Joseph D’souza, 53, who lives in Bandra in Mumbai, knows what it might be like to be a celebrity. It’s to walk into a room only to have people go a bit crazy, smile through endless selfies, and find it tough to leave the building. D’souza might not be a ‘celebrity’ but he comes close. He’s Santa.
For the past 21 years, the end of the year has been seeing D’souza put on a Santa suit and gear, to go to malls, carnivals and events, and ask kids (and adults) if they’ve been naughty or nice. With a hearty laugh and a body type that lends itself easily to being Santa Claus, D’souza is an engineer by day and a Santa-on-hire by night. Making people smile is a serious job, and he likes to do his prep work, especially when it comes to quizzing people on all things Christmas—a format that works well when it comes to figuring who should be receiving gifts. Like in many other countries, he also aims to start a Santa Association in India. We chatted with him about the trials and tribulations of keeping the magic of Christmas alive.
VICE: What inspired you to dress up and play Santa professionally?
Joseph D’souza: It all started on December 22, 1999. I was with a friend one evening when she asked if I could do a Santa act. I told her that I was getting ready for a night shift at my job then, but a restaurant at the foot of the Mount Mary steps, Rafael ka Chowk, needed a Santa Claus. My friend told me that I’d get paid for this, which kind of cinched the deal. I called up my office and told them I was sick. I then did a two-hour Santa act, quizzing the diners on all things Christmas, with free beer as prizes if they got them right.
Do you feel bad about lying to kids?
Some kids, especially the smarty-pants, say that I’m not a real Santa, and that Santa doesn’t exist. I do feel bad when they say that. I want them to grow up with some imagination. They should have anticipation and eagerness about Santa coming and giving them gifts for Christmas. Someday they might realise it isn’t true, but until then, they should live with the fact that Santa is real.
Have you ever got pranked by a kid?
Some kids pull the coat or the beard, which is the most dangerous thing to happen to someone playing Santa because our cover will be revealed.
Has your suit ever unravelled mid-act?
I remember this one time when I was dancing with the kids and my trousers kept falling off as the elastic band had become loose. Luckily, my coat is long and it reaches my knees, so I was saved. That’s the only wardrobe malfunction that has taken place. On a regular basis, my moustache keeps falling. I get conscious when it does because I have a black moustache.
What is the best experience you have had at a Christmas party?
At children’s parties, I have received handmade cards for Santa, which I have kept and will treasure all my life. The nicest remark I got was from a mom at a fancy party at a high-end store. She came up to me and said, “I have been going around with my kid for so many parties in the past week but you are the best looking Santa in town.” It is an honour to receive such lovely compliments.
What is the worst experience you’ve had?
I remember how I made a mistake at a restaurant in Khar. I approached a middle-aged couple at their table and asked if they would like to take a picture with me. They were just not interested though, and were annoyed at me interrupting an intense date. That was embarrassing. But over the years, I’ve learnt the dos and don’ts of being Santa.
Is there a difference between how affluent kids treat you versus those who are less fortunate?
The rich kids aren’t that enthusiastic. Most of them know that I’m not the real Santa; they may not say it to my face but they know it’s an old man underneath the mask because they are exposed to more things in life. The poor kids, however, are fascinated and pose with big happy smiles. Their eyes are lit with awe and happiness. It makes me feel happy, even if I might not be getting paid to visit those less fortunate. Spreading happiness is the true essence of Christmas and that is what I try to do.
Is it tiring to pose for pictures?
At the Christmas carnivals in Bandra, there is always a massive crowd. I usually have a motorised chariot for my arrival, and people start ambushing me as soon as I step off. I spend an hour here, and it often gets overwhelming because people follow me around, and it gets real crowded at these carnivals. But it’s important to stay pleasant when you play Santa, and if someone wants to take pictures, I happily oblige.
How much money do you earn being a pro Santa?
It depends a lot on where and what the act is, and the number of kids at the party. I work for free for associations that call me for the poor and to orphanage homes. The highest paid events are the ones at the malls—they pay me Rs 1,000 an hour.
Did your kids ever think of Santa as real?
My kids never grew up with that imagination of Santa being real. They have seen me dressing up, putting on the mask and the fake white beard. I feel sad about the fact that they didn’t get to experience Santa Claus.
Follow Noel D’souza on Twitter.