“It’s almost as if kids are getting worse. In the 1990s they would sit on my lap and ask for modest gifts and toys they could really play with. Now they come with a list. They just want stuff.”
Dressed in a red and white Father Christmas suit, Santa has some black stubble under his fake white beard. “It’s been a long month,” he sighs.
All over the world, except perhaps in North Korea, children queue with their parents to be photographed on Father Christmas’s lap.
“I love doing this; that happy giggle that a kid has when they get to see Santa. But it has become so commercial.”
Now his opulent throne feels like a cog in some production line, he says, taking a gulp out of his double-shot latte. “It’s exhausting looking up and seeing that winding snake, filled with tired parents and kids clutching bags of toys.”
The parents at one of Johannesburg’s largest shopping centres queue up for a photo with Santa. R300 is handed over to elves and, in exchange, their children get a minute on Santa’s lap and a framed photograph.
Job for a month
This Santa, like all the others the Mail & Guardian spoke to, does not want to disclose his name, noting that there are many other unemployed people who could be given his Father Christmas spot.
He used to be a car salesperson but was laid off. His friend offered him a gig as Santa Claus at a small shopping centre over Christmas. “I always dressed up as Santa when we had these big family do’s over Christmas so he said I’d be good at it.”
It gives him work for a month each year. He gets other work through people recommending him, and has to provide his own suit. His is spotless and has been carefully brushed for any wayward dust and hair, but the red is fading.
“I imagine most of us do this for the same reason people teach. It’s a beautiful job.”
The beard is then put back in place. His hat, with its drooping tassel, is put on last and he heads back to the waiting lines. His job is busy. But in a day of wandering around shopping centres, the M&G finds several Santas who appear to be just part of the mall’s Christmas decorations.
“I don’t do the sitting-on-laps thing,” says another Father Christmas, whose suit has been bleached by the sun. Working outside a strip mall north of Johannesburg, his suit serves as a lure for shoppers as he hands out pamphlets advertising Christmas specials.
On this, the last public holiday before Christmas, the centre is packed with people pushing past each other to fill stockings. “Shopping at Christmas is the worst thing you can possibly do. Now imagine being in the middle of it, having to walk up to every single person and interact with them?”
But it’s a job, he says. On Reconciliation Day the weather is at least overcast. “This suit is damn hot. You end up with sweat running down your back and pooling in your shoes at the end of the day.”
His faded suit matches his scruffy black boots. “It really is a boring job. The kids want photos with you and the parents look at you like you’re some creepy man who wants to molest their kids, and the parents stay away.”
Christmas gives mall Santas a chance to earn a wage during the festive season. (Antoine de Ras, Media 24)
At other malls it is impossible to get anywhere near Santa. Impatient parents, security guards and armies of elves make a formidable wall, intercepting anyone who has not paid to spend time with Santa.
After the lunch rush at another large shopping centre, an off-duty Santa slips into a bathroom with a yellow sports bag, and changes. When he comes out the bag is bulging, barely able to contain the red suit.
“It needs a serious session at the dry cleaner,” he says. It is a cost that he must bear and the suit has to be cleaned every day. “It has to be the first thing I get to do before I can eat. If you don’t have the crispest and cleanest suit you will have parents complaining.”
It’s happened before, on the few occasions when he was unable to get the suit clean. “Parents can be awful when it comes to their children. They will complain to the person in charge of the stall right in front of you. They get frantic when their children are involved.”
The Christmas boom gives him three weeks of work, and the rest of the year is spent working at parties. His Santa suit is new, because his last one – a veteran of five festive seasons and two vomits – was stolen in a break-in this winter. A cheap velvet suit costs around R2 000, but he says: “You need to spend the bucks to look the part.”
The more expensive ones are of a darker, richer red, and cost upwards of R8 000. “The suit determines where you work so you have to take the gamble and spend the money.” After the vomiting bouts – in both cases he was standing next to a child for a photograph when they threw up on his boots and the bottom of the suit – and the subsequent cleaning, he had to start touching up the old suit with red dye.
“It looked a bit old, so maybe it was time for a new one anyway.”
The worst part of the job is dealing with babies, says the man dressed in an expensive, deep crimson Santa suit at a mall to the west of Johannesburg. He has a natural, flowing white beard. He works for an events company and normally dresses up as a clown for birthday parties.
“People hand over kids with nappies and some really stink. I think it’s all the queuing and parents don’t want to chance losing their place to go to change a nappy.”
The younger a child is the more fidgety they are, he says. He says he used to smoke but now uses an e-cigarette.
“Even if you aren’t smoking near the children you will still have complaints about the smell. Parents have this perfect idea of what Santa should be and demand that.”
But the children – especially those over six – are increasingly sceptical. “They jump on to your lap for the photo, but then tug on your beard and ask you if you’re real.”
This always happened, but now children are asking him to prove that his is real.
“I don’t think people believe in Father Christmas any more. It’s all about the show and doing what we think we are supposed to do over Christmas. Tick the boxes and have the photos in your album.”