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Sitting in for St. Nick in 1991 introduced me to a strange, magical kind of theatre that no pandemic can completely cancel

A child sits for a picture with Santa Claus at a shopping mall in Willow Grove, Penn., on Dec. 3.Hannah Beier/Reuters

Scott C. Jones is a writer, podcast producer, and former TV host. He lives in Vancouver.

Christmas is theatre on a grand scale. We arrange holly on the mantle. Adorn the miserable little shrub in the yard with twinkling lights. We script “entrances” and “exits.” Uncle Jack flies in on Saturday; Aunt Bon-Bon, who smokes her Pall Malls on the davenport wrapped in a plaid blanket, flies out on Tuesday.

Drama accumulates. Tension builds. Conflict is usually inevitable.

Then the curtain falls on the whole damn thing. We yank the plug from the socket, literally. Rebox the lights and hide them away in the attic.

After leaving us without an understudy in 2020, the star of Christmas is back: Santa himself.

He’s back haunting the shopping centres and Christmas markets across the country, even if things feel, well, a bit different this holiday season than in the before-times.

Is Santa masked? (Yes.) Vaxxed? (Certainly hope so.) Maybe you’ve noticed a lack of elves. Perhaps the jolly old St. Nick in your community is tucked behind Plexiglass.

Who cares if Santa is less touchable? And although Omicron might mean he heads home a bit early this year, at least, right now, the old guy is here. And, for that, we should all be grateful.

I know the importance of Santa better than most people do.

That’s because 30 years ago, far from the North Pole, in a mall in Syracuse, N.Y., I was Santa.

At top, a Santa sits behind a glass partition as Kendra Alexander shares her wish list at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., on Nov. 15. At bottom, pupils at a London program for professional Santas spread cheer at a bus stop on Nov. 30. This year, their curriculum covers both in-person and digital training.Jim Mone and Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press

I’d only been hoping for a lowly Photo Elf position. I was qualified to be a Photo Elf, I felt. But the pair of middle-aged women who managed the Penn-Can’s Christmas operations saw something else in me – probably a naive kid, fresh from college, with a strong back.

Getting hired to be Kris Kringle was akin to a flight attendant tapping me on the shoulder and asking whether I’d be interested in landing the airplane.

What in the world could I possibly know about being Santa Claus?

The women promised to show me the ropes, teach me the things I needed to know. “Sign your name right here, Santa,” one of the ladies whispered to me as I perused the employment contract. She tapped one of her candy-apple-red fingernails on the form’s dotted line.

And so I did.

Later, I learned that the Penn-Can was coming off a string of perfectly lousy Santas. So, in 1991, instead of hiring a Santa who was older, jollier and capable of growing his own facial hair, the women hired beardless, cornstalk-thin and woefully inexperienced me. They would have no choice but to inflate my pants with a record number of pillows and affix a phony, theatrical beard to my hairless face. And what they would get in return was an energetic, more co-operative genus of Santa – one less likely to climb to his feet, remove his hat and catapult it into the uppermost branches of a Christmas tree. Which, I later learned, one of the perfectly lousy Santas had actually done the previous year.

I was not the only St. Nick hired. There were two Santas at Penn-Can in 1991: a Day Santa and a Night Santa. I was the Day Santa. I sat on a rickety throne in the mall’s centre court between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. from Monday to Saturday. I was paid US$16.88 an hour for my troubles, which was a respectable sum in 1991.

I never did learn who the Night Santa was, never saw him without his suit – not once. He also never saw me in street clothes. Instead, we were doppelgangers – him coming toward me, me moving toward him – passing one another in the mall’s back hallway every afternoon at 5 p.m. sharp. Like a couple of bus drivers making a shift change in Mississauga, we exchanged weary hellos. Sometimes, when the mood struck us, we’d high-five – white-gloved hand slapping white-gloved hand. It felt like I was high-fiving my reflection in a mirror.

For four weeks that December I spent my days obscured in the musty confines of a threadbare costume of an elderly, overweight, quite possibly diabetic senior citizen. I had my photograph taken hundreds of times with blank-faced children, a large number of whom howled like electric bandsaws when they saw me in my suit for the first time.

Oh, that damn suit. The first thing you learn is that you’re going to sweat. You sweat because you’re trapped underneath maybe 30 pounds of cut-rate fabric, and none of it breathes. You sweat because you have a dozen pillows stuffed into your pants to balloon the waist. The next thing you learn is that the Santa suit itself never dries out – not completely. That’s the lowest part of the job: putting on that suit in the mornings when it’s still damp with yesterday’s perspiration.

Alone in the dressing room, after a day of terrifying children, I set to work freeing myself from the sodden getup. I unbuckled the buckles. Unhooked the hooks. Removed the suit the way a cook peels an onion. Then, standing in my Fruit of the Looms under the hum of the dressing-room fluorescents, my skin goose-pimpled in the chilly air, I placed the soggy suit on the hanger, hoping it might dry out by tomorrow if I hung it up this way or that. It never did.

After that, I pulled on my street clothes and boots and ventured out into the mall’s expansive parking lot to brush the fresh snow off my car.

At top, a Santa brings hand sanitizer to pupils in Mumbai on Dec. 15, their first day of in-person classes in 20 months. A day earlier, the Peruvian Santa at bottom got help from a volunteer firefighter brigade to scale several stories of a Lima hospital and give presents to young COVID-19 patients.Rafiq Maqbool/AP, Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters

I still have my Santa beard. I keep the ratty, old relic in a storage locker on Dundas Street in downtown Toronto. The beard hangs from a hook on the particle board wall. It looks like a small, taxidermied animal that I bagged on a fictional safari a few lifetimes ago.

Why in the world do I keep this old, flyblown theatrical beard? I keep it because it’s a trophy for me. It’s an artifact from an experience that I had a long time ago. “Oh, yes,” I think when I see the beard, “I did that. I was Santa. No doubt about it.” And in the past 20 months, when the idea of simply leaving the house seemed as far-fetched as a sleigh loaded with toys being pulled by eight flying reindeer, that snow-white pelt of phony facial hair became a symbol of some kind.

Like the eerily prescient plot of the 1974 stop-motion Rankin and Bass holiday special The Year Without a Santa Claus (the gist: Santa contracts COVID-19-like symptoms and decides to take a year off), Christmas around the world in 2020, for the most part, was informally cancelled. Malls were free of shoppers. The Santas sat out the holidays.

Because of this, my storage-locker beard suddenly seemed like an oddball, ritualistic relic from a forgotten age – no different than those long-beaked masks that doctors wore during the plague in 17th-century Europe. That weathered, faux beard hanging from the wall made me crave a tradition that I foolishly assumed we could never lose.

Did I consider bringing the old beard out of retirement for 2021? I did. I didn’t do it in the end, but I definitely felt the pull. Why? Because a narrative was circulating on the Internet about how Santas were in short supply this year. Demand outstripped supply. And the brave Santas who were working were charging – better sit down for this – US$600 an hour.

“That’s normal,” noted Jennifer Andrews when I told her the price. “It’s like a lot of things in life: You get what you pay for with Santa. If you pay peanuts, then you get monkeys,” she said with a laugh. “Look, I’m a mom … I want the best for my kids. And that’s the price for getting the best right now.”

Not only is she a mom, she is “dean” of the Victor Nevada Santa School in Calgary. The school, which she founded in 1998, helps aspiring Santas find “the Santa within themselves.” And she wants to find them, too. Ms. Andrews, who brings in voice coaches, professional dancers and storytellers to help her students, told me there are “never enough quality Santas – with or without a pandemic.”

The pandemic resulted in the temporary disappearance of arguably Canada’s most famous Kris Kringle: Toronto’s Eaton Centre nixed their live Santa in 2020.

“We opted for safety last year,” says Craig Flannagan, vice-president of marketing for Cadillac Fairview, which owns and manages the mall. “Safety” meant the Eaton Centre offered only a virtual Santa. Fortunately, he is back at the Eaton Centre, although there are vaccine protocols to follow: Santas are vaxxed, and guests of Santa have to show proof of vaccination prior to visits, which must be booked in advance.

The Eaton Centre was far from the only Santa to transition to virtual visits. Daniel Cresswell, a freelance Santa in Langley, B.C. – where a photo-op with the man in the red suit at the Willowbrook Shopping Centre sold out within hours last month weathered the pandemic by pivoting to being a “Zoom call Santa.” He set up a theatrical backdrop in his garage that makes it appear as if he’s in a more scenic location than, well, a garage out in Langley, and has had so much success that he has his own website:

When I spoke with him in late November, Mr. Cresswell told me he was “completely booked.” Part of it was there’s only so many days Santa can work (“Remember, there are only four Saturdays in December,” he said). The high demand for Santas this year is owing in part, he says, to the fact that people no longer want to go to Santa – instead they want Santa to come to them. “The whole Santa-coming-to-your-house thing has picked up so much since the pandemic started.”

Mr. Cresswell is rolling with COVID-19 as best he can. “I have both my shots, so I feel pretty comfortable now,” he said. “I’m also a younger Santa.” (He’s 47.) “COVID had a really big impact on the older Santas, unfortunately,” he told me, his voice trailing off. “It’s a sad thing.”

At top, a Japanese Santa swims with dolphins and fish at Hakkeijima Sea Paradise in Yokohama on Dec. 10, and at bottom, a German Santa feeds carrots to baboons at the Hamburg zoo on Dec. 3.Issei Kato/Reuters; Axel Heimken/dpa via AP

I donned the Santa suit a second time in the fall of 2017. I had lost my job as a TV host. My bank accounts were unravelling. Up against it, I took a job as a Santa at the Scarborough outpost of a superstore, 26 years after the Penn-Can. I was installed in a photo alcove near the registers. Shoppers presumed that my Santa was a holiday freebie offered by the store. I was not. The photo studio’s grumpy manager, like the tempestuous Burgermeister Meisterburger from Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town, forbid me to take cellphone photos with people. Only those purchasing one of the photo alcove’s pricey photo packages were allowed pictures. The customers were not happy about this. “Why in the world would I buy a photo package from you when I have a functioning camera on my own phone?” a mother with three bawling tots griped to me. I agreed with her. I wanted to say: Salient point you’ve made there, ma’am. As Santa, I could not do such a thing, of course. What I did was this: Whenever the Burgermeister’s back was turned, I quietly encouraged any and all shoppers to snap whatever photos they wanted.

In retrospect, maybe I didn’t take the superstore job for financial reasons. Plenty had happened in my life since 1991 – some good things, some bad, like any life. I wonder whether I yearned to be reminded of that simple Christmas right after college, when I was still young and foolish; back when I, frankly, had my whole life in front of me. The superstore’s Santa job was a chance for me to reset the clock, for me to grow nostalgic and time travel to a holiday in my past. Isn’t there something about Santa that always turns the pages of one’s internal calendar backward? Isn’t it in the very nature of the holiday season to ache with all your heart for a time that was better? Isn’t this why we document the holidays so obsessively? To hold onto these ephemeral moments? To grab them, to savour them just a little while longer?

At Christmas, this happens to me without fail: I’m walking through the mall, then bam, I spot the Man In The Red Suit. Boom, I’m eight years old again. Santa was a magical being who knew your secret longings and exactly what you wanted. Santa was someone who listened to you. I’ve got to tell you, this was a tremendous comfort to me, being heard and understood like that. As I creak my way into my 50s now, this feeling still reliably permeates Christmas. It is tinged with a kind of nagging, premature mournfulness.

I remember feeling this way back in Syracuse in 1991 on Dec. 24, my final shift at the Penn-Can. The anticipation was over. The holiday itself – which rarely lives up to our overinflated expectations – was about to begin. My time as a mall Santa was drawing to a close.

I had no idea what lay ahead for me. No clue at all what my life would be like. No inkling of what sort of man I would be once I removed the Santa suit. All I could do was peel it off. Hang it up. Then wake up the next morning and begin making decisions for myself. That’s all any of us can do, really.

Once my last shift was over, I bid adieu to the crowds with my white-gloved hands and belted out a bevy of ho-ho-hos up to the Penn-Can’s rafters and iced-over skylights. Then I made my way out of the centre court for the last time.

In the back hallway, I ran right into Night Santa. Like duelling gunfighters, we loped toward one another for the last time. To my surprise, instead of high-fiving, we embraced. Night Santa’s arms were strong. He squeezed the air clean out of me. That’s right: We hugged each other. We had, in fact, survived something, hadn’t we?

“We made it, Santa.”

“Could not have done with without you, Santa.”

Then we parted, nodding at one another for the final time. Night Santa continued his journey out to the rickety throne that I’d vacated moments ago. And me? I headed into the dressing room to turn myself back into, well, me again.

Sometimes, on quiet evenings in December when the first snow accumulates on the city’s sidewalks, I’ll hear someone walking in heavy boots behind me. The person’s boots, like our Santa boots back in 1991, sound as familiar as a metronome. Clomp, clomp; clomp, clomp. Back and forth the rhythm swings.

It’s in this moment that I grow hopelessly nostalgic. It’s in this moment that I remember those two Santas, walking away from each other, parting for the last time.

At the mall in Willow Grove, Pa., Santa greets some new visitors.Hannah Beier/Reuters

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