The secret lives of Santas

Christmas comes but once a year, but for many Santas the spirit of St. Nick lives on in them every day.

Callie Sacarelos

There’s a classic scene from 1983’s “A Christmas Story” that depicts a nightmare visit to Santa Claus at the mall.

Ralphie Parker waits in line with delighted anticipation for his last chance to ask Santa for a Red Ryder air rifle. But the crabby elves are rough with the children, yelling at them to move faster and aggressively sitting them on Santa’s lap. Meanwhile, St. Nick is practically shouting his ho-ho-ho’s into their little, terrified faces.

This, coupled with Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa” character (a sequel is scheduled to begin filming in 2014) and David Sedaris’ account of working as an elf at Macy’s in “The SantaLand Diaries,” give old Kris Kringle and his miniature helpers a bad rep.

But these deviant characters and pessimistic recollections of the Christmas season are a far cry from the majority of real life Santa Clauses who take their jobs very seriously, putting their hearts into it 365 days a year.

Minnesota’s Carl Immediato, also known as Santa Carlucci, said bad Santas like those portrayed in pop culture would never last in the real world. Once word gets out, he said, it spreads “like wildfire.”

“I haven’t had an encounter with a bad Santa at all,” he said. “Children, eh, that’s a different story.”

Sometimes parents approach Immediato with the expectation that he’ll be “the hammer” for their naughty children. They list all the bad things their child did in the last year and ask Santa to threaten to give them a lump of coal if their child doesn’t behave.

Through the years, though, he’s learned there’s no benefit in embarrassing a child in front of everyone, he said.

“I’ve recognized that I’m such a powerful figure to children that I can’t possibly do that in front of everybody,” he said.

Immediato said he’ll instead quietly pull the child aside and whisper something in his ear that encourages better behavior.


A Christmas miracle

Tim Connaghan, the national Santa for the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program, conducts an annual survey of the thousands of Santas who have gone through his nationally recognized Santa training school School4Santas.

Of the 658 Santas from around the country who responded this year, about 80 percent said they volunteer at organizations like Wounded Warriors or military units. Many visit children in hospitals or through the Make-A-Wish foundation.

“The hardest part for me is going to the hospital. The kids couldn’t care less about gifts,” Immediato said. “Children will hold on to you and just beg you to stop the pain. You’ve got to fight the tears back.”

It’s not just children in hospitals who get excited to see Father Christmas. Connaghan said he once visited a woman with Alzheimer’s and her family. As soon as he walked into the room, the woman looked up and said, “Santi!”

The woman hadn’t spoken in six years but immediately recognized Santa.

Everyone in the room was “watery-eyed,” Connaghan said, and it was “as close as you can get to a miracle.”


More than 12 days of Christmas

Santa’s job doesn’t end on Boxing Day — it’s a year-round endeavor, especially for those who sport real beards.

“It’s impossible to walk around without getting eyeballed and waved at,” Immediato said. He drives a red car decked out with reindeer antlers, a Rudolph nose on the fender and a license plate that says “C SANTA.”

“Even during the summertime, I’m always in some kind of red,” he said. “And you get celebrity kind of attention. People always turn into 6-year-olds when they’re around me.”

Although the St. Nick season lasts about 40 days a year, with photo shoots and private party gigs starting in November, real-bearded Santas must play the part whenever they’re in public.

“If a child sees you in the store, you have to be Santa,” Connaghan said. “You can’t ignore them.”

It might be easy to assume that any person with a large stomach and bushy white beard can throw on a red suit and call himself Santa, but Santas who possess true Christmas spirit say it’s much more than that.

“I’ve been through enough guys, and I know who are the real, true Santas of the world,” Immediato said. “And they all admit, ‘You don’t pick Santa; Santa picks you.’ There’s something that takes over you. It’s very difficult to describe.”

Detailed embellishments like posing with real reindeer or wearing a chocolate chip cookie fragrance do make the experience seem more real, especially for children. And the more tricks a Santa has up his sleeve, the more believable he’ll be. The pros say it’s important to keep improving old traditions.

“It’s like the Madonna tour of 2004. You’re not going to do it again,” Immediato said. “So we do try to reinvent ourselves every year.”

Whether your Santa boots are genuine leather or your suits are handmade doesn’t make or break you as a Santa. While some invest a lot of time, attention and money into their outfits and routines, many say what truly makes a good Santa is the character of their heart. The key to getting others to think you’re Santa is to believe it yourself.

“We absolutely believe that we are Santa,” Immediato said.