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Tales from the Santa Set

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017 12:13 p.m. CST

Editor’s note: The following is the first in a holiday series on Mike Mendenhall’s nightly gig as a mall Santa set photographer this Christmas season. He’s writing each column as it happens, so we never know what’s coming next.

A little pretext, this is only a slight ripoff of David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries.” This “Santa’s Helper” is not as cynical as the great humorist but already this holiday season, I have a new appreciation for Sedaris’ experience narrated in his 1992 NPR essay.

The mall Santa set does not have a team of researchers to peer review my data but I’ve done a rough calculation, and a photographer has a maximum of 10 seconds from the time a parent sets their baby on Santa’s lap to snap a picture before a first Christmas portrait goes from confused infant to all out terror. Also, the squeaker in a stuffed toy reindeer does not make a screaming baby smile. It’s a myth.

My wife Betsy and I have decided to use our “free time” during the lead up to Christmas and moonlight as cast members at a Des Moines-area mall Santa set. It’s part of our grand idea to wipe out our remaining credit card balances before New Year’s Day. At $11.50 per hour, we might be a little ambitious, but there’s always the possibility of the Christmas miracle.

I consider photography an art, but Santa set pictures are like a McDonald’s drive-thru — you know you shouldn’t buy it, but the bad is what makes it so good. It’s a Christmas troupe, but Santa set photography is still a service. So when visitors see the sign that says “please refrain from taking your own pictures,” that’s not a suggestion. Your stealthy cell phone photography isn’t as incognito as you think. Just don’t try it.

Bets and I are softies when it comes to a Christmas moment. A baby with a red and green bow tugging on Santa’s beard is too cute for us to uniformly say no cellphone pictures, just stay behind the blue line at the exit. That’s all we’re asking. But it never fails, every night I feel like John Goodman in “The Big Lebowski” — “Over the line” is not allowed in this game.

Our required uniform isn’t so bad. We wear black polos matched with elf-green aprons complimented by a check box in the center which reads “I’m Santa Approved.” It’s not as exaggerated as the costume in every Christmas movie from Home Alone to Bad Santa. We don’t have to go full-on elf with belled shoes and prosthetic ears that look like they’re straight off planet Vulcan. To be fully transparent, I’ve willingly dressed as Buddy the Elf as recently as October, so if the rules changed tomorrow, I’d bring my own threads from home.

Santa’s daily arrival is a regal affair. He prances through the mall in his full red coat with white fur collar, black boots with fur lining and his signature velvet hat. He sits in a green, oversized chair for eight hours a day, so he loses the outerwear and dresses down for maximum comfort.

Santa has a different white button down shirt with toys, animals or cartoon graphics for every day he’s in Iowa. His work clothes include red overalls, red and green striped socks and he replaces his boots with Birkenstocks .

The short and stout, white breaded man checks into the Marriott for 38 days every holiday season as Santa. That’s the name the front desk clerk uses for Santa’s 7 a.m. good morning wake-up call. Jolly Old St. Nick starts every morning on the treadmill. He gets into his athletic gear and walks down to the hotel gym. He has a local stylist to make sure his silver head of hair is full and curly. Santa’s commute, obviously, is long so he doesn’t go home for Thanksgiving. Santa’s hairdresser has him over for the holiday dinner every year and tells her friends she hosts Mr. Claus.

On weeknights when the mall is slow, Santa loves to make small talk. Fun fact, in the off season Santa and his wife watch the show “Naked and Afraid” and he laughs at the “Alaskan Bushmen” for being nothing more than TV personalities with a film crew of 25 and access to off-camera air conditioning and snack platters. He likes to go antiquing, that’s where he found his gold, wire rim glasses. Santa always stops at Jethro’s and Smokey D’s BBQ while in town. Santa loves good BBQ.

Every night, after the last kids wave goodbye, Santa ends the evening with a hug. “That’s the best present,” he says.

Contact Mike Mendenhall at mmendenhall@ jaspercountytribune.com

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