The annual expedition to the local mall for a visit with Santa is a magical highlight for many kids—and a source of terror for others. What does it take to remain cool under the pressures of frazzled parents, screaming babies, and pint-sized beard-grabbers?
We asked former mall Santa Jerry Herships—who also happens to be a former comedian and bartender turned preacher who now runs an alternative ministry—what it was like to be the literal embodiment of Christmas for six weeks out of the year.
VICE: Why'd you decide to become a mall Santa?
Jerry Herships: It was in Burbank in the late 80s, early 90s. The way you get that job is you're a poor stand-up comedian trying to find gigs through the holidays, just like every other time. In fact, I was working at The Gap at the same time, in the same mall. I would go and put on my Santa gear and Santa-up, and I'd get called, like 'we still need you to work night shift at The Gap. Could you come in?' Yeah I guess. So I'd take off the outfit, and go in and help people find jeans. They'd be like; why are your eyebrows white?
What did the application process entail?
I just went down there and applied. To be honest, if some guys walked in and were pushing 250, 300 pounds with a full, white beard—and could form a sentence—they were hired. They were typecast, perfect for it. Apparently I was personable enough, because I certainly don't look the part. I look like a guy that could probably work out more, but not a 'Santa' guy. A lot of the guys there were Santa guys. They didn't need a fake beard and a fake gut—they just needed a change of clothing and they were pretty much on their way.
Were they moonlighting as Santa?
There were a lot of bikers. I'm sure that the ones at the Burbank Mall anyways—it was their side gig. A way to pick up some extra money. I was surprised at how many got canned—there were a lot of Santas that got fired. For excessive flirting with the moms. And a lot of Santas came into their shift after having a pop or two,like, yeah, we can smell it on you. You need to drop the suit off, you're done. Closer to Christmas, there were fewer and fewer Santas, so I got more shifts. That worked out pretty good for me.
What's it like?
Have you read Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris? He was an elf at Macy's. It's ridiculously accurate. Obviously you've gotta love kids and everything. But it was a routine thing that kids would throw up on you and pee on you. Years later I had a job as a bartender, and being a Santa was good training because people threw up on you there too.
It's more than just a fat belly and a pretty beard. You have to be able to play into the fantasy and be there for the kids. As much as it's easy to goof on, it's a big deal. This is this kid's moment. All in all, I was pretty lucky. I don't remember people being rude or mean. I remember plenty of kids freaking out because, face it, it's a giant dude with white beard. It's freaky.
What about when you knew you couldn't grant their wishes?
You'd get kids coming in with these heartbreaking requests—like can you keep mommy and daddy together; or mommy got sick, can you make her better? I'd say, "We'll put this on your request list and we'll see. We'll try to get you the best possible thing for you." Because you didn't have time to do a complete personality and family inventory and know the scenario—for all we know, mom just had a cold and was going to get better. You don't want to set up anybody for failure or promise the kid something that you can't deliver on. But 95 percent of the [requests were] the standard toy things.
Was it ever boring?
I had a pretty good time with it. The shifts were never long—four hours max. Every few hours you'd go feed the reindeer or change your Santa outfit because it suddenly smelled funny after Billy sat on your lap for a while.
How did the kids react to you?
With the little kids, it was trying to keep them from freaking out because you're an odd looking human being. With the older kids, they just weren't convinced that you were really Santa. You never knew what the next kid was going to bring; they don't line them up by age, or size or belief system. I would guess 75 percent of the kids yanked on the beard. You get used to it. We had it attached there pretty good, but it gets old and you have to deal with it with grace, because no one likes a violent, angry Santa.
What's harder to deal with—the kids or their parents?
The parents by far. Especially as you get closer to Christmas. You'd see people with that look in their eyes of just complete and utter my god, I've got so much shit to do. And the line gets longer and longer. Short tempers and the parents arguing between themselves—that was if you got the late shift, the week before Christmas. And the biggest challenge was dealing with tired, cranky parents that were trying to do right by their kids but it's the eleventh hour and they are just done. Sometimes they'd complain to me about the cost of the photos and I was like, "I'm just a jolly guy for hire".
On rough days, you'd find the closest TGI Friday's or Applebees and get a pop after your shift —you'd see another guy across the bar with the white eyebrows. You definitely knew the other mall Santas.
Nowadays, do you scrutinize the mall Santa on duty?
I instantly flash back to it. I will watch for a little while—you can tell; that guy's awesome—or that poor bastard—he hates it. You can just tell.
What does it take to be a good Santa?
I met a guy one time—his title was Santa to the Stars. He was in the Neiman Marcus catalog, he was the Santa that would get employed by Rodeo Drive. I remember he had Cartier glasses, and was wearing a Rolex. He pulled out half a dozen Christmas cards that he was on. He was not filling in between gigs—this was his life. This was what he did full-time. Doing the Christmas party at Stallone's house, at Michael Jackson's house—he was the guy. He had the rosy cheeks, the full beard. He was a big guy—sort of imposing, but had a great demeanor. He was physically just the perfect Santa. I couldn't picture him working on Wall Street or The Gap or anywhere else. Probably every day of the year, whether he was working or not, people would come up to him and say, "You know, you look an awful lot like Santa." He owned it.
Best part of the job?
The kids by and large were pretty awesome. There is something pretty kick-ass about being able to be part of that magic for a kid. That's cool. Having said that, I think there's probably only room for half a dozen full-time Santas on the planet. It is a gig you get for six weeks, unless you're the Neiman Marcus Santa Claus guy.
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