Frisky moms, Porsche-demanding kids: A Santa-for-hire's Christmas in Los Angeles

As a struggling actor, I needed work. I’d done Shakespeare and a one-man "War and Peace." How hard could Santa be?

Published December 24, 2019 7:00PM (EST)

Santa Claus in Los Angeles (Getty Images/iStock/Salon)
Santa Claus in Los Angeles (Getty Images/iStock/Salon)

You may think Santa doesn’t exist, but he does. I know, because I played him. A couple of years ago, in a moment of panic, I agreed to work as Santa. A little over a year after I’d been laid off from my job as a marketing manager for a large studio, I had decided to take the leap and follow my original career path of acting, which turned out to be not so much of a leap onto a path as a steep drop into a cave of fear. At that point, I’d been in two plays, a musical and four commercials, but still had not landed enough steady work to pay the bills.  I’d also made my way through my severance, my retirement funds, and had starting on unemployment. Loath to go back to a nine-to-five, I answered a casting ad for a Santa Claus to work parties and private events. Playing Santa for the holidays was not exactly the kind of role I’d imagined for myself, but I needed the money.

Although I’ve acted since I was 13 years old, I have deep ambivalence about it. I’m not a natural ham. I prefer having lines, working with other people who have lines, preferably in a place where the audience is sitting in the dark, unseen, after which I can go home and eat a pizza in shame like a normal person.  Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there’s nothing more desperate than an out of work actor at Christmas. Christmas ham it would be.

At 6’4” with red hair that had now morphed into silver blond with a beard to match, I was apparently a great fit.

At least that’s what Samantha, the cheery woman who answered the phone, told me.  She forwarded several “How to Be a Great Santa” tutorials along with YouTube links and client/Santa guidelines. There were tips on to how to keep up the illusion for children, as well as basics like keeping a towel on hand in case a child vomits on you.  The videos had alluring titles like “How to laugh like Santa,” “How to calm fearful children,” and “How to put on a beard.” Each featured a professional Santa, someone who played the part all-year-round.  While I admired his beard and was glad he’d found something he loved, seeing the long tunnel of every fear I’ve ever had about being an actor proved unsettling. Forget the fearful children — I had to calm myself. I tried a weak ho ho ho. It didn’t help.

Samantha told me that it was important to always stay in character, no matter the circumstance. “Never let on you are anything but Santa.” All monetary transactions with Santa should be done out of sight, like a drug deal. My visions of an easy time sitting in a window at a mall while smiling and waving, or maybe dropping off a few gifts at a house and sledding away, went down the chimney into the flames of a vision of grown children talking to future therapists about how a boring Santa failed to bring the family together and mommy and daddy went through with that divorce. I would be interacting with actual children, on the day they most looked forward to in the entire year. Did I mention I don’t like improv?

On the day of the interview, I arrived a squat 1950s ranch house hidden on the west side of the 5 freeway. Beyond a leaning chain link fence I saw a handwritten sign: "SANTA AUDITIONS" and an arrow pointing through a gate. I warily pulled it open and was met by a friendly yellow Labrador retriever.  I heard a voice in what looked like an old wooden garage: The glorified shed had been converted into a makeshift office, with a desk, laptop, and wardrobe racks.

“Hi, I’m here for the auditions.”

“Hold on, just a second,” a cheery blonde woman I would come to know as Hannah, the assistant, said from behind her laptop. “I just have to finish this up.”

I pet the dog while I took in the room: wardrobe racks laden with Santa outfits of various sizes, a few green elf costumes. Another chipper blonde woman —Samantha, the owner — walked into the shed, dressed in a pink hoodie and Ugg boots, holding an old school landline cordless phone. She pulled a costume from the rack that had my name on it and a bag from under the table.

“Do I need to do anything?” I asked, thinking I would have to audition a little — offer my merry Santa laugh, maybe.

“Oh, yeah. It’s fine," Samantha said. "Your resume looks great.  You’ll be fine.  Be sure to watch those tutorials.”

She set me up with my costume, your standard Santa habiliments: red fake velvet suit, fake fur, and black rubber boots that affixed with Velcro.  The most impressive part was the wig of long white hair, elaborately curled, accompanied by a beard attached with elastic that fit over the head beneath the wig. In a separate plastic bag, a large white twirled mustache. The costume and hair were to be my responsibility for the season.

“Watch the wig,” Hannah told me. “It can look really sad if you’re not careful. Make sure it’s either on your head or the wig head.”

Samantha told me that I’d get paid once the client paid, but tips were my own. Just like waiting tables. “Get ready,” she said. “The gigs are flowing in. You’re going to be busy, Santa Brad. We are so busy!”

I left the shed with a bag of clothes, a wig, and boots roomy enough to be shaking in.

I wasn’t sure of my ability, but I decided to trust their trust in me. It couldn’t be as bad as anything I could imagine. Give presents to some kids. I did a one-man version of "War and Peace."  I’d done outdoor Shakespeare.  How hard could this be?

A few weeks later I headed to my first gig, an hour’s drive away near Orange County: behind the Orange Curtain, Southern California’s bastion of wealth, conservatism and born-again Christians. Because being a Santa requires getting into costume without people noticing, I’d hit upon the time time-saving measure of driving the hour south with the enormous mustache affixed to my face. I would slip into my suit when I arrived. Luckily, I'd left any sense of modesty back in acting class. My backstage dressing room could be a residential street in an Orange County beach community.

As I drove, I caught other drivers looking, pointing or laughing. I was already spreading joy, all the way down the freeway.  When I arrived, I managed to take off my pants and quickly don my gay apparel without any dog walkers or late-night strollers passing by. The large boots forced me to walk with my legs apart, like I had just gotten off a horse or had jock itch.

I took a breath and knocked on the door. Suddenly Santa!  My first surprise was the lack of children. This was an adult party of middle-aged suburbanites in full swing — women gathered in the living room, and a large kitchen led out to a porch where most of the men were watching a game on the mounted screens. The hostess warmed up hors d’oeuvres in the kitchen. The men were dressed casually, while most of the women had on more form-fitting dresses and blouses.

I was led over near the tree to participate in the gift exchange. Everyone rushed to have a picture taken with Santa. Well, the women were much more eager than the men. First the wives dragged their husbands to take a picture, then the women posed in various combinations. They all wanted to sit on my lap, with a few pushing their holiday décolletage as close to my face as possible and laughing. I started to wonder if they were looking for a different kind of Santa. I remembered the Santa How-To Tips, which included the rule of "no lap dances." I had laughed that off as ridiculous, but now I wasn’t so sure. I grew up around suburban women who became flirty when they drank. My mother would do this often at holiday parties. My gut reaction was to freeze, but as Santa that wasn’t an option. Instead I laughed along, careful to not encourage anything while not discouraging anyone from having fun, a balancing act I hoped was successful.

After pictures, I followed the hostess into her open concept kitchen. Near the fireplace, a dog stared at a mop. I knelt beside the dog, but it ignored me.

Her husband passed by. “That dog is crazy and in love with that mop.”

He moved the mop into a closet. The dog followed, whining, butting his head against the closet door until my host opened it again and the dog could see the object of his affection.

“See?” he said.  “Just crazy. You want a beer or something?”

“No, thanks! Have to drive the sleigh!”

Oh, no. They were not interacting with me as Santa. I passed back toward the kitchen, where the hostess coaxed triangles of spanakopita from a baking tray to a serving plate.

“You sure you don’t want a beer or something?” she said.

“Ho ho ho,” I laughed in response. “Not while I’m on the job.”

“White wine? Anything?” she countered.

“Oh, no, I’m great, thanks! I get lots of milk and cookies on the road!”

“Are you married?”

“Ho, ho, yes! Mrs. Claus is back at the north pole.”

“Are you gay? You can tell me.”

I chose not to answer that one. Me, yes: Santa, no. Was there a tell? Was it simply that I wouldn’t have a beer and flirt with the ladies on my lap? I envied the dog, lightly banging its head against a wall. I was here to do a job, though, and hell if I was going to drop character.

The end of the gift exchange coincided with the end of my time on the clock. I whispered to my host that the reindeer were on the roof and it was time for them to fly. He yelled out for everyone to say goodbye to Santa and walked me to the door, where he slipped me a $100 tip. Perhaps this would be a good gig after all.  The partygoers had fun, got pictures with Santa, and I got a little taste of how the other half with specific other halves lived. Much the same as my parents, as it turns out.

The next gig was at a Long Beach recreation center. Because of the mid-day call, I figured there would be families and kids. I had forgotten my surprise vomit towel, but other than that I felt prepared.  By 1 p.m. it was a balmy 80 degrees, standard for Southern California Christmas.  On a side street I donned the rest of my Santa garb, having pre-dressed in velour pants and mustache. Some kids saw me strapping on the pillows, affixing the beard, and adding wig, belt and gloves, but they weren’t the client. It’s not a perfect system. I got back in the car twice as large, blasting the air conditioner while looking for a parking space.  Nothing ruins the Christmas spirit like sweaty Santa getting out of his Honda Accord.

At the recreation center, one of those '70s concrete monoliths where the recreation of choice would be Soviet folk dance, the host Paula, a small, energetic Filipino woman, met me at the door with her family. Paula's organization provided home care for disabled children, and the party was to celebrate the caretakers. Each kid would receive the same gift from Santa and a picture. She whisked me into the main room where the families were finishing their meals. Kids in wheelchairs, some in mobile beds, sat with large families. The little kids ran around in their Christmas best.

Several adults sat around one table with Harry, an adolescent boy of 12 or 13. He was in a contraption resembling something between a chair and a bed, in which he clearly spent most of his time. He could move the chair by means of an electronic joystick, but otherwise was paralyzed but for his neck and head. Harry was laughing at one his Dad’s jokes. Dad, a middle aged man with glasses and a broad smile, clearly delighted in making horrible jokes for his son. I kept in character, and asked what he wanted for Christmas. He couldn’t think of anything.

My father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was five and was in a wheelchair by the time I was eleven. I grew up with a parent who needed a lift and controls to drive, an angry, unhappy parent who took out his frustration on his kids. With a mother who drank too much and a father in a wheelchair, it felt like these first two jobs were pushing my own history back in my face. But my job was to give these children a great Santa experience, not a neurotic Santa experiencing traumatic childhood flashbacks.

Some of the families had five or six children, one of whom was affected by a disability. These were kids that would be termed “profoundly” affected, as they required around-the-clock care. Some were like Harry, physically affected but otherwise a typical kid of their age, while others had various levels of ability to respond.  The brothers and sisters who accompanied them were excited for their gifts as well. One little girl flirted mercilessly; it was clear she wanted to be Santa’s favorite. She hugged me violently and grinned like her head was going to explode.

Several five- to six-year-old boys dive-bomb hugged me, appearing from out of nowhere and disappearing just as fast.  They were all excited for Christmas, but it was clear Santa meant more to them. It was like they were hugging the Christmas spirit itself. Some didn’t speak English. Some saw me and wailed, no matter how much their parents tried to convince them I wasn’t scary. The caretakers continued working — calming them, wiping their mouths, rubbing their arms.

Harry positioned himself next to the large fireplace, near an area where kids who could were dancing. He couldn’t join, but was independent enough to move on his own. I took a dancing break and sat down next to him.

“What kind of things do you do for fun, Harry?” I asked him.

“Movies, videogames,” he said.

We watched the little kids run around. He leaned his head over slightly.

“Santa, looks like you’re having a little trouble with your mustache.”

I reached up my gloved hand and felt half of my mustache hanging forward off of my face.

“Ho ho ho! It’s hard to be a Santa in this heat. You should see what it’s doing to Rudolph and the reindeer on the roof!”

He laughed. He knew who I was, but he called me Santa and he wanted to chat, make a friend.

I looked over at his father, the jokester. He was sitting alone at the table, his face fallen, staring into the distance. It was clear how much he loved his son, and also what that entailed. His son was a special kid, with a great sense of humor and an obvious kindness. It can’t have been easy for him to be so comfortable in himself. He obviously had great role models.

The shifts Samantha promised didn’t materialize that Christmas. Those were my only two Santa jobs. Frankly, I was relieved. I was grateful for the experience, but I wasn’t eager to don the red suit any time soon.

A year of different jobs and random acting gigs passed. I skidded along the poverty line, getting by sometimes with help from friends and family. I thought of the kids at the Long Beach party, and the difficulties they probably faced throughout the year. I don’t like to take gratitude from the misfortune of others, but it did put my struggles in perspective. I also thought it would be a cold day in hell before I’d do that again.

But sometime in mid-November, hell must have gotten a Nor’easter, because I got a voicemail from Samantha. “Hi, Santa Brad! I was calling to find out if you’d like to join us again this year.”

The long answer was that I couldn’t turn down any work. Looks like I’d be donning the red suit again. I called her back. Samantha told me she was going through some challenging times herself. Her father had taken ill, and she’d moved in with him. There was a little edge in her voice, a little more cheerful desperation, but I couldn’t turn down the job or say no to someone going through a hard time.

“You’ll get an email from me. Or I mean, Tabitha, my new assistant. Hannah isn’t with me anymore.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“Yeah, well. Hard to find good people,” she said.

My first job was at a park in East Los Angeles, a couple of exits off the 10 and 5 freeway interchange, at a community center's holiday lunch and gift giveaway. The organizers set up a big wooden throne in the courtyard where a line of children waited for candy and a photo. The kids were mostly shy, goaded on by their parents: First the gift with a picture, then tell Santa what you want.  Most of the boys wanted a specific pair of Nikes or Nintendo game, and the girls wanted a particular pair of shoes as well. Every once in a while a Barbie or a doll was requested.  Every group had similar requests. I’d heard about the hot toy of the moment, and here it was in action.

One boy wanted to see his Dad for Christmas. His mother stood by, smiling placidly. I didn’t know what to say without giving him an empty promise.

“I think that might just be possible!”

Many of the kids had stainless steel crowns on their teeth. There are many things you don’t think about because you have them, like fluoride treatments and regular dentist visits. Like a real Santa, I was seeing parts of the city I wouldn’t have otherwise. I was also seeing the privilege I lived with.

The line dwindled down, and I sat on my throne watching a couple of the kids play near their parents. One of the Dads, a kind of fierce looking guy with a skull and neck covered in tattoos, played with his giggling daughter, clearly enamored. My own parents were impatient and angry. At times, my brother and I felt like inconveniences. We were raised to be independent. Even in our house, though, Christmas was the time for the family to get together. Everyone worked to make the day enjoyable. But usually by the end of Christmas dinner everyone would be back to their normal selves. I didn't outgrow the feeling. Even as an adult, Christmas felt lonely, a day to dread.

And so one of the unexpected benefits to playing Santa was witnessing parents interact happily with their children. Nowhere is a kid is more a kid than around Santa. In every neighborhood, Santa was a catalyst for joy. By seeing that bit of Christmas cheer, I could let go of my old idea about Christmas and celebrate the joy of others.

The next day Tabitha the new assistant booked me for two brunch seatings at an exclusive country club northwest of Los Angeles, in an area where McMansions dot the rolling hills around a man-made lake. I pulled up next to haystacks covered with fake snow. The club had built an actual sledding ramp for the kids. The temperature hovered in the mid-'60s, but the lawn looked like the filming of a TV special titled "A Very Wealthy Christmas." I stepped inside the golf club, which had been fully decked out in holiday finery with garlands, lights and a spectacular 12-foot tree next to a big, overstuffed red chair straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, in front of a grand staircase.

These kids were as rambunctious and outgoing as the kids at the park were reticent. All of these kids knew what they wanted and weren’t afraid to tell you. I wish I’d had that kind of confidence at that age.  Or frankly, at my age. One boy even told as he breezed by that he knew what he was getting and it was everything he asked for so he didn’t need anything. His parents coaxed him into getting his picture taken. On my lap for photos he pointed to his grandfather.

“He’s got a yellow Porsche. I don’t have that. I want one of those.”

Sure kid, we’ll work it out. With or without the mistress?

When I finished the supervisor told me I could take some of the leftover brunch food to go.  I packed up a box of ham and turkey. On the way to my car, I stopped to remind a family distracted by the sledding that they had wanted a picture with Santa. We squinted in the California sun with the snow and hay bales in the background.

“They didn’t tip you?!?” Samantha said when I called in to report.

“No, but they gave me food. She’s an employee as well. I guess the food was the tip.”

“Jerks. Not the same,” she said. “Did you get the email I sent about Christmas Eve? I mean, the one Tabitha sent?”

I was starting to question if “Tabitha” existed. The emails had lapsed in subject as well, referring to “I” and then to “Samantha,” as if they were one and the same.

"This one is last minute,” Samantha told me about the next engagement. “I hate that. I want to quote them some crazy number and f**k them if they can’t commit.”

Merry Christmas!

The “kids” at this party were all in college except for the housekeeper’s three-year old, who was delighted to see me. After photos and circulating around the party for nearly an hour, there was nothing left to do. The Santa novelty had worn off. I thought of how many parties I’ve spent ducking into a room to read the titles on the bookcase, or cornering someone to have a long, deep talk. Those spaces are comfortable for me. Walking around in a costume personifying cheer and keeping it light are not. As Santa, there was nowhere to hide.

The woman who hired me plopped down next to me, a little toasted. She had a Beverly Hills housewife vibe.

“How old are you? We have a bet.”

“Ho ho ho," I replied. "Santa is ageless.”

“No, I mean you. Like I think you’re like 30?”

Then she pulled at my beard. I thought only children pulled at the beard.

“Just a peek.”

“Ho ho ho! You’re being naughty!”

I hauled myself up like a pregnant tomato and headed outside to the yard. If I could’ve stood in the dark next to a tree for the next 45 minutes, I would have. It’s just a little dim lighting and the wrong expression though, and you’ve gone from looking like Santa to Ted Kaczynski. I thought once again of last year's cocker spaniel, banging her head against a wall.

The one thing this costume was supposed to do was give me license to be someone else, to bring joy and fun to a party and then take off into the night. Instead I felt uncomfortable and useless, like a toy whose novelty had worn off. The mask was there, but behind it I was aware that I took this discomfort wherever I went, even in fat suit and a beard.

At the end of my allotted two hours, everyone gathered for a group photo with Santa. The host father sat next to me on the bench while a party of drunk people tried to get organized to take a photo, which I’m sure was hilarious to anyone not wearing a fur suit, dripping with sweat, who was more than ready to leave.

The drunkest people at the party were definitely the family who lived there. Dodging drunks — I definitely don’t remember that Santa Tips video. But I do remember many holiday parties as a kid doing just that.  My answer then was to freeze, laugh it off, and escape. Here, I had to ho ho ho and sit with it.

I tried to hurry the process along.

“Ho Ho Ho! It’s about time to get on my sleigh!”

The father grabbed my arm.

“Just sit the f**k down," he said. "This is what I’m paying you for.”

I sat silently and smiled. There are two people you don’t want to piss off, drunks and employers, and this man was both. It was over when he said it was over.

The hostess gave me $150 in cash, once more asking how old I was. I put my finger aside my nose and dashed away. Samantha had said I could keep the cash for this particular job, so at least I had money in my pocket right away.

Christmas Eve was the last day I had said I was available. I had two houses to visit, each with small children. The first, in the flats of Beverly Hills, was a large modern rental with large glass windows, making Santa’s outdoor dressing room a little less private. Luckily no one was on the grand staircase looking out over the fence where I parked, put on my outer coat, wig hat, and gloves, and picked up my bag. A housekeeper answered the door and ushered me in.  In the living room, in front of the roaring fireplace, were two adorable blond children, ages three and five, from Scandinavia — Christmas poster children, the kind you imagine speak several languages and excel at math and engineering.

Next up, an apartment in a Santa Monica high rise. A super energized Dad answered the door. He gave me the gifts, and I entered the apartment to surprise two terrified children. They did not scream or cry, but it was clear their father was enjoying this much more than they were.  Their mother was on her phone chatting with her brother in Japanese as their excited father took pictures. The boy was happy to get gifts, but the girl stared straight ahead in terror and would not look directly at me.

Playing Santa was exhausting, and I should have headed straight home. But on the way, I decided on the fly to accept a personal invitation I had previously declined and stopped in — in full Santa wardrobe — at a party full of muscled gay men. Many of them didn’t even acknowledge Santa had arrived, aside from a sidelong glance, but it made the host and the few people I knew laugh. There was one seven-year-old boy there, and it was clear I made his night. His mother thanked me. And I won’t lie; it felt empowering to show up to a party full of weight- and appearance-conscious men in a fat suit.

I kept going, swinging by a gift exchange I thought I would be missing, hosted by a married couple of women. It was to be the couple's last Christmas in Los Angeles, and they thanked me for making it special. Last, I stopped by my best friend’s house where she, her husband and kids guffawed at how large I was. A drive across Los Angeles visiting several homes in various neighborhoods felt like a fitting way to hang up my red polyester velvet hat. I went home, took off the clothes and wig, put them in a box, and went to bed for my long winter’s nap.

That night, I felt like a true Santa. I had started on the west side of the city and made my way east. I went from house to house, seeing people of different backgrounds, bringing joy and smiles. Though single, I was spending Christmas satisfied and warm, feeling I had family all across the city; I felt connected.

In the end, Samantha disappeared like smoke up a chimney. There was a story about her father being ill and having to take care of him, and then she had been in the hospital herself. We spoke in late January, when she said she was working on paying me and would send me a check. I followed up a few times, but never heard back. When I called another number I had in my phone attached to the Santa business, I got a call back from Hannah, the original assistant. She told me that Samantha owed her money too, and she eventually had to quit for a job that paid on time.

“You seemed like a nice guy,” she said to me. “But I couldn’t say ‘No, don’t do it — you won’t get paid.’ There was no way to warn you.’”

Like much in Hollywood, the whole enterprise was as real as a plastic tree. It didn’t make me cynical, though. Quite the opposite.

I had thought playing Santa would be some cheesy exercise in performance. But in playing this character I gave people more than I could have imagined. It allowed me to discover a new part of myself as well.

Christmas had always made me feel lonely; it felt like there was some fantasy holiday out there other people were having, but not me. Being Santa put me in the center of the action, where I saw that what people really want for Christmas is to experience joy, and give it to the people they love. Everyone who hired a Santa wanted that. And the people they cared about, from the country club to the park, from Harry in his chair to the house full of gay men, did receive it. Even Samantha, somehow trying to keep her business going, held on to that idea.  Embodying that spirit turned out to be a lesson, and an honor. I’m sure I received more than I gave.

Don't get me wrong, though. Receiving that $475 in back pay sure would be nice too.

By Brad Griffith

Brad Griffith is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles. His short film "Under Construction" is currently streaming on Amazon.

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