It’s safe to say that if you’re lucky enough to land an interview with Santa Claus, he doesn’t come to you — you go to him. Which is how I have ended up in a mock castle in the middle of this shopping mall in St. John’s, trying hard to ignore the odd looks and sideward glances from lunchtime shoppers as I stare intently at this man’s beard and whiskers, trying to figure out if they’re fake.
They are. It’s only fair to dismiss the illusions now, alas. The beard’s owner is Greg Power, a retired civil servant who has spent the last six Christmas shopping seasons hearing the wishes of children and the constant whirr of a digital camera immortalizing countless trips to this castle for eager parents. It’s not a lark, he makes clear, it’s a job, and it is one he takes very seriously.
“It’s very important. It’s more than what it appears from the outside. It’s all done with an effort to make it pleasant and enjoyable,” he says. “Experiences that are positive or negative stay with children throughout their life, you know. This shouldn’t be a negative experience and I certainly don’t want to do anything to contribute to that possibility.”
Power, then, is not the mall-Santa-as-joke stereotype, leering at mothers and perhaps sneaking the odd tipple to pass the day quicker. He doesn’t even go to lunch or the bathroom when he works, apparently aware of how this could endanger the mystique he tries to create here.
And as mystique goes, he pretty much nails it. Throughout our conversation he is still on the clock, so children come and go, some to register their lists, some trying to work up the nerve just to say “Hi.” He is smooth yet warm in his approach; little girls are princesses, little boys good young men, and parents’ concerns are met with patience and calm. Listening to the tape after we chat, I realize that I never called him his real name once. It was always “Santa.” That’s almost embarrassing.
Surely it can’t be all so easy, I say. What about the cranky, the hysterical, or the belligerent? Has any child ever, say, thrown up on you? Bit you? Wet themselves on your lap?
If any of this has happened, Power won’t be drawn into it. He’s reticent to give even one instance of naughty-list behaviour.
“I have to think so hard to come up with an example,” he finally says when pressed. “Sometimes you have two siblings come to visit. One is very young, and one might be of an age where they think they’re too old to be with Santa. They’re pouting. So I ask them to help their mom and dad and try and smile.”
The bad kid angle is clearly a no-go, so I ask about the motivations of the well-behaved: don’t they feel they’ve earned some sort of commitment from you regarding their wish lists?
“Santa never makes promises,” he says. “Well, 99 per cent of the time, I don’t. What I would generally say is that ‘Santa tries his best.’ But you have to get across what that means to the child. You ask if they’re trying their best to be a good big brother or a good student, and they’re saying ‘Yes, yes I am.’ Well then, Santa will try his best, I say, and you understand what trying your best means.”
Of course, sometimes children ask for things beyond video game systems or Barbie dolls, I counter. What have you heard that would be truly difficult to deliver?
His response was not what I expected.
“One little girl a bit older, eleven or twelve, came to visit me once. And she said, ‘What I really want for Christmas is for my dad to leave the house.’ Well, I wasn’t expecting that,” he sighs. “So … what do you become then? Do you become a comforter? A consoler? Pretend you didn’t hear it? I was really upset.”
What did you say?
“I said there are times when we are all going through difficulty, through unpleasant or difficult times. I told the child that hopefully, with time, things will change, and for the best. But for her to say it, and to mean it, whether she even believed in Santa … that was hard.”
She obviously wanted to believe in something, I offer.
“Yes, and she still wanted something from Santa,” he says, clearly still smarting from the experience.
Santa Claus isn’t merely a tradition, he’s a myth we have crafted from several different stories, but unique in that it is a myth almost all of us have believed at some time — and indeed still want to hold on to, if only a little. I ask him if he ever thinks about his role in the myth and whether or not Santa is still needed.
“It’s fuelling the seed of goodwill and joy and harmony and peace. It’s all of those things that are contrary to stress and strain and bad times. It’s fostering friendship. It’s a deep question, though. Do we need Santa? Is it because of the culture? That parents have gotten this from their parents and they want to pass it on and they don’t want to lose this? Do they feel compelled to do this … ?”
Power is on a deconstructionist roll now, unsurprising for a man who has a lot of time to think about what this suit represents as he sits in his plastic and wood palace giving hundreds of children a thrill, a hope, a fright, a memory. Has he decided what it all means?
“Yes — it’s a good thing. Of course it is,” he says, simply. Behind me, Santa’s photographer takes my picture.
This article was originally published on youlikewelike.com.