Santa Sal has countless stories of his experiences being Santa Claus. As a special treat for people visiting this website, here are three bonus stories that you won’t find in the book. Enjoy!
“Is your dad Santa Claus?”
I spent the Christmas season of 1993 doing my first-ever home visits as Santa Claus, wearing the red suit that the radio station had let me keep from the year before. As I discuss in my book, those early appearances brought with them some unexpected challenges and amusing lessons that I needed to learn in order to become an effective Santa. One of the most important lessons, I discovered, involved the red suit itself.
By the time of my third home visit, I’d gained some confidence playing Santa Claus, which turned out to be important as I entered a house with a huge number of children. Visiting relatives and a few of the neighbors had all been told about Santa’s special appearance, and so about two dozen kids waited for their chance to sit on Santa’s knee. And one of those youngsters did something that would happen to me countless more times while wearing the red suit. Yes, Santa got peed on.
I didn’t show any visible reaction. By this point, I’d spent enough time as Ashley’s stepfather to have seen my fair share of accidents. They happen, and making a big deal about the situation only embarrasses the poor child. So I finished up with that toddler and then switched legs for the rest of the kids still waiting for their turn on Santa’s lap. When everyone had finished and all the photos had been taken, I quickly said my good-byes and headed home to change clothes.
Of course, you can’t simply throw a huge Santa Claus outfit made of red velvet and white fur into the washing machine. So the following day, I brought my Santa suit to the dry cleaners. Unfortunately, they needed at least five days to clean it, and I had another Santa Claus visit scheduled for the very next night.
So I called the radio station to ask where they had bought my first red suit. Driving to the same store, I discovered that Santa Claus outfits cost $200! (Today I pay over four times as much for my customized Santa suits, but even basic, store-bought Santa outfits can still cost a pretty penny.) But what could I do? I’d given my word that I would appear as Santa Claus on the following night. So I bought a second red suit.
Five days later, I had completed three more Santa Claus visits, and I noticed that my second Santa suit had begun to smell a little from all the sweating I’d been doing in it. So when I picked up my first red suit from the cleaners, I dropped off my other red suit to be cleaned. I took the first suit back home, and as I went to hang it in the closet, I noticed with panic that the zipper had broken during the cleaning! I rushed back, and the dry cleaner acknowledged that the damage was certainly their fault, and they would happily repair the zipper free of charge. But it would take three days.
“Three days for a zipper??? But I have a Santa visit tonight!” I said. “Can’t you fix it any sooner?”
“No, I’m sorry. We have to send it out for repair, and they have a three-day turnaround on everything.”
“Well, then can you give me back the red suit that I dropped off earlier today?”
“I’m sorry, sir. That suit went out to our facility right after you dropped it off. We can’t get it back until it’s been cleaned and returned to us.”
A sense of dread washed over me. I had two more appearances scheduled, and it was nearly Christmas Eve. I didn’t have enough time to reschedule either visit, and I didn’t want to let those families down. I couldn’t show up in regular clothing; I needed a red suit.
I had only one option. I drove myself back to the costume store and purchased a third Santa Claus suit. Heaven knows what the costume folks must have thought I was doing, buying two Santa suits in less than a week!
I began to realize that being Santa Claus didn’t do much to help my wallet. I had now spent $400 on Santa suits, additional money to dry clean them, and of course, I had the cost of gas to drive all over Charleston to visit different houses. All the while, I continued not to get paid for my services and instead ask only that folks show me a receipt for at least a $50 donation to a children’s charity.
Fortunately, though, my wallet didn’t rule my heart, as I started to truly enjoy appearing as Santa Claus. The smiles and cheers of the children when they saw me felt wonderful, and the more visits I made, the better I performed in the Santa role.
The only real downside came from the time commitment. On nights when I made my Santa visits, I’d arrive back home after Ashley had gone to bed. A few times, after I had changed out of my red suit and into regular clothes, I’d check in on Ashley, and she’d still be awake in her bed, waiting for me to return home.
“Why did you get home so late?” she would ask me.
“Well, sweetheart, I had some extra work to do,” I told her.
You don’t usually get home so late,” she said.
“Don’t worry, Ashley. I won’t be getting home late for much longer.” And of course, that was the truth. Once Christmas had passed, my schedule returned to normal — until the following Christmas.
In 1994, I began getting new requests for Santa visits even before Thanksgiving. Many families whom I’d visited the previous Christmas wanted me back, and word of mouth added a whole bunch of new families. Before I knew it, I’d booked nearly twice as many visits as the year before. And of course, I carefully timed my dry cleaning so I would always have a fresh Santa Claus suit available.
And so another Christmas season passed with me thoroughly enjoying my Santa activities. Although being Santa Claus kept me away from home and family more than I would have liked, it lasted for only six weeks. And once again, after the holidays passed, life for Linda, Ashley, and me returned to normal. Thoughts of Christmas and Santa Claus faded from my mind until one day in mid-February of 1995.
By this time, Ashley had grown into a precocious seven-year-old and participated very enthusiastically in her Brownie troop. Girl Scout Cookie delivery time happened each February, and Linda and I had just taken Ashley and her friend Sharon to pick up seven dozen boxes of cookies to deliver around the neighborhood. We arrived home, and I began to empty the massive number of cartons into our garage while Ashley and Sharon watched me.
As I walked into the garage, I could still hear the conversation between the girls over my shoulder, and the following question from Sharon caught my attention: “Ashley, is your dad Santa Claus?”
Of course, I sported white hair and a beard all year long, so I understood why Ashley’s friends would ask the question. But surely Ashley understood that I was Sal Lizard, the man who had married her mother, and the person who became her stepfather. I expected to hear Ashley explain that I was not Santa Claus at all but that I only looked like him. So with piqued curiosity, I listened for Ashley’s answer.
I hadn’t counted on the keen observational skills and brilliant deductive reasoning of a clever seven-year-old, but I laughed out loud when I heard Ashley tell Sharon: “I’m not sure, but I think that my dad is Santa. He’s always really busy during Christmastime, and last month I found three Santa Claus outfits in his closet!”
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“Santa would not walk away from a crying child.”
I certainly understand and appreciate that, for many photographers and picture-taking companies, Santa Claus is a business. Parents pay for photos of their children on Santa’s lap, and I always take my commitment seriously when I work in a photo studio or a mall. I know there are rules such as not allowing people to take pictures of Santa Claus with their cell phones because then they won’t want or need to pay for a professional photo. I’d love to live in a world where Santa photos could always be free, but I understand that photographers need to make a living, too, and so I play by the rules €¦.most of the time.
But once, I simply couldn’t do it. I was working as a Santa-in-residence at a mall in southern New Hampshire in 2005. I remember it was a Wednesday evening at about 7:15 p.m., after the last child had been photographed, the helpers had put things away, the gate to the North Pole Village set had been closed, and the manager was nearly finished closing out the register and turning off all the equipment.
As I walked over to the gate to head back to my dressing room, I saw a woman and her young daughter running up to the set.
“Oh my gosh, you’re closed! Please don’t be closed!” the woman panted, out of breath, as the two of them ran toward me. “As soon as I got off work, we drove down here from Maine because I wanted to get my daughter’s picture taken with Santa before she left to visit her grandparents. It took us two hours! Please, it can’t be too late! She gets on the plane tomorrow. Please, can you take just one more picture? Please?”
The manager walked over. “I’m sorry, ma’am, we can’t. I’ve already closed out the money drawer and turned off the equipment. And Santa has to go home now.” The manager grabbed me around the arm and started escorting me off toward the dressing room, trying to get us both away from this woman that we couldn’t help. We began walking away.
I felt awful, but I understood the reasoning. If people started thinking they could come late, avoid the lines, and get free photos with Santa Claus after the set closed, we’d quickly be inundated by people showing up just as Santa left to go home. Rules were rules. The manager and I kept right on walking, our backs to the mother and daughter.
Then I heard the little girl start to cry. I stopped.
I turned around and knelt down on one knee, and I motioned for the girl to come over to me. She did, and I sat her down on my raised knee. “So what would you like to tell Santa?” And then I looked up at her mother and said, “Do you have a cell phone with a camera?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Then why don’t you take a few pictures of me and your daughter while we have our little talk?” The manager tried to interrupt and stop any photos from being taken, but I looked at her with an intense expression, seeking some hint of sympathy or at least generosity. If I had to, I would have gone out to the parking lot to take this picture, but fortunately, I didn’t have to. The manager let me talk to the little girl for a couple of minutes while her mother took pictures. When the girl and I finished chatting, I said good night to both of them, and they started walking away, with the mother saying “Thank you!” over and over again.
As they wandered out of earshot and I turned to walk back to my dressing room, the manager stopped me with a stern expression. “You know you’re not supposed to do that. It’s a loss of income for us if people take their own pictures of Santa.”
I replied in a polite and respectful tone, but still with conviction. “Look, we had already closed down the set. The little girl was getting on a plane tomorrow. It’s not like I cost us a sale. And I’m sorry, but Santa would not walk away from a crying child if he could do something about it.”
The manager was still pretty angry, and she let me know that if I did anything like that again, they would find another Santa Claus to replace me. As she walked away, though, a couple of the merchants who had been watching the whole episode came over to me to say that they thought I had just done something really wonderful. But for me, it all boiled down to one simple truth: I did not want to leave a child crying.
Sometimes rules need to be bent a little -- especially when you’re Santa Claus.
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“You promised him WHAT???”
Parents often use Santa Claus as a helpful tool to encourage good behavior from their children. After all, the song says that Santa has a list of who’s naughty and who’s nice. But every so often, I encounter parents who, for whatever reason, get themselves into trouble attempting to properly wield the “power” of Santa Claus. And that brings us to Jeremy...
In 2009, I spent the Christmas season as a Santa-in-residence at a photography studio in Newington, New Hampshire. Unlike my experiences working as a mall Santa, the atmosphere the studio was much more laid back. I found myself able to interact with both the children and their parents in a relaxed and unhurried way.
However, there was nothing relaxed about Jeremy. A little boy of about five, Jeremy had straight brown hair in a bowl cut and almost limitless energy. When his turn came to be photographed with Santa Claus, it took a little while to calm him down enough to get him to sit on my lap.
Still excited and bouncing up and down, Jeremy looked at me and asked, “Santa, do you remember our deal?”
Not sure what to say to that, I gave a jolly laugh and replied, “You remember that?”
“Yes!” Jeremy said, quite seriously.
“Well, I’m glad you do, because I’m going to have to check up on my notes.” I leaned in closer and added, “If Santa’s memory were better, he wouldn’t have to make a list! But if we have a deal, then if you keep up your end, I’ll keep up my end.”
“Okay!” Jeremy seemed quite satisfied.
What had I just agreed to???
We continued taking some photos, and then Jeremy had to go to the bathroom. His mother went with him, leaving Jeremy’s dad and me together. Bursting with curiosity, I got up, walked over to the man, and asked, “So what was the deal?”
“What?” Jeremy’s father looked totally confused.
“What was the deal? Jeremy asked me if I remembered our deal €¦”
“Oh, my gosh!” he said, shaking his head, “We were trying to get Jeremy to sleep in his own bed because he’s getting too old enough to sleep with us. But nothing got through to him. My wife and I both work at the same fire station, so my wife asked one of the firemen to call our house from the station and pretend to be Santa Claus. He tried to convince Jeremy that he should start sleeping in his own room, but Jeremy wouldn’t do it. So Santa tried making offers of toys to get him to agree.”
“And how many toys is Jeremy getting for this?” I asked.
“Santa promised him a Nintendo DS, an Xbox, and a Playstation for Christmas.”
“Is that all?” I joked sarcastically, thinking it had to be. After all, what could a parent possibly offer a child after promising him three different video game players???
“No, there’s more...” he said. “We also have to take him to Disney World.” The father looked forlorn. “But he’s been sleeping in his own bed!” the man added, trying to make himself feel at least a little better.
I patted him on the shoulder. “Oh, you poor son-of-a-gun,” I said, “You’re on the hook for all this.”
“Tell me about it!” he said, rolling his eyes. “What would you have done?” he asked.
“Well, first off, when it came to promises, I would tell him that while I can’t promise, I will make my best effort. And then when he started naming all these things, I would say, ‘Well, now come on, we can’t give you everything you want. That wouldn’t be fair to other children who are being just as good.’ And I would also say something like, ‘If you get all this for Christmas, what do we do when your birthday rolls around? There won’t be anything left to give you!’”
Jeremy’s father just stared at me and said, “Damn, that’s good. I wish we had thought of that.”
Noticing Jeremy and his mom coming back from the bathroom, I said to his dad, “I’m gonna try to help you out here, but I can’t make any promises.”
I walked over to Jeremy, got down on one knee, and said, “You know, Jeremy, I was just thinking about our deal. How are you going to play a Nintendo DS and an Xbox and a Playstation all at the same time?”
Jeremy shrugged, “I don’t know.”
“Let me ask you something. You’ve been sleeping in your own bed, right?”
“And it’s not bad, is it?”
“You know, if I bring you all of that stuff, it sure would be giving you a lot for doing something that you should be doing anyway as you grow older. After all, children are supposed to sleep in their own bedrooms, right?”
“So, Jeremy, would it be okay if we adjusted our deal just a bit to make it a little more realistic? Like maybe I bring you a Nintendo or an Xbox or a Playstation? You’ll still have a brand new video game player for Christmas. Does that still sound fair?”
And without any disappointment in his voice, Jeremy said, “Okay.”
I wanted to make certain. “Now Jeremy, are you sure you’re gonna be all right with that?” I never like to feel as though I’m forcing something on a child.
“Yes,” Jeremy said with a serious face.
“Okay, then. I’m still very proud of you for holding up your end of the deal.”
I walked over to Jeremy’s parents and explained the new agreement where they only had to get their son one video game system instead of three. Their faces showed an expression of sincere relief.
“But,” I added, “I think you’re still on the hook to take him to Disney World...”
As Santa Claus, I’ve been asked by many children to promise to bring them what they tell me they want. And let’s face it, that’s the deal that Santa offers: children behave, and he brings them presents on Christmas Eve. But I never promise them a specific present, even something they’ve asked me for. I simply tell them I will try my best.
Along with trust and responsibility, making deals can teach children about expectations and fairness. Deals should be fair. Santa asks children to try their best to be good, and he will try his best in return. That’s fair, isn’t it?
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