Becoming Kris Kringle

By Megan Ferringer

For thousands of men across the country, the beginning of December calls for an atypical refashioning of their normal business wardrobes.

Just like clockwork, as Dec. 1 hits and twinkle lights are strung on barren trees, these men store away their black slacks and leather loafers for the season. Instead, they pull from the hangers suits made of red velvet. Their white beards are perfectly groomed, and their cheeks are flushed to a rosy red.

These men have made the yearly transition from businessmen to Santa Claus.

But come Dec. 26, they don’t have to store away their black boots and shave the long white beards-being Santa Claus isn’t just a monthly commitment, for many, it’s a job that requires year-round dedication and detail-oriented training.

“People think our job is very simple-you put on a suit, sit in a chair and deal with children all day,” said Tim Connaghan, a professional Santa Claus for 40 years. “There are so many details involved to make sure that when children walk away, it’s with smiles on their faces, knowing that something good is going to happen to them on Christmas morning.”

Originally from Riverside, Calif., Connaghan has taken his love for donning the red suit and with it created the International University of Santa Claus. At the university, he coaches aspiring Kris Kringles on the know-how of what makes a good Santa.

Connaghan has since taken his “School 4 Santas” across the nation for the past 10 years, training more than 1,500 other Santas on the tricks of the trade-covering everything from keeping the beard prim and proper to how to deal with a kid who has decided to pee on Santa’s lap.

For many department store Santas, job training consists of reading over a small handbook that lays out what to say and what not to say to young customers during their short minute on Santa’s lap. This was at least the case for Dana Caplan, a Santa for many of Chicago’s department stores.

After realizing how untrained many professional Santas were, Connaghan decided it took more than a small manual. So during the off-season, he brought the workshops to 10 to 15 cities across the country, teaching more than 130 Santas at a time, of which Caplan attended.

From using the right moustache wax to learning how to answer children’s questions of how Santa gets back up in the chimney (i.e. he goes the same way, only backward), Connaghan said the smallest details are imperative to preserve the mystery that is Kris Kringle-because for many, having the white beard means Santa is in full force for 365 days.

“Santas have to learn to do all sorts of different things,” Connaghan said. “One Santa passed out business cards to parents, and later while driving down the highway he gets a call on his cell from a little boy quietly asking, ‘Is this Santa?’ So you answer, ‘Well, yes, what can I do for you?’ We have to teach what to do in every scenario.”

Connaghan’s workshops have sent out a bit of joy to Santas on a local level. Jeff Curtis has been working as a Chicago Santa for the past 20 years.

This past November, he appeared in the city’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Much of what he’s learned, he said, comes from Connaghan’s workshops.

Curtis calls himself a second-generation Kris Kringle after his father portrayed a “fake-bearded Santa,” as he likes to call it, for more than 35 years. Having the Christmas gene running through the family, Curtis grew a beard of his own, which with age eventually turned white. The rest, he said, is history.

One of the greatest concerns Curtis had when the holidays arrived was the way a changing society had affected the way children interacted with Santa.

Requests that included G.I. Joes and Barbie dolls dwindled and were replaced with questions of whether or not Santa could bring divorced parents back together for the holiday.

“I never realized how much work this job is-you become so emotionally involved,” Curtis said. “You get these requests from 4-year-olds to bring back their grandma that passed away or to send her a message, and you just start to cry. You just can’t hold it in anymore. That’s when you know that you’ve become Santa.”

The most important lesson Connaghan teaches his students, and what serves as the universal code of work ethics, is the fact that Santas can never promise a child anything. But at the very least, they can leave them walking away confident, Connaghan said.

“A child only has a minute at most on Santa’s lap, and unfortunately Santa can’t answer all the problems of the world,” Connaghan said. “But we can make sure a child walks off with a good feeling. And that’s our job.”