Already in town, Santa hears holiday wishes
A 19-year mall veteran tells of studying toy catalogs, staying cool in the big red suit, and making sure not to promise too much
WARWICK, R.I. - Wearing a Boston Bruins T-shirt, 4-year-old Johnny asked Santa Claus for a Zamboni this Christmas. Santa ho-ho-ho-ed and said he’d see what he could do. When Tyler, 3, asked, “What else do you make?’’ - besides toy helicopters, he meant - Santa replied with a list of low-tech board games like Candy Land and Hungry Hungry Hippos. • Summer, 6, climbed onto Santa’s lap, smiled obligingly for the camera, and requested an iPod touch and a “real puppy,’’ not a stuffed one, under the tree this year. Santa thought that one over. “Maybe, maybe not,’’ he replied slowly. “Pets take a lot of caring for, you know.’’ Well then, said Summer, how about a Dora the Explorer play kitchen and a Belle doll?
So it went over a six-hour stretch one recent weekday at the Warwick Mall in Rhode Island, where scores of boys and girls lined up to meet Santa and make their holiday-gift requests. Taken together, they offered a glimmer of an answer to a question asked often these days: What do kids want for Christmas this year, anyway?
Sitting in the big chair was Jim Clarke, a naturally bearded Santa surrogate who’s been helping out St. Nick for the past 19 years. By prior arrangement, Clarke waived elf-client privilege, allowing a reporter to eavesdrop on Christmas wish conversations. In return, Santa’s clients were promised partial anonymity, unless other arrangements were made, while the reporter promised to be nicer to others this year.
“I try to limit most kids to three items,’’ Clarke explained as he donned his cherry red, fur-trimmed suit, and prepared to report for duty. Stuffed inside his jacket were several strategically placed frozen gel packs designed to keep Mr. Claus cool during what promised to be a long day on the job.
That job is a demanding one, too, more so than many might guess. Not only does it require patience and imagination, but it also helps to know what toys, dolls, games, and action figures are popular from year to year. Barbie dolls, Lego sets, and Thomas the Tank Engine trains are perennial favorites, for example, and need no further introduction. But when a young girl asks for a Lalaloopsy doll or a Monster High fashion doll - two lines that debuted last year and have become quite popular - Santa doesn’t want to be caught flat-booted.
“I study toy catalogs, to keep up. But with younger kids, it’s more of an early learning process,’’ Clarke explained, brushing whitener into his eyebrows. “I like to get them into books and learning toys. Older kids, they’re asking for notebook computers, cellphones, and iPads. I say, ‘I’ll see what Santa can do.’ But I never promise them a particular gift.’’
Certain requests prompt Santa to issue safety instructions, Clarke added, even if no firm promises get made. “Kids have asked for laptops with Skype cameras, and I’ll say, ‘Make sure Mom and Dad know who you’re talking to online.’ ’’
Clarke, a 62-year-old grandfather and hospital research coordinator, works at the mall 36 hours a week during the month of December. His meal breaks last a mere 30 minutes, barely enough time to eat a sandwich and comb out his beard. Nights and weekends, Clarke hires out for private parties and charitable functions. (His top fee is $180 for a 30-minute visit, although he’ll also work at a reduced rate, or even for free, if he feels that’s right to do.) In his closet are four custom-designed Santa Claus suits, accessorized with gold-plated reindeer buttons.
Clarke takes his North Pole duties seriously, knowing he brings a touch of magical realism to each and every jingle-belled encounter.
“Over the years I’ve learned how to fit this role, size-wise and costume-wise,’’ he said. Prospective clients begin lining up in July, if not sooner, he added.
The closer it gets to Christmas, the longer the mall lines grow, reducing his time with each child. It’s not all about gift lists, either. Positioning kids to have their picture taken is a crucial component of each visit. Clarke’s employer, Cranston-based Melino Photo agency, runs the operation like a well-oiled machine. Buying a photo package is optional - they range from $14 to $42 - but since most families do make a purchase, Clarke qualifies as one of Rhode Island’s most-photographed subjects, year after merry year.
On this Friday, Santa met with nearly 120 boys and girls, for about two minutes each, on average. The youngest was just 3 months old, the oldest 15 years. Most were between 2 to 5. A few snapshots:
Heather, 4: “I’d like Pillow Pets and a new bike.’’
Santa: “A new bike! I’ll put training wheels on it to start, OK? Now, be sure to wear a helmet!’’
Kayden, 3, asks for dinosaurs, an airplane, and a race car.
Santa: “You mean, like Lightning McQueen? Or Mater the tow truck?’’ Santa knows his “Cars’’ characters, boys and girls.
Anthony, 6, wants an Xbox 360 and Spider-Man video games.
Santa: “Have you been good this year?’’
Anthony: “A little bit.’’
Santa: “Can you be better?’’
Anthony: (shrugging) “I guess so.’’
Santa: “I will work on those gifts for you. And maybe a few surprises, too.’’
In a year the toy industry has admittedly produced no fresh runaway hits, at least not on the order of Tickle Me Elmo or Cabbage Patch Dolls, Santa’s sleigh will likely be filled with old favorites in 2011: Barbies, remote-control vehicles, “Cars’’ and “Star Wars’’ action figures, Power Rangers, Hot Wheels, Hello Kitty, and Play Dough sets, to name a few.
Also coming soon to a chimney near you: Rock ‘N Roll Elmo, Little People Happy Sounds Homes, Zoobies, Littlest Pet Shop figures, and an electronic action game called Flush Action, which does involve - yes, Mom and Dad - a toy toilet.
Clarke - that is, Santa - wants to remind families to leave out milk and cookies for him this Christmas Eve. And something for the reindeer to munch on, too.
As he peeled off his Santa suit, Clarke said his toughest conversations have been with parents asking for world peace, or hoping to find a job. “With so many people out of work these days,’’ he said, ’’I’m very careful what I promise the kids.’’
Then he rose to leave for his next gig, a right jolly old elf.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.