Mall Santa secrets

Dressing up in red, choking on a fake beard and trying not to terrify small children for money---it's all in a day's work.

Yes, Virginia, there is a 25-year-old Jack Scrine under that Santa suit.
Yes, Virginia, there is a 25-year-old Jack Scrine under that Santa suit.

I'm sitting in the Santa Room. It's a two-by-four metre box containing hanging rank-smelling Santa costumes, eyebrow makeup, a mirror, a few water bottles and a bottle of Febreeze. I'm sweating profusely, only partly due to the layers of North Pole gear and the insulating white wig and beard combo I've just put on. I'm shitting myself.

Ten minutes until game time.

I pace around the tiny room and glare at myself in the mirror. I don't see a jolly happy giver of gifts, I see the terrified eyes of a man who's gotten himself in too deep and can no longer back out. How did it come to this?

What started as a working holiday from my native Australia throughout Canada and the US culminated in a bank account approaching zero, an apartment in Halifax with a rent cheque due before Christmas and daily depression that grew as I scrolled through the reams of jobs I was unqualified to apply for. Then, in early November, a new friend jokingly pasted an ad for a mall Santa position in the HRM on my Facebook wall. I chose to take it as a compliment of my jolliness rather than a reference to my suitability weight-wise. So I submitted a resume, half in desperation and half as a laugh. When the phone rang the next day, shit got real. Ever had to "Ho ho ho" during a job interview? Neither had I.

Costume fittings were fun despite my youthful age of 25: the full-faced beard, hair and eyebrow makeup hid that well. The Australian accent could have been a barrier, but I figured I'd just tell the children it was a North Pole accent. How difficult could it be? The Santa job became a talking point at bars, among friends and with family back home. I was excited, cocky and looking forward to the strange experience.

But now, My body is physically shaking. I feel ill. I made the mistake of walking past the set before getting changed into my holly-jolly outfit; the queue was at least 50 kids long and growing, and their parents were looking impatient. An elf knocks on the door and tells me it's time to face the music. As I walk down the corridor and out into the vulnerable expanses of a crowded shopping mall at Christmas time, I ring the bells wrapped around my hand and roar "Ho ho ho" to anyone who will listen. This is what I was instructed to do. I went into the change room just another shopper, but left in uniform, with every person in the mall staring at me.

The chair I'm walking toward may as well be the site of my execution. I'm walking The Fluorescent Mile, and hope that shoppers and children don't recognize the fear in my eyes, or see the shaking of my hands through my too-small white gloves.

I sit down on my green velvet throne and try to sound confident and jolly. The energy drink I consumed earlier "for energy and courage" is now having that nasty caffeine and sugar effect; the sense of impending doom starts to consume me. As I sit, the fear fades slightly. At least I'm sitting down. Everything is better when you're sitting down. I smile warmly through my beard and wave to the waiting line of children and parents, who are no doubt confused by the fact I look nothing like the Santa who finished his shift five minutes ago. I sing a little Christmas carol. I don't know where it comes from, but "Jingle Bells" just feels like the right thing to do.

The first child is brought forward. She starts screaming and kicking and crying at the very sight of me, but I was warned about this. Everyone smiles and tries to reassure her, but she is having none of it. Not a good start. The next child is brought forward after the first is led tearfully away---the similar-aged boy of three or four years old also starts crying and refuses to sit with me. At this point, I can't tell whether it's just that I am a terrifying and menacing Santa, whether my earlier feelings of fear have somehow been transferred to the waiting children or whether the kids have simply decided to follow a pack mentality and all become terrified by each other's fear.

Regardless, my first six children will not sit on the chair and have their photo taken. If I was afraid before, I am despondent and helpless now.

The elves use soothing tones and reassure each child before giving up and letting them be carried away by disappointed parents, one by one. Finally I get a good run. Four or five kids come and have their photo taken before the next screamer. I begin to not take them so personally, and those children who aren't afraid begin to warm my heart. One even rushes back after sitting on my knee to ask for a hug and gushes, "I love you, Santa."

All is running smoothly, until a part of my beard---hovering close to my mouth from the start---slips down my throat somehow. I can feel the 20-centimetre length of hair, still attached to the beard, work its way down my esophagus and sit there. My cheeks are turning redder than even Santa's are supposed to be. I'm making strange gulping noises as the stubborn white hair comes perilously close to triggering my gag reflex.

Faced with the dilemma of coughing, retching, pulling my beard off and sticking my hand down my throat, I decide to try to swallow the hair instead. Behind the beard my neck is working furiously, attempting not only to get the piece of hair far enough down that it won't be grabbing at my throat, but also to initiate enough force to break the rogue hair away from the beard.

By the time my shift ends, the hair is somewhere on its way to my stomach, and I am exhausted, covered with sweat and fragile of eardrum. The terror is gone, and in its place is a sense of both accomplishment and amused apprehension about what more the coming weeks as Santa Claus will bring.

When the suit and beard come off, Jack Scrine is an inconspicuous freelance writer and editor based out of Halifax. He believes the parallels to the life of Superman are undeniable.

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