Ollis Christmas Photo - 2017Sometimes, opportunity doesn’t knock. Sometimes it throws the door open and yells out “Merry Christmas!”. This year, opportunity came to me wearing a wig, beard, big shiny gumboots, and a Santa suit. For 5 weekends, my Saturdays transported me to a Winter wonderland and transformed me into the very public persona of Santa Claus at a local department store.

Regardless of age, there’s something inherently magical about Santa Claus. From the wide-eyed little ones waving coyly to the older nonbelievers catching your eye and smiling broadly, Santa Claus crosses the age gaps as easily as Rudolph leads the sleigh on foggy nights, and cracks open young and old hearts ever so effectively with a hearty “Ho ho ho!”. And even in this fast-paced, electronics-oriented, fast-everything generation, Santa seems to slow down time and draw out that very human need of wanting to believe in something.

Preparation is key to becoming Santa, and the “Santa” company worked really hard to get all of us Santas up to speed, providing a 19 page training booklet and online resources to help bring a level of consistency to the store Santas. We were provided answers to questions like “How do reindeers fly?” and how to respond for requests for pets – “Pets jump around in the sleigh, and can fall out.. so I leave pets to Mum and Dad to provide.” Videos showed us how to put the Santa suit on most efficiently, how to care for and maintain the suit and beard and wigs. Most importantly, the training taught that the `persona` of Santa Claus is part of the suit and you `become` and stay Santa as long as you are in the suit. And I must admit hearing little voices yelling “Santa! There’s Santa” is something that warms your heart and every time brings a smile under the beard.

However, there were many other things that I was not prepared for. From previous unpaid Santa roles, I knew that Santa was the hearer of Christmas wishes, the recorder of Christmas wants, the scribe of “Naughty-and-Niceness” lists. I wasn’t quite as well prepared for the role of confidant, or counsellor. It was these times that I was glad of the beard soaking up an errant tear, or that the act of listening let me hide the knot of emotion in my voice.

A man in his 50’s came and shyly asked for a Santa photo. After the requisite fussing and framing by the photographer and during the printing process, `Santa` jokingly commented that normally its the children in the Santa photo. The gentleman softly and sadly noted that he his family were overseas and they were separated and that his yearly Christmas tradition was to send his children a Santa photo.

You can usually tell the people who are heading to you for a photo – new or freshly pressed outfits, hair recently cut or painstakingly coiffed. One time in late November, Dad and son came through the store, not really prepped and ready for a Santa photo, obviously not planning to have a Santa photo. Again, during the mechanics after the photo, Dad confides that this is his only custody weekend before Christmas and made a spur of the moment decision to “just wanted to make a memory, you know?”.

There’s also the families that are really IN to Christmas and the Santa photo is not just something to have – the Santa photo is something to be ENJOYED. One family of 5 came for photos, so obviously dressed and prepped, eccentricity oozing from each of them in their outfits or jewellery or hairdo – each of them bringing character and life, energy and love for the generosity of Christmas. Or the three Filipino families who all wanted to be in the same Santa photo, with so many children and parents that Santa almost wasn’t visible in the photo. Or the family who brought along spouses, fiances and significant others for a photo so joyful that it really was triumphant! – we just won’t mention their post-photo antics that was only recorded on iPhone and is not something for public consumption.

Santa got to hear of relatives who are sick, friends who have died, families who are both near and far. To have photos with 6-day-old cherubs, 75-year visitors from Ireland, and every age in between. To have been met with wide-eyed adoration, and wide-mouthed screaming in terror. To have been sneezed on, wet on, boogered on, but fortunately not vomited on. Had his beard pulled, belly poked, boots stomped, and hat stolen.

The Santa training also didn’t prepare me for the extra baggage I’d be bringing home. The carefully handwritten Christmas lists, the cookies shyly offered, the hugs of little ones. Or that afternoon when a 12 year old girl came and whispered her heart-felt Christmas wish – “please don’t tell mummy this, but I wish that mummy and daddy to be happy for as long as I live”. In that instant, Father Christmas and Father Confessor, all wrapped up in one. Do I remember this girl’s name? Yes! Do I wonder about the back story behind this secret wish? Definitely! But this Father Confessor/Christmas remembers all of the non-commercial wishes and offers up after-Santa-hours prayers – for the young and old alike. For they opened their hearts and lives to a suited stranger and, in child-like wonder, believed in and hoped for some Christmas magic to touch their lives.

Christmas, regardless of your religious beliefs or background, is the celebration of the birth of the Son of God, celebrated as a beginning of hope, joy to the world and peace to all mankind. Where local shepherds and foreign kings united together under a chorus of angels setting the standard of how our world should be – no boundaries between rich and poor, nationalities or beliefs. And I think we can all agree that the world definitely needs more of that.

Oh, just so you know – Reindeers can fly because Santa has a pouch of Magic Dust made from the dreams of Christmases throughout the ages – just a sprinkle of this dust is all that is needed for a night of Reindeer flight. So please, please help keep Santa real and the reindeer flying, and dream of Christmas past, present and future.

“Merry Christmas to all.. and to all a Good Night!””