December 14, 2007
Santa 2007: smoke-free and low-fat
The Associated Press
MARK HARTMAN / AP
Life is not so jolly for the 21st-century Santa Claus.
He keeps his white gloved hands where parents can see them and buys liability insurance, just in case. He doesn't ask for names or where children live – that might arouse suspicion. He's given up the pipe, and the jelly belly might be next.
And while he may bring tidings of joy, the man in the red suit endures criminal background checks like everybody else.
"A lot of people think all you gotta be is a nice old man," says Timothy Connaghan, professional Santa instructor and president of The Kringle Group, LLC, a conglomeration of North Pole-centric businesses. "Put a suit on, sit in a chair. But you have to be politically correct."
Today's Kriss Kringle is poked, prodded and tailored to fit our times. It's no longer enough to show up at the mall, laugh merrily and hoist children on his lap. In fact, that job is now considered better left to parents, to avoid inappropriate touching.
In mistletoed shopping malls across America, Santa Claus is watching his back.
"Santa should not be involved in politics. Santa should not curse," says Nicholas Trolli, president of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. "Santa should be jolly at all times."
The Santa Claus background-screening requests started rolling in three years ago, says Les Rosen, president of Employment Screening Resources in Novato, Calif.
"You would hope if there's anyone in this world you can trust, it's Santa," Rosen says. "We're in a world now where you can trust but you need to verify as well."
The firm scours national databases and court records for arrest warrants, sexual offenses and any other black marks that might soil a Santa's reputation. Nearly 500 prospective Santas will filter through the system this year.
Rosen recently struck up a partnership with RealSantas.com, a booking agency owned by The Kringle Group.
"I am pleased to say at this point, my faith in Santa Claus remains steadfast," Rosen says. "Everyone who comes through our system so far has passed and qualified to go forth and spread Christmas joy."
While such assurances may comfort anxious parents, liability insurance spares Santa from unwarranted grief.
"If a child is walking by and trips – not even near you – and gets hurt, someone might say it's your fault," says Connaghan. "Because you are an attractive nuisance."
Everything is choreographed in the land of Santa, down to each word and hand movement. The tricks of the trade are passed down at various Santa schools scattered across the country. Connaghan takes his academy – The International University of Santa Claus – on the road, making pit stops in different cities.
Major topics of study include how to hold children correctly, managing sticky conversations and proper care of hair and beard.
Santa's hands should be visible in all photos, Connaghan says. And he must never make promises he can't keep.
"What if something happens and they don't get that present?" says Trolli. "Then that child is disillusioned and disappointed. We don't want to see that happen."
And what if a little girl or boy confides in Santa, revealing physical abuse at home? Though it may surprise some, Santa can't just leap off his chair and tell the police. Instead he must enlist the help of a teacher or principal, who are protected from libel in case of false accusations, according to Trolli.
As Santa strives to fit modern standards, he is increasingly expected to maintain a real, snow-white beard.
"Gentlemen who have real beards, they work real hard at what they do," Connaghan says. "It's not just the 30-day holiday season. Some of them spend months getting ready to look right."
Yet some Santa Claus powerhouses deny any preholiday preparation. "Macy's has always maintained that we have the one and only real Santa Claus. There is no process," says spokesman Orlando Veras. "There is nothing to go through since he is the real guy."
Going green and slimming down
In keeping with the antismoking times, the man from the North Pole put down his pipe a long time ago. Now, defying his rotund image, Santa is trying to lose weight.
"People expect Santa to be big, big, big, big," says Ron Levine, a Santa who is, in fact, Jewish. "I'm 225 to 250 pounds, so my belly shakes like a bowl full of jelly. Am I trying to lose some weight? Oh yes, every day. Because it's necessary for my health."
The AORBS, that alliance of bearded Santas, will stage a weigh-in this summer at its annual convention in Overland Park, Kan. Each Santa who fails to meet his weight-loss goal will pay a fee toward a charity.
"The problem is the children don't care if Santa's fat," says Trolli. "It's the parents who want Santa fat."
Santa has recognized the importance of being ecoconscious, too. Levine, billed as the "Green Santa," is donning a suit of that color and promoting the environment at FAO Schwarz this Christmas season while promoting a new children's book: "When Santa Turned Green."
In the story, Santa notices a leak in his ceiling, climbs onto the roof to investigate and discovers the North Pole is melting.
"There's wind and solar power for his factory now and energy efficient lighting," says author Victoria Perla. "He even asks Mrs. Claus to sew him green Santa suits. Except on Christmas Eve – then he wears his red suit."
An evolving Santa Claus should come as no surprise, as the mythic figure has metamorphosed often since entering the American cultural landscape in 1820, says Stephen Nissenbaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated "The Battle for Christmas."
Originally a stern-faced bishop named St. Nicholas, the modern-day Santa Claus acquired his cherubic characteristics over a long string of poems, cartoons and advertisements. His judgmental demeanor – alternately doling out lumps of coal and presents to the naughty and the nice, respectively – melted away, producing a toy-friendly grandfatherly chap.
"He was never stable. I mean he was invented in the 1800s by these people who pretended they were restoring an old Dutch tradition," Nissenbaum says. "And then the picture of him is changing, and it's not until the 1970s that he sort of stabilizes."
Despite the complications of their profession, most Santas say the job isn't about beard maintenance or filling out insurance forms – and a little change never hurt.
"It's not in the beard and hair. It's not in the suit," Levine says. "It's not in the gloves, it's not in the boots. It's in the heart and mind. And kids will know."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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