The Acting Education of a Mall Santa

Photo Source: Courtesy: Brendan Murray

Each December morning I don a fat suit, white wig and big fake beard. I push my arms into the sleeves of a red velvet suit, and sit and pose with hordes of holiday shoppers willing to pay for a picture with Old Saint Nick. Being Santa has been a performing arts education. It involves staying in character, relating to all walks of life and trying to make sure everyone leaves happy. For actors wanting to glean insight from the experience of a mall Santa, here’s what I’ve learned.

First, getting the voice down is essential. The sweet spot is somewhere between gruff and grumbly, and kind and warm. You want to sound older and experienced, not terrifying and inhuman. Being able to maintain your voice for long periods of time is as important as finding it. Long hours of saying “ho, ho, ho” and “merry Christmas” takes its toll on your vocal chords, so you don’t want to bellow at your loudest. Otherwise you might find yourself sounding like Squiggy from “Laverne & Shirley,” as I have a few times.

Stamina is a huge part of portraying Santa Claus. Besides long hours of sitting on your behind and constantly calling out to potential customers, you also have to lift and wield all sorts of body shapes and sizes. Adults know how to sit, but a lot of children don’t. They need to be picked up and placed on your knee, at which point they often sprawl about like 100-plus pounds of loose cement.

Patience and kindness are mandatory. You’re performing for an audience of children who run the gamut from crying to bratty to scared to chatty. But children are only one factor — often the parents are the real challenge. They can be mean, rude and impatient, which is awful to witness -- especially if it’s directed at their children.

The most important thing to do is stay in character. Once you don that red suit, you are Santa, and cannot be anyone else. For every screaming child, obnoxious parent, wrenched knee, and odd celebrity customer you might adore, you must “be Santa,” which means maintaining that lovably gruff and grumbly voice throughout.

Still, it’s one of the most satisfying jobs you can have. Seeing the wonder and light in the eyes of a child who truly believes in Santa makes up for even the worst days. The hours can be long, the body can ache, and the pay can sometimes feel low even for actors, but in the end, it’s the greatest job I’ve ever had, and makes me wish that Christmas lasted all year long.

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