I was 16 when I got my first job working as a cashier at a Christmas Santa photo set. The gig was at a Toronto shopping mall that had recently revamped its decor from a late-80s-inspired red and white candy cane hell to a vamped-up winter wonderland of fluffy frosted snow and moving reindeers.
My manager, Leah*, warned me about Santa Ricky* on my first day. A veteran Claus with the company, Ricky was known for his mood swings, his uncomfortable sense of humour, and having the rationale of a four-year-old boy. The set had a few rotating Santas, exhibiting a range of different temperaments but all looking the same. The other Santas were fairly nice, but Santa Ricky was a well-known terror.
"You have to make sure to walk Santa to his seat when opening, and walk him back to the staff room when closing so teenagers don't jump him," Leah said to me, eyes actively trying to brainwash my soul. "And don't sit in his chair. Never sit in his chair."
Leah, while constantly smiling, was more of a mid-twenties shit disturber than a manager. She soothed with the same hand that she slapped you with. She'd tell you that you'd done a great job, and then force another staffer to say something awful about you when you went on break. When you returned, she made the two of you confront each other for good fun.
Leah's five-foot-twelve friend Becky* was my co-manager of sorts. While she had no real authority over the young staff members, she inspired the fear of Christmas God in all of us with a demeanor that reminded me of Angelica from Rugrats. Basically, Becky was the overgrown bully on the playground, bossing people around for shits and giggles by hanging our jobs over our heads like an autonomic wedgie.
Together, they made me get their coffee, only for me to return to them saying I was late, or that the coffee was too cold. I sucked it up, sensing an initiation of sorts—and I was right, for the time being. Once I had jumped high enough through their mean-girl hoops, I quickly became a favorite, working all the positions and racking up more hours.
I was soon offered regular shifts as photographer.
Being photographer was a great experience at first. I got to coo and dangle jingling toys at cute cherub babies to make them smile, interact with customers and, with the other Santas' help, restored photographic faith in parents with chronically blinking children. I had yet to meet Santa Ricky, but he couldn't have been that bad, right? After all, he was Santa.
God, I was so wrong.
Santa Ricky and I were given more shifts together, and my Christmas cheer wore off by our first day together. He wasted no time tormenting me.
"Santa Ricky said that you've been leaning against the set," Leah said days later.
"I wasn't. I was leaning on the metal post outside. I've been working 12-hour shifts and my feet really hurt." I responded. Leah looked down at the cheap plastic shoes that were all my student wage could afford me. She let it go, but Santa Ricky didn't.
I got in trouble with Ricky for not keeping extra pens to go with the sign-up sheet; I got in trouble with Ricky for not giving out candy canes. Then I got in trouble with Ricky for giving out too many candy canes. I got in trouble for taking too many pictures if a child wouldn't smile: "You're holding up the line!"
I got in trouble if I took too few pictures: "Now these poor people have to redo their child's pictures—and you held up the line!" he'd yell in front of everyone, evil spittle resting like snowflakes on his homegrown Santa beard.
I said nothing for a while, but then, as it turns out, Santa Ricky was also a bigot.
"Get that brown kid out of here. I don't like brown children!" He grumbled constantly. If a little brown child was hanging around the outer part of the fence, playing with the fake snow (like all the children), I was made to tell them and their parents not to touch the set.
Most times I refused, and Ricky, in his Santa costume, sitting on his Santa seat with his indistinguishably pink Santa face, would lean over and, out of character, yell: "Excuse me, you can't touch that!" Then he'd switch back to holiday gear Santa face—reserved for all other children—arms wide open and ready for a six month-old white baby. "Oh golly, isn't she cute? Ho, ho, ho!"
When brown children took their picture with Santa, Ricky would get visibly uncomfortable and reluctantly lift the children up—but only for a moment. "My back hurts, I need you to stand," he'd say in an out-of-character voice after I took the photos. He wouldn't even smile.
I bet many brown children were scared of Santa that year. They also didn't get to find out if they were naughty or nice, but I guess Santa Ricky already had that part figured out. I sympathized—my own mother is brown. I put Ricky in his place constantly, but it didn't matter. He randomly went off about brown people like it was a holiday xenophobic free-for-all.
"I don't like brown people. They're all terrorists. Them and A-rabs," he once mumbled under his breath, a scowl on his face.
"I highly doubt that," I snapped. I had grown tired of his Santa bullshit.
"Well they smell bad. Like curry," he grumbled.
Santa Ricky also liked to generalize. One slow day, he was singing "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer." Then he turned to me.
"Rap!" he yelled suddenly.
"Um, excuse me?" I said, cautioning slowly in case he wanted to retract.
"Rap! Come on, you're black!" he said, beyond amused that he had made this realization by himself.
"I'm only half black, and I can't rap," I said, disgusted.
"Well that's still black. Come on, I know you can! Here—I'll start," he proceeded with a few "yo-yo-yos" before I decided to take a bathroom break, his white man rap ringing in my ears.
It was as I walked away, drained from being around this man-child, that I realized I was Santa Ricky's minion. I despised my part in enabling his behaviour by not speaking up earlier, but I didn't want to lose my first job by being fired. So instead, I swapped my Cheshire cat grin for a Grinch grimace.
I dreaded coming to work, began ignoring Ricky's racist comments, fart sounds, angry outbursts, and constant inappropriate comments towards women, such as: "Wow, look at that butt! She could sit on my lap any day."
Santa Ricky soon realized that his minion was rebelling, and we began to butt heads. As a sign of vengeance, of one-upping me, he started giving the children toys and candy to throw at me while I was taking their pictures. And since he was Santa, and I was nobody, plush toys, candy canes, and Laura Secord chocolates began hitting me in the gut, the legs, and once in the face. Even the parents seemed enjoyed it.
If that wasn't enough, he'd get children to call me names. "Say, you're a bum-bum, you're a poopy head!" he'd whisper loud enough for me to hear, then lean back and watch as his tiny protégé repeated, with the same malice, "Poopy head! Poopy head!" to the chocolate covered, peppermint-smelling photographer.
If he was feeling especially pissy, Ricky would make children avoid looking into the camera, pretending to have a Hallmark Christmas moment with people's kids, which parents seemed to actually buy. Really, he was trying to hold up the line so he could yell at me.
"Okay now, look into the camera," I'd say repeatedly, but Ricky, like the crook he was, would keep whispering in children's ears, tickle them, and tell them to continue calling me stupid or shit-related names.
One day, out of sheer exhaustion and resentment, I turned the flash to the max and took continuous pictures after being ignored by Ricky.
"What are you doing?!" Ricky shouted at me.
"Getting your attention Santa—there's a long line of children here to see you, and I know you don't want to keep them waiting," I said politely, feeling as if I had handed his ass back to him on a Christmas platter.
Ricky paused. "She's no fun, is she?" he said to the child. Ricky eyed me from behind the kid's mushroom cut as I took their picture. I eyed him back. This was an all-out Santa war.
I never won the war. For the remainder of my job, I continued to get hit with toys, candy canes, insults, and Ricky's outbursts. I listened to more comments about Ricky's hatred of brown people, how that woman's butt belonged on his lap, more ethnic renditions of "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," and how I just sucked, in general.
I know that Santas are people too. I get that. What I should have known was that Santas can be some of the worst people out there—racists, creeps, basket cases, common idiots, purely malicious villains.
While Ricky was a real-life Bad Santa, he had a team of elves enabling his behaviour. Attempting to complain got me bumped from working every day to only four hours a week. Leah justified this by switching my shift without notifying me, so it looked like I didn't show up to work. I was mysteriously unable to get any jobs at other locations. I had started writing a letter to the company years ago to complain about what had happened, but I knew it would be useless.
On the last day of the Christmas season, I had to walk Ricky to the back room after closing. He wouldn't stop talking, as if we were besties. I wasn't in the mood.
Ricky was still talking as he entered the room. I grabbed my things, turned, and left, leaving Ricky, still talking to me apparently, like live holiday bait in the backroom for any rowdy trespassing adolescents to find. On my way out I sat on his chair and rubbed my ass in it nice and hard, made a mental note of my victory, and took my Grinch-y self home.
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*Names have been changed