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Secrets of the grotto: Study uncovers joys, trials behind being Saint Nick

by Jamie Doward

The Observer

Perhaps when you last sauntered past a Santa’s grotto somewhere in the bowels of an urban shopping center, you thought you were witnessing just another transaction, one in which parents shell out a few pounds so their offspring can enjoy a five-minute chat with a man sporting a fake beard.

Not so. What you actually saw, according to a rigorous academic study based on interviews with a multitude of Santas, was nothing less than “a performative, epistemic and ethical process of self-transformation” in which the actor playing Father Christmas sought to “transcend the trials and tribulations they encountered as interactive service workers, ranging from crying and vomiting babies to verbal assaults from teenagers, up to and including attempted robbery.” The motive for putting up with so much? “The sense of recognition . . . bestowed upon them.”

Or, as one Santa interviewed for the British Academy-sponsored study put it: “When you’re Santa Claus, you’re a celebrity and sort of, for one short season, you’re somebody that, you know, 98 percent of people are very happy to see.”

The observation is typical of the many Santas studied by professor Philip Hancock, of the University of Essex, who interviewed “the elite” of the Father Christmas world for his paper, published this month in the Work, Employment and Society journal.

“What surprised me is that those working as Santa Claus said they had to bring a degree of authenticity to the role which exceeded anything else they had done,” Hancock said. “They really have to embody the role and convince children and their parents of the reality of their festive encounter. As one experienced performer said, ‘You don’t do Santa, you have to be Santa!’ ”

Hancock interviewed performers from their late 50s through to one very experienced 81-year-old. Many were professional or semi-professional actors drawn to the role because it offered them a chance to be someone “better than them,” he said.

“They like to be recognized for doing a good job, but there is also a sense of overcoming their own limitations and being identified by others as embodying the ideal of Santa Claus — such as his generosity, his sensitivity and being nonjudgmental,” Hancock said.

His work builds on earlier studies involving Disney employees who appreciate that delivering a quality service incorporates a theatrical performance. But it appears today’s Santas are under far more pressure to deliver than other performers, with many recounting experiences that Hancock said were “highly reminiscent of the worst excesses of the rationalized assembly line”.

One Santa said: “They sometimes have parties where there’s maybe 400 to 500 children and you are in a little booth, so to speak, with lights and everything — a grotto — and you have one fairy and you have to see all those 500 children in four hours, and that is some going. All the time they’re saying, ‘Hurry it up! Hurry it up! Hurry it up!’ ”

The threat of abuse is never far away. One performer recalled how his open sleigh had to be moved back against a shopping mall wall after he had been threatened with a concealed weapon. Those who undertook walkabout performances recounted tales of abuse and violence, particularly from teenage gangs.

“Perhaps more insidious were ‘entrapment’ operations orchestrated, in particular, by the press,” Hancock notes. “Sometimes, unbeknown to the performers themselves, photographs were taken with, for example, cigarettes or tobacco being placed in the frame. In one case, a performer was set up by a local newspaper who took officially approved photos of a young woman sitting on his knee; she was subsequently shown in this newspaper to have been exposing her underwear during the shoot.”

Pushy parents are also a problem. One woman ordered Santa to get her son “what he wants.” When Santa asked what this was, she replied: “A real gun with real bullets.” When Santa asked if her son had a firearms licence, the mother insisted: “Yes, he’s got a gun licence. Get him what he wants.”

Some interviewees conceded money was a factor in their choice of seasonal work. One major London store reportedly pays its Santa around £26 ($43) an hour and £38 on Sundays. Studies suggest that U.S. Santas with real beards can earn upwards of 25 percent more than their fake-bearded counterparts.

Many performers invested heavily in their role, paying between £500 and £1,000 to have costumes made. Accessories such as gloves played an important role while a “magic” key on their belt could explain how Santa gained access to a property without a chimney. “I suppose it’s like putting on a police uniform,” one said. “You become a policeman as soon as you put the uniform on.”

Hancock said there was a serious side to his research. “What they are doing is an act of work. We need to know how they balance exhibiting a sense of goodwill and charity at a time of excessive individualism.”