and that she wants it tomorrow for an early Christmas present. But in her letter, she asked for an Alaskan Husky puppy. We already have plans to get the puppy. Can you show her the letter to tell her you got it?”
She gave me the letter and left. In a moment, a girl and boy came up. I asked the little girl’s name. When she told me, I asked her, “Did you send me a letter?”
She said, “Yes.”
I pulled the letter out from behind me, and said, “What did you ask for in this letter?”
She told me to read it, so I opened it up and we looked at her picture of a little girl and a puppy and a Christmas tree. The other side was the letter. She told me about it, but then said, “I also want a mermaid tail and I want it tomorrow as an early Christmas present.”
I remembered that Santas can’t lie, so I told her, “Santa has a problem with early Christmas presents. Those are hard to do. A puppy seems like a lot of fun.”
She agreed, and then I asked if I could keep the letter. As she left I said, “Puppies are great! I love puppies!” Her mom came up and thanked me profusely. I was a little nervous that her brother would ask if I got his letter, but luckily, he didn’t.
A part of me wanted to resist this and say, “Santa washes his hands of co-conspiracy!” But of course, I played along. I was surprised how many parents came up afterward and asked me what their kid had asked for.
Q: What sort of questions did you get?
A: I thought there would be different questions. I was ready for them to ask if I was real. I planned to talk of the great symbol of Christmas and just deflect. But I didn’t need to go there. I was also ready for the beard pullers. There weren’t any of those either, thankfully. I have a real beard, so the white beard didn’t fit snug to my chin. I had to let it hang, extra floppy. I expected more problems with that, and it wasn’t too bad. A few times I had to strategically put my hand to my chin like I was thinking, just to get it back in place. The worst part was the hair that got in my mouth. Santa can’t be pulling hair out of his mouth, so I had to just leave these 6” long strands where they were.
The questions weren’t too surprising. A couple of kids asked for horses, and I would just say, “That would be fun, but that’s a pretty big gift.”
One kid rattled off a list of very expensive things, an Xbox, a dirt bike, etc. I said, “Woah! That’s a lot of gifts!” He agreed, and then added a few more requests.
Kids are there to tell Santa what they want, and I knew from the start that I wasn’t going to tell them what they’d get. Santa can’t lie, remember. I used a lot of phrases like, “That sounds fun,” to diffuse and not promise. Some kids wanted motorized scooters, to which I couldn’t help saying, “Oh, that sounds like it would be a little bit dangerous!”
Many young kids wanted phones. When I asked them what they would do with a phone, every one of them said, “play games.” I really had to bite off my own impulses sometimes. I see no socially redeeming value in video games, but that wasn’t my job to share that day.
A few kids didn’t know what they wanted. I just assured them that there was still plenty of time and that they could write me a letter.
Q: Were there any requests for immaterial things, like happiness or world peace?
A: Nope. People just want stuff.
Q: What was the actual process like?
A: Well, I wanted to make sure I actually talked with every child. I knew I wanted to do that the whole time. Sometimes I wasn’t sure how to start the conversation. Most of them didn’t really want to talk. They only wanted tell me what they wanted.
They’d come up when I reached my hand to them to help them step up on the stage where I sat. I always asked them if they would like to sit or stand. I realized that they might not want to sit on the lap of a stranger. That’s kind of a weird tradition we have, to let our kids sit on some stranger’s lap just because he’s in a red suit. But they were pretty comfortable with it. Only about a fourth declined to sit. I was surprised how many older kids (over 10) came and told me what they wanted. But none of those kids chose to sit. The babies were pretty squirmy, thanks to all those parents who want the crying baby pictures.
One of the first things I asked was their name. One of the very first kids who came to me said, “I’m Patrick.” I was this close to saying, “Me too!” That was a close call. The thing that was weird is that I saw that kid later in the week and I couldn’t say anything. I had to stop and think if I should use my normal voice that night, just in case he recognized me. I had tried to prepare a “Santa voice,” but about two kids into the event, that went out the window. In the end, it took too much effort and concentration. I laugh at how much time I spent on the voice, just to give up on it in the first two minutes. The “ho ho hos” I did use, so I’m glad I practiced those.
You kind of get tunnel vision when you are Santa. There’s the kid on your lap and you can see the next kid in line. That’s about it. For me, the tunnel vision was pretty literal. I had tried to push the wig down as far as possible to cover my dark eyebrows, so I really couldn’t see much past the kid right in front of me. But I think that was good to help me stay focused. I talked with kids without a break for over three hours.
Q: You mentioned the beard and the wig, what about the rest of the suit?
A: I have to admit I was a little self-conscious when I first put it on. That took a lot of mental real estate, planning how to wear the suit. The suit the Grange gave me didn’t have boots, but rather booties that were supposed to go over your shoes. The problem is that Santa wears a size 9 shoe, and I wear a 12. There was an inch and a half of shoe sticking out. I didn’t know what to do. I tried all my shoes and none of them worked. I even thought that maybe if I went in sock feet, it would work. Nope. Santa can’t have toes sticking out. The night before the event, we went to Value Village and found a $5 pair of black dress shoes that matched enough to get away with it.
The first time I put the suit on was fun. It was fairly simple. A pair of capris that tuck into the booties. My daughter laughed and said, “Santa wears sweats!” There is a zip jacket and a hat. It was interesting to watch myself dress in the mirror. As I put on the different parts, I found myself thinking, “Oh, that kind of looks like Santa.” But when I put on the gloves, that was the magic touch. “Oh geez. That really looks like Santa.” The gloves were the secret. I looked in the mirror and saw Santa looking back.
Q: You mentioned your dad. What advice did he offer that helped or didn’t help?
A: He was a Santa for 10-12 years. His advice was just to talk to the kids. He shared all kinds of stories that he remembered through the years. Things can turn from light to heavy really quickly in that setting. For him, it was easy. He is a counselor. I chose a profession where I wouldn’t have to talk to people, so I was a little anxious about how I would handle that.[Cabbage is a geologist.]
Q: Did you have anything heavy, like he did?
A: Well, one thing. There was a very shy little girl, about six or seven. She was very quiet and withdrawn. Folded in. I asked her if she wanted to sit, and she didn’t want to. She didn’t say much. The adults with her, a man and a woman, asked her if she had told me what she wanted, then turned to me and said, “We had to come today because she isn’t going to be with us much longer.” I thanked them for being there, and said, “I’m so glad to see you, and I hope you have a good Christmas.” There’s clearly a story there, but I’ll never know what it is. What can you do?
Q: Would you do it again?
A: Absolutely! I know there is a window where you can do it. My dad retired and said he’ll never go back. But it was a blast. It was the closest to a rock star I’ll ever be. People come to a place just to see you. The three hours flew by. The first time I looked at the clock was two hours in. It’s funny, because I like my kids, but I don’t always like other people’s kids. I was surprised how much I enjoyed talking to the kids. Even though it was the same conversation over and over, with each kid it was fresh. They all have a different reaction. For example, this little boy, about seven or eight, came to see me wearing a karate gi. He climbed up on my lap and I asked him his name. Then I said, “Do you know a martial art?”
There was a sharp intake of breath, and he said, “How did you know!”
I said, “Santa knows.”
That was fun. I wondered if kids would bring letters, but only one or two did. There was a very sweet letter I took home, and several drawings. One couple came back twice because their son was too scared the first time, but after a while, he must have decided I wasn’t so bad.
Q: What did you learn for next time?
A: I don’t think I’ll worry as much next time, and I certainly won’t stress out preparing. I will just go with it and enjoy talking to the kids. It took far too much mental energy worrying beforehand. But I was worn out after it was over. It is emotionally and mentally exhausting. When kids come from different families, with different experiences and expectations, and having been told different things, it is a challenge to ensure a positive experience for all of them. That takes a lot out of you. Not to mention the physical toll. This is a big deal. It is a family tradition that families depend on. When it was over, I went home and just stopped talking for a while.
Q: Do you have any advice for other first-time Santas?
A: Don’t worry about it. Like most things, whether in a relationship or at work, it always come back to the people. What people take away from it. It’s not about being there just to hear what they want, it’s in how you talk to them. What makes a difference is thinking about how to have them walk away having had a good experience with Santa. Don’t be too worried about the negative possibilities. Think to yourself, “You are making memories for children right this very minute, and enriching a child’s life.” Just have fun!
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