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the hidden language

The Hidden Language of Mall Santas

In order to maintain their carefully manicured illusion, some mall Santas and their elves have to employ code words and slang just to communicate with each other.

In The Hidden Language , Nat Towsen interviews an insider of a particular subculture in order to examine the terms and phrases created by that subculture to serve its own needs. This is language innate to an insider and incomprehensible, if not invisible, to an outsider.

Billy Arrowsmith is overflowing with genuine exuberance. "My one job is making children happy," he tells me, "which is the most wonderful thing in the world." Twenty-three years old, Arrowsmith is the youngest Santa at the major department store where he works, earning him the moniker "Baby Santa."


Arrowsmith explains that selective language is a large part of maintaining the "very professional environment" at the store where he works. His nickname, for example, comes from the fact that Santas and elves are encouraged not to learn one another's real names in order to avoid breaking character. In fact, after a long day as Santa, he often has trouble phasing out the voice and mannerisms.

A Santa must think creatively to answer any possible question a child might have, often reframing the situation in order to avoid lying or coming up empty. A child who asks for an expensive gift might be told, "I'll be sure to get you something you'll like." If a child asks about Santa's favorite kind of cookies, he replies, "Why, Christmas cookies, of course!"

This always-on performance requires not only careful phrasing, but a series of code words designed to avoid being noticed by anyone save those trained to understand. Arrowsmith took the time to explain these terms to me, as well as a bit of behind-the scenes vocabulary.


Brackets denote paraphrasing by the author. All other text is directly quoted from Mr. Arrowsmith.

Santa: n. Any and every Santa Claus.

Usage: [Santa] always speaks in the third person

The Man In Red: n. A code word for Santa.

Ex: If you're announcing things over a walkie talkie, you don't want to accidentally slip around a kid and be like "Santa's on a smoke break."


Real Beard: n. Somebody who does not have to wear a prosthetic or fake beard. A man old enough to have an actual full white beard.

Road Santa: n. A Santa who spends his summers traveling the country…

Ex: There's one [Santa], he's a motorcycle rider. Santas get hired to judge barbeque contests.

Special Santa: n. (archaic) A Black Santa.

Ex: In the place where I worked, there was always one Black Santa in the back of the house who, if somebody specially requested a "Special Santa," they would go out and sit with that one family.

Etymology: Originally … you would have to pull an elf aside and say that you wanted a Black Santa. And some people felt kind of weird about that. So to make it more friendly, they instead changed it to Special Santa.

Good-Looking Santa: n. A Black Santa.

Etymology: Calling the Black person "special" made people uncomfortable. So the third name they changed it to was Good-Looking Santa.

Ex: "Hey, I just want to make sure my child sees a good-looking Santa."

Stuff: v. To give yourself a fake belly … with towels or pillows.

Screamer: n. A child who [melts down]. You cannot reason with them. The only thing you can do is take them away from the terrifying man that is causing them so much emotional existential anguish.

Grinch: n. A parent who is not so nice.

Usage: Usually substitute for calling someone a "bitch" or an "asshole." We try not to say too many bad things about people.


Filled with Christmas Cheer: adj. Drunk.

Ex: [In] the place where I work, a third of our visits were adults with no children … people who do it because they like the picture, they like being able to send it as a Christmas card … people do it as a date activity … or you get a bunch of wasted tourists coming in and floundering all over Santa, late at night, on a weeknight.

Having Visions of Sugarplum Fairies: v. Tired and out of it at the end of a long night.

Santa Groupie: n. A woman who makes sexual advances at Santa.

Ex: I've heard a bunch of weird stories about women who have a thing for Santa coming in and getting sexually aggressive at the actors. The appropriate response is always of course "That's very sweet of you, but I don't think Mrs. Claus would approve."


Though it might take some explaining, Real Beard is a great way to refer to someone who needs little to no preparation (Did Jason buy a suit for his job interview? No, he already had one—he's a Real Beard). Drunk people can be referred to as Filled with Christmas Cheer regardless of the season. And Good-Looking might be the best euphemism for "black" ever invented.


The Morgan Spurlock documentary I Am Santa Claus looks at the lives of five Real Beards, with the help of WWE wrestler Mick Foley. Comedian Keith Lowell Jensen's Atheist Christmas contains a sweet, funny story about a Real Beard named Dale, to whom the special is dedicated. To learn about schisms within the Santa community, Google "Order of Real Bearded Santas." And for a bleaker look behind the scenes, read David Sedaris's classic essay, SantaLand Diaries.

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