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The Secret Life of Santas

Some things happen like clockwork this time of year. Trimming the Christmas tree, long lines at the shopping mall—and for parents of small children, there’s the traditional photo with the kids on Santa’s lap. There are plenty of children waiting to talk to Kris Kringle, and that means an annual recruiting drive for Santas to keep up with demand. APR student reporter Allison Mollenkamp takes this look into the secret life of Santas…

The Railroad Café in Bessemer, AL isn’t all that busy on Wednesday mornings. Even in a crowd, it’s hard to miss James Bo Macdonald. He’s the lead Santa at Birmingham’s Galleria Mall and a dead-ringer for the jolly old elf.

“Just being in stores and stuff throughout the year, I have children and adults both come up to me all the time.”

“It’s always exciting to see the children running up to him and giving him a big old bear hug, you know.”

Mr. Macdonald’s wife, May Macdonald plays Mrs. Claus when the pair does photo shoots. She got her husband started wearing the red suit.

“Well, I started being Santa in 2005. May and my daughter bought me a Santa suit for my birthday, and it took off from there, basically.”

Her reason was simple.

“When his beard started turning white…”

Some Santas aren’t so lucky.

“Most people do their hair every two weeks…”

That’s Steve Pennington, Santa Bo’s former partner. I met him in his hiding place in the lower level of Brookwood Village. He shared some grooming tricks of the trade to get the white… just right.

“I manage to try to do my touch-up work every week. A lot of people are kind of salt and pepper. Most photo companies require that beards be all uniform color.”

Mr. Pennington’s formula has been handed down from the real pros.

“The lady that first told me my formula that I use was one of the hairstylists that worked for the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, and they had the formula for making all the Santa’s beards look uniform. So that’s where I got the hand-me-down recipe for what I do.”

The beards are real, though.

“Now, there are still people who are what we call ‘designer beard’ Santa Clauses. And when job requests come in and go out from the vendors, they’ll sometimes specify that a ‘designer beard’ Santa Claus is okay or they’ll say specifically only real-bearded Santa Clauses.”

A real beard is also a requirement for some of the national organizations.

“The one we’re part of is the International Brotherhood of Real-Bearded Santas. Everybody shares jobs with one another, ‘cause people in some parts of the country will get job requests in other areas, and they can call up another brother and ask him to, could he do this particular job. So it’s pretty much a work-share situation.”

The Santas are connected by their organizations, and the mall photographers are part of three or four large companies that cover the whole country. The third part of the equation is the malls themselves.

“I actually oversee 8 shopping centers across the country.”

Glenn Miller is the portfolio marketing director for Cypress Equities, the managing agent for Brookwood Village.

“But this one is probably where I spend the majority of my time. Most of the other properties I’ve got an on-site marketing manager.”

Mr. Miller is proud of Brookwood’s Santa program.

“Brookwood Village is the dominant destination for visiting Santa. Our competition, our nearest competition doesn’t really have a program like that, and the enclosed shopping mall that’s down the road can’t compete with our singing Santa. So singing Santa is without a doubt the primary driver of our business during November and December.”

Brookwood’s program is different because of the musical element. It also distinguishes Mr. Pennington.

“I play the piano and sing some. I am a pianist first, so Santa Sing-Alongs became what I did for years. And we would go into gymnasiums and they’d bring in entire schools of people. Tuesday, two weeks ago, I walked into a room and there were 540 kids sitting Indian-style in the gym floor and we sang, I was at the piano and they played.”

Mr. Miller says the decision to bring on Mr. Pennington on as Singing Santa was an economic one.

“Which sounds so awful to talk about this, ‘cause it’s all magical Santa, but we worked with another Santa from New York, and so there were other expenses with having to house him and stuff like that. Santa is local. It was just a logical decision for us to offer to him. He had been what they call the ‘substitute Santa’ so we’re like, ‘Make him the permanent and we’re good.’”

Having Santa around is good for business at the mall. However, some kids want things that might not be available at Brookwood. Mr. Pennington hardly has to think when you ask him for a story.

“So this kid came in and told me he wanted a Hazmat suit. At that time something was going on in the news, I don’t remember what the story was. So he was all about the Hazmat suit and he gave a very elaborate description of the Hazmat suit and what it needed and all the pieces and the parts and the hood and the lining and all this kind of stuff. So that was the joke that year, ‘We want a Hazmat suit, we want a Hazmat suit…”

Sometimes the kids provide comic relief. Sometimes their effect is more heartwarming. Bo Macdonald has his favorite story ready too.

“The first day, I went to the chair at Bass Pro Shop. We changed back where the boat parts were, and as I came out there was actually a little boy with Down’s syndrome come and wrapped his arms around my legs, says ‘I love Santa.” And lo and behold he was the first one I had my picture made with. So I’ll always remember that one.”

Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Pennington have been in the business for 11 and 32 years respectively, so they have plenty of stories from the holiday season. However, that leaves another ten months of the year. The Macdonalds try to take it slow.

“Well, we’re both retired and I do a little bit of transporting vehicles. I’ll go to the different auctions for a company and pick ‘em up and bring ‘em back to the car lot. That’s basically all I do. Plus, like I say we’re retired.”

May Macdonald says they’re busy anyway.

“Right now we’re remodeling, so that’s keeping us really hopping.”

Steve Pennington keeps a busier schedule. He’s a voice coach. One of his students, Charity Bowden, recently finished competing on NBC’s The Voice.

“Well, Mr. Steve actually got me the opportunity and we decided to go. I had an audition in Memphis and I just kept making it to the next round until I got into blind auditions, and I got on Miley’s team, and then we went through battle rounds and I got sent home.”

She’s singing a duet with Santa at the arrival event.

“Well, I don’t really have a character with the whole Santa thing, but the kids, the ones who like know that I’ve been on The Voice, come up to me and they’re like ‘Oh my gosh, you’re Charity’ and I’m just like ‘Yeah, but I’m just like you.’”

Kids are excited to see Charity and, in general, even more excited to see Santa. However, Bo Macdonald says there are exceptions.

“We had a lot of screamers last… in our photo session two weeks ago, well actually it’d be three weeks ago this weekend. We were holding four cousins and all of them were probably less than two years old, or less than three years old I’d say. I had the youngest one on my left and she was scared to death, and the other three were kicking and screaming and sticking straight out. So it was an event.”

Steve Pennington says adults can also be a little wary.

“Well, it’s very interesting. Adults don’t know how to talk to Santa Claus. You’re there and they’re like, ‘Uh, what do I say to this guy?’ It’s almost like they avoid me. So I’m pretty aggressive with what I do. So I like to kind of sully up to them and then it’s like ‘Oh, okay’ and then you ask them questions and so the difference is they’re… Adults are generally standoffish, unless it’s a party that’s a cocktail party and they’ve had a few drinks. Then they get real friendly.”

Private parties add into Santas' schedules. Many have mall jobs as well as corporate events and photo sessions. Santa Steve says there’s more work than the current Santas can fill, creating a Santa shortage.

“It’s not secret in the retail world that brick and mortar places are not surviving as well as they used to because people purchase on the Internet, so there’s not as much emphasis on going out and going shopping like there once was. So Santa becomes the draw then.”

Stores like Toys”R”Us, Publix and Walmart have all started using Santas on the weekends. Mr. Pennington is trying to do his part.

“I discovered three new Santas this year, or three new people that want to do Santa, have grown out their beards the last six months of the year or so. Because of the shortage, with all the new stores adding Santas, you have to, OJT, On the Job Training, you have to get it somewhere.”

For those who have a little more time to learn, there’s another option.

“There are Santa Claus schools. So we can refer them and they’re held all over the country. There’s a gentleman in California that actually travels across the United States and hosts his. Some of these guys do travel and just hold them in satellite locations and then they advertise across the message boards.”

All the training, organization, and planning is ultimately about sitting down and talking to the kids.

Santa Steve is almost ready. He just needs his coat and hat.

“Clothes is my shtick. This is a Russian outerwear robe for Father Frost. Right? Pretty classy looking. In Russia, Father Frost is Santa. And the best thing about it is, in Russia, he’s not served cookies and milk. He gets a shot of vodka.”

The kids don’t care about that, though. They care that it’s almost time for the best part of the year.

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