Dressing Up as Santa Claus Is a Serious Business

Jonathan Meath is first and foremost an entertainer. At 62, he has his own Wikipedia page that details his entertainment work as Santa Claus, something he’s been doing for 12 years. He’s also the image for the Wikipedia page for “Santa Claus,” which might mean he’s actually Santa.

When I called him up to ask him what it’s like, his voice sounded ecstatic: “My daughter was nominated for a Grammy!” (His daughter, it turns out, is Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso, a band I adore.) As our conversation wore on, though, I got the sense that I hadn’t merely caught him on a good morning: his joy never wavered. I soon learned he considers year-round jolliness part of the gig. Perhaps that’s why he’s got such steady work.

Below, his as-told-to account of being (possibly the real?) Santa Claus.

The lightbulb moment

My daughter will tell you: “Dad became an empty-nester and then became a Santa.” I got into it when she went off to college. My wife bought a Santa suit from eBay on a whim — quite frankly, as a way to say, “Dude, lose a little weight.” Putting on the suit was fun, but I had never thought about doing any Santa activities. I mean, I am of a certain shape, and I had a big beard, and people had been telling me that I looked like a Santa, but I never really thought about it.

Then one day — this was about 12 years ago — while laying in the bathtub thinking, as you do, an idea occurred to me. I had been singing in a wonderful performance group and it dawned on me: I might be able to get a gig from singing, in a Santa suit, those wonderful Christmas songs that Bing Crosby and others sang in the ’40s and ’50s. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? I might be a able to get myself to New York!

So I produced an album of four songs called Santa Sings. I hired musicians and an arranger — we did the whole thing. Then I found a band and did a couple of gigs and it was great. But there was no demand for a singing Santa! It was a rude awakening, but the fact that I had done it, and had worn the suit, got the entertainer in me going.

The beginning

I got involved with The International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, where I now sit on the board. We’re 1,700 members strong, and I know a lot of them. I’m not the best-looking Santa, but the adage, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” applies here. Some people like small Santas, some like incredibly large Santas. It turns out that I fit the mold of a very particular Santa. I am the spitting image of the Coca Cola Santa, which is how that became my job: I went to a casting call and Coke saw it. I was in the 2016 and 2017 campaign. There should be a couple of billboards in Times Square this year!

I’ve appeared at Radio City Music Hall as their in-house Santa for pictures. I’ve appeared in Delta’s airplane safety video — in the part that says, “Put your safety mask on before assisting others around you,” the oxygen masks fall and I put mine on and then assist an elf. Tons of friends recognized me.

I also have a special Santa in-flight suit that I wear on planes. It’s a red jumpsuit with flight wings and an embroidered sleigh with reindeer on the back and on the front it says “Santa’s Flight School.” One of my favorite things to do is walk on the plane, stick my hand in the cockpit and say, “You know, I’m a flyer too.” It’s great. They love it.

But you know who loves Santa most in the airport? The TSA. They go wild. I hand them my regular ID and go, “This is my Clark Kent,” and they flip out. You think it would go the other way — that they’d see me and request a cavity search. But it’s so fun.

Mall work

When you embody Santa, you automatically find that your heart grows that much bigger. It’s like in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Your heart gets bigger and you realize that those kids want the experience of an adult who’s all about joy and giving. When you’re a mall Santa, and you’re asking the child what makes them tick and what makes them happy, you bring them joy. And it’s great.

Unfortunately, sometimes when I’m working at the mall, the company who does the pictures — and god bless, there’s a business there — they want it to be about the picture only. But it’s not really about the picture, it’s about the childhood experience. And then if you can get a good picture, fine.

A lot of kids are scared at first, either because here’s the guy who knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice all year, or because they’re well-trained not to trust strangers, or because they have their parents saying, “Get up on that fat guy’s lap,” and it’s weird! But as Santa, you get to make those moments fantastic. Some kids need a big hearty, Ho Ho Ho!, but most just need a warm hello and a chuckle and to be asked what they want for Christmas. It’s that simple. When kids ask if I’m real I say, “Of course I’m real! I’m right here with you!” But I never promise anything. I just listen and say things like, “That’s a wonderful thing to want,” or “We’ll see…” (I actually learned that one from my mother.)

Santa never pushes anything. Santa is a receptacle. A safe space. Santa doesn’t bring the capitalist edge —  other entities and marketing people bring that. My representation of Santa is pure. Santa, in his origins, is pre-Christian and not really affiliated with any religion. There are a numbers of Santas from every religious persuasion. Some people try to put Santa in that box, but my Santa is not in that box.

Looking the part

We’re all peacocks. We love our outfits. It’s a business suit, but man do we love to trick it out. The right belt, the right shoes, the right fur. I have 10 suits. I have three Coca Cola suits, three standard…then we start to get crazy. I’ve got an all-German one with leather pants and lederhosen, and we’re not even talking about the summer suits yet. Santa is a clothes horse.

The standard Santa boot is called an engineer boot. I’ve got a pair in regular leather and patent leather. Man are those patent leathers sharp. It’s expensive because it’s not just one suit; you’re never done buying. You’ve got to have the accessories. You need a good magic key. I have actual bells made by a real bellman on what is a leather harness for reindeer. It goes on and on.

Here’s the kiss of death: the words, “Santa, we have a place for you right over by the fire.” The suit is made and designed to be in an open sleigh at 24 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s horrible. Some Santas, especially out in California, they do a rendition of the workshop look. They come in in the full outfit and then very ceremoniously take off the jacket and put it on a hanger so they don’t have to sit all day long in a suit that’s built for 20 degrees in an 85 degree mall.

Sometime’s your super sweaty, but fun fact: almost every dry cleaner cleans Santa suits for free.

Embodying Santa all year

I keep a shorter beard these days, but when I was full beard/full hair, in Santa mode, I got recognized every day, all year round. That’s part of why there are “Real Bearded Santa” organizations, because a real beard will get that every day. It’s part of the deal. You embody Santa. I never have a problem being jolly; it’s part of the calling. I do think there are other Santas who struggle with this, but I’m a very happy, extraverted, ebullient man, and I never have a problem bringing Santa when he’s called for.

But since I went to a shorter beard, I really don’t look as much like Santa out of context. And as for my weight, these days I pad. There are Santas who subscribe to that [aesthetic] ideal and I certainly know some who will never refuse a cookie. I’ve been known to refuse a cookie and ask for celery though.

It really does come down to bringing the joy. It’s a responsibility. There’s a misconception that Santa is a punisher, but the Santa who you’re talking to right now is all about joy and love. There are no such things as bad kids. They might be a little misguided or mischievous or angry, but kids need to be celebrated. The season is about celebrating family and togetherness and our commonality, not our differences.

Images by Heather Morey

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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