Some days, the fat man just wants the fat lady to sing.
He wishes the holiday season would end already. His back aches, his red suit feels like a spacesuit, his cheeks have gone numb from smiling for 12 hours -- and still the kids keep coming and coming, like ants at a picnic.
"When the last gig of the season is finito," says Victor Nevada, 61, a professional Santa Claus in Calgary, Canada, "I have a bottle of rye whiskey and some Diet Coke by the bed, and a couple of novels, and I'll phone in for pizza, and I won't get out of bed for two days, and if I don't see another child again till next Christmas -- that's OK with me."
It didn't used to be this way. For a century or so, being Santa was something like being a golfer on the senior tour -- a leisurely, seasonal pastime for men of a certain age and genteel demeanor. But being Santa has changed dramatically in the last few years, say Santas across the U.S. and Canada. More taxing, more complicated, the job now comes with grueling hours and hidden pressures.
As Christmas becomes more commercialized, so must Santa. As the holiday begins earlier each year, so must its spokesman and standard-bearer. What used to be a three-week gig has become a two-month grind, from the day after Halloween to New Year's. Often you answer to three equally demanding bosses -- the parent, the mall, the photographer -- and one all-powerful overseer, the child, who has come to view Santa as a cross between a birthday party clown and a miracle worker. A hybrid of Bozo and God.
Carl Anderson, a psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote his dissertation about the effects of Santa on children. He's read widely and deeply on the subject of Santa, whom he calls a hopeful and comforting figure that historically provides solace during times of war and economic hardship. "You go back far enough," Anderson says, "that's the whole origin of the custom. Whenever there's a need for hope, there's more turning to Santa, more energy given to it."
It's a lot for one man to carry on his red velvet shoulders.
Maybe all this added pressure isn't the reason a Santa in Atlanta earlier this month knocked a woman cold with a 2-by-4. Maybe it's not why 30 Santas got into a drunken street brawl two weeks ago at a charity fundraiser in Wales. (Five Santas were arrested.) But it's undoubtedly why so many professional Santas sound edgy, spent, as if they might come down with the flu before they come down the chimney.
"It's changed a lot," Nevada says wearily. "It's gotten to be more professional."
As "Canada's Top Claus," according to one Canadian newspaper, and as headmaster of his own Santa school, Nevada knows the Santa business inside out -- from beard to boots -- and he laments how much "civilians" take for granted. "Everybody thinks it's easy," he says in an accent that splices traces of Burl Ives, Austin Powers, Dylan Thomas and Mike Ditka. "You put the suit on. If you wear a fake beard, great, go for it. You practice your 'ho-hos.' Great. You're ready to go. But you're not. Not psychologically."
For starters, the questions from children these days are tougher than ever. True, for as long as children have climbed onto Santa's lap, they have been tenacious interrogators. But now, with thousands of children pining for a father or mother serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, the questions are as heart-rending as they are unanswerable. Can you please bring Daddy home from the war in time for Christmas morning?
Sometimes children stare intently and ask for peace on Earth. What's a Santa to say?
"I had a little girl on my knee," Nevada recalls, "and she said she wanted 'a happy home' for Christmas. I looked up at the mom, and mom had bruises on her face. Now, what can I do? I can't phone the cops. I can't tell the child, 'Don't worry -- Santa will send some hit men over and they'll take care of the old man.' I called Mom over, and she sat on my right knee, and mom and daughter faced each other and we had a little visit. What I could do was give that mom and daughter three or four minutes of peace."
Anderson -- who has not only studied Santa, but played him at NorthPark Center in Dallas for the last 16 years -- says he starts to feel it right about this time each December. "Late at night, I'm a lot more emotionally vulnerable," he says. "You feel the physicalness of it -- the aches and pains of constantly lifting -- but then there's the emotional exhaustion."
Also, there's the competition. Top Santas can earn $60,000 a season working the ritziest malls, says Nevada, who charges $500 an hour for his ballyhooed appearances. With so much money on the line, the need to be realistic, to be relevant, to be the best, is intense -- and competition among malls is that much stiffer. Every mall wants to say it's got the real Santa under contract, to attract the maximum number of shoppers. "There's a saying in the Santa business," Nevada says. "Santa doesn't drive a sleigh -- Santa drives sales."