Which One Is Real?

Santas Increase and Multiply and The North Pole Faces an Overpopulation Problem

My name is Legion: for we are many. Mark 5:9

The miracle of 34th Street this year is cloning. Macy's has four Santas going at once. Western Temporaries, an employment agency in Framingham, boasts a crops of twelve. The Volunteers of America, who have discontinued their sidewalk Santa line in Boston, maintain as many as fifty of the bell-ringing clones in New York; this past weekend, I counted eight.

The people who dispatch the Santas are, like Frank Zappa, "only in it for the money."

Sidewalk Santas solicit contributions for their sponsors. Department store Santas not only draw shoppers into the stores--a sort of human loss leader--but also will be photographed with little Johnny or Jenny, for a fee. Lord and Taylor in Boston offers breakfast with Santa for two dollars; Filene's Santa will great you over dinner in the Filene's Greenery.

But the money, to the Santas themselves, is almost irrelevant. "Even if nothing goes in the chimney," one Santa, an ex-alcoholic, said, "if I have the satisfaction of a child smiling, it means a whole lot to me." Santas describe their job as "very nice," "rewarding," "a good time," "gratifying," and "heartwarming." As one Santa, an administrative aide in a junior high school, told me, "It's nice to see people smile, y'know, 'cause a lot of people are really bummed out nowadays." Almost to a man, they love children; most have children themselves, many have grandchildren. Several Santas work in mufti year 'round in youth organizations like the Boy Scouts.


Santas come from different backgrounds. Many of the Volunteers of America sidewalk Santas are ex-alcoholics in the Volunteers rehabilitation program, and the Kris Kringling is part of their therapy. Several sidewalk Santas are city workers who see an enjoyable way to pick up an extra ten or fifteen dollars for their own Christmases. Many retirees don the red suit and beard; as one, an ex-Ringling Brothers property man, said, "Sometimes you don't know what to do with yourself, that's why I'm doing this."

Department store Santas are more of an elite, better paid and more carefully selected. Few are otherwise unemployed, unless they are retired. Many have been volunteer Santas in their communities. Department stores, in their usually turn to the Santas who worked there the previous year, or to agencies like Western Temporaries. Patience and love of children are the primary criteria in hiring.

However rewarding, the work's not easy. "It's a long day," said a seventeen-year veteran. "It's a hard day." Sidewalk Santas have to stand for ten or twelve hours a day. Store Santas have their own problems. As Debbie Bennett of Western Temporaries put it, "The work is hard.... Children are apt to pull his beard or heckle him.... They might take a fit or wet on Santa." Many suffer and sweat inside the heavy suit and padding--the B. Altman's Santa lamented going through "numerous T-shirts" and stinking all the way home to Long IsLand. A women once brought her chihuahua to be photographed with the Jordan Marsh Santa. "It was terrible," he said. 'To get that picture it took close to twenty minutes. All that I was worrying about was my uniform."

Most Santas feel a weight responsibility in living up to the role. "I get myself psyched up for it," the Filene's Santa said. "I don't let my own day affect the way I am as a Santa Claus. Santa Claus is somebody that has a great image to fulfill." The Jordan Marsh Santa expressed a fear of raising unlikely expectations. "With all this inflation," he said, "I don't promise anything."

The Hard Krishna Santas arrived last on the scene. Conspicuous in their too-new costumes and barely concealed nubby heads, they compensate for their late arrival with aggressiveness--a Krishna-Claus in Rockefeller Center forced candy on me till I pleaded diabetes. Legally sanctioned now in Boston, the Krishnas no longer fear the police. Now they have to face the Salvation Army, which they claim has mobilized against them. "The Salvation Army is very envious," one Krishna-Claus told me. "They heckle us continually, and the other day they ran me out of here. They took off my beard.... They beat me and kicked me and stole my money." A Salvation Army spokesman responded: "The Salvation Army is a nonviolent group, and we deplore any violence." The Volunteers of America, on the other hand, have complained of harassment by the Krishnas.

Kids may wonder which Santa is real and why there are so many of him; yet Santa Claus remains a significant symbol to most children, the fat and jolly bringer of Battlestar Galactica and Baby Tenderlove. While collegians' thoughts may turn more to Santa Barbara than Santa Claus, the ubiquitous elf cannot easily be ignored. As the song goes, Santa Claus is coming to town--in force.