Being Santa is no sleigh ride

Francis X. Donnelly

It isn’t easy being Santa.


The children keep coming, morning to night, day after day, more kids than at a Barney & Friends concert. Some are angels, others less than angels.

The less angelic — the bawlers, the brawlers, the nonbelievers — sack Santa like a Lions blitz, tugging at his beard, knocking off his cap. He goes from ho ho to no no.

It’s enough to dampen the ardor of the jolliest Kris Kringle.

But a professional Santa can’t show pain, can’t lose patience, can’t haul off and sock the diminutive demon kicking him in the shins. It might make a cool viral video, but would never do for Father Christmas.

“Whatever problems I have, I can’t show it,” said Bill Neelsen, 62, a Taylor resident who has played Santa for 40 years. “You have to put on a performance.”

If Santa isn’t carrying enough on his red velvet shoulders, he’s fretting about makeup, marketing and insurance as he dodges dirty diapers and flirty grandmas, they said.

Is it any wonder that, at the home of one local Santa, a vintage print over the fireplace shows his namesake looking wan and worried as he tramps across a snowy field at night.


Santa Bob Garrison gets ready for work in this, his ninth season. Santas make anywhere from $100 to $300 per appearance, pocketing up to $15,000 during the eight-week season.

The big man, after all, was born of adversity. His predecessor, St. Nicholas, a fourth century bishop, secretly dispensed gifts to the poor in what is now Turkey.

“You gotta make sure you have your flu shot, take vitamins, try to keep a step ahead of any colds that come through,” said Bob Garrison, 73, of Waterford Township.

With Christmas fast approaching, The Detroit News wanted to find out what it’s really like to be the roly-poly icon.

Since flights to the North Pole are scarce, we settled for the polar precincts of Metro Detroit, interviewing Santas, stores and Santa schools.

Here’s a peek behind Santa’s beard, natural or synthetic.

With the holidays beckoning earlier each year, the job of a professional Santa has grown into a two-month slog with nary a day off. There are no snow days on the gift-giving beat.

During a snowstorm this month, where a sleigh would have been preferable to a car, Santa Norm Gerring drove from his home in Lincoln Park to Flint and then to Ann Arbor. He worked from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

More recently, he worked five events Saturday and five more Sunday, each lasting an hour or two. His pastor understands he won’t be seeing Gerring at Sunday services in November and December.

“I’ve got so much going on, but I’m not complaining,” said Gerring, 73. “If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it.”

Like Gerring, most local Santas are in their 60s and 70s. Trapped in hot costumes all day, their legs cramp from sitting, their backs ache from lifting children, their cheeks are numb from smiling.

As for fending off the tiny marauders, there is hope.

Some Santas have developed the self-defense skills of a samurai. Others dress like a hockey goalie, wearing shin guards under their pants. Their black boots have steel toes.

The trials and tribulations aren’t just physical.

Santas need to be nimble-minded, amateur psychologists, walking encyclopedias knowing everything from the latest toys to the names of all his reindeer, they said.

They can’t allow five hours of talking to 5-year-olds to turn their minds into mush.

“Sure, I get exhausted. But you have to be ready to go, no matter what,” said Santa Sam Hopeck, 74, a retired autoworker from Commerce Township. “You have to have it in your heart.”

The questions from children range from the impossible to the heartbreaking.

They’re no longer settling for the toys of yore, said the Santas. It’s goodbye, sleds and roller-skates, hello, iPads and iPhones.

A good Santa, unlike a politician, never promises anything.

While it’s one thing to scale back a request for a $700 phone, it’s quite another to respond when a child asks for the return of a dead parent.

Such queries can leave Santa emotionally spent.

Santa school in Midland

Even longtime Santas find themselves in need of refresher courses at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland.

It helps them navigate a winter wonderland that sometimes seems a litigious minefield, they said. They learn about contracts, liability insurance, child safety regulations.

They’re taught to keep their hands in plain view, especially in photos. That’s where their white gloves come in handy.

At nursing homes, they’re counseled to gently rebuff lonely retirees who want to sit on their laps.

“We make sure they have a well-rounded education,” said Holly Valent, who along with her husband, Tom, runs the Midland school.

The school, which turned away 125 applicants for its annual three-day seminar in October, already has 130 people signed up, and paid up, for next year.

And then there’s one’s appearance.

Some Santas pay more attention to their looks than Taylor Swift. Most of their work comes from references, so they must always look their best, they said. The boots are polished, suits lint free, breath wintergreen fresh.

The Santa school sometimes resembles a cosmetology school. A hairdresser teaches the finer points of makeup, beard bleaching and using a curling iron.

For that windblown, just-stepped-off-the-sleigh look, Clauses are counseled to dab rouge from the nose to the high part of the cheek.

It takes Garrison an hour, and the help of his wife, Jacque, to get ready every day.

He uses a conditioner to make his beard wavy, shoulder-length hair shine and adds wax to hold the glitter that follows. It’s topped off with hair spray to ensure the concoction holds.

“Little girls love it,” he said about the glitter. “It looks like I went through a frost.”

High-maintenance grooming


Jacque Garrison curls the hair of her husband, Bob Garrison. It takes Santa Bob Garrison an hour, and the help of his wife, Jacque, to get ready every day. He uses a conditioner to make his beard wavy, shoulder-length hair shine and adds wax to hold the glitter that follows. It’s topped off with hair spray to ensure the concoction holds.


All that gussying up doesn’t come cheap. Santas spend thousands of dollars on clothes and grooming.

Polyester won’t do, they said. A velvet suit — replete with leather boots, wide belt and red robe — costs up to $3,500. For the follicly challenged, a good yak hairpiece goes for $600.

Other expenses include travel, marketing, seminars, dry cleaning, photo shoots.

Hopeck drove 1,000 miles last year in his red Dodge Journey SUV with a Rudolph red nose on the grille and reindeer antlers protruding from the windows.

“I have the antlers because I’m always asked where the sleigh and reindeer are,” he said.

Santas make anywhere from $100 to $300 per appearance, pocketing up to $15,000 during the eight-week season.

The best jobs are at major malls because of the pay ($25 to $50 an hour) and steady hours.

Despite the expense, the stress, the aches and pains, a lot of people want to be Santa.

Some 5,000 Santas in the U.S. vie for work at stores, parades, private parties, corporate functions, tree lightings, according to Santa associations.

The Michigan Association of Professional Santas, which began with eight members in 2009, now has 237 with four more on the waiting list.

Hopeck, who was one of the original eight members, said being St. Nick gives him something to do, makes him feel worthwhile. He gets chills just talking about it. He wonders whether it’s a calling.

“Once you put on your suit, you change,” he said. “You’re not you anymore.”

‘Say cheese’

At Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi, Garrison wrangled with a gaggle of toddlers earlier this month.

The line of families waiting to see him meandered past Godiva, J Crew, Kay Jewelers, the Body Shop. They were all on the same mission: Get a photo of their smiling child on Santa’s lap.

It was important to the shopping center, too. Santas attract 10,000 children a year to a shopping center, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The kids bring their parents who bring their money, the group said. It gives a different meaning to “say cheese.”

“Half of all adults with children under 13 plan to see Santa,” said Noelle Malone, a group spokeswoman.

It was Garrison’s job to coax a smile for the camera. But several tots wanted nothing to do with the red-suited stranger sitting in a purple love seat under a “SCLAUS1” sign.

A red-faced boy straightened his body like a board as he tried to slip from Santa’s evil clutches. Another refused to face the camera, playing ping pong with the pom-pom at the end of Santa’s cap.

When the holidays mercifully end, Garrison has a quiet dinner with family and grandchildren, and then relaxes for a little bit.

But, after two weeks, he feels like something is missing, he said. He starts to itch to return to the big chair. He can’t wait for November to roll around again.

No, he’s not a glutton for punishment, he said. He just misses the hugs and smiles and glad tidings.

“It’s a great feeling. You cannot believe that feeling,” he said. “I’m 73 years old, and I haven’t grown up yet.”


Twitter: @francisXdonnell