It’s no easy task, being Santa Claus that is.
There are gifts to make, reindeer to feed, and every year those chimneys seem to keep getting smaller.
Being Santa certainly has its challenges, both for jolly ol’ St. Nick himself and for the thousands of men who don a red suit, white beard, and play Santa Claus around the nation.
Warren County resident Joe Womack has been playing Santa for around 25 years, getting his start when his daughter, now 33, was just a child. Womack usually attends eight to 10 events a year as Santa, including a family party yesterday where he handed out gifts to children in their own living room. He’s the first to admit the job is a little more challenging than simply slipping on a costume.
“It’s a tough position,” said Womack. “Sometimes a kid will tell you something and you just start to cry. You never know what they’re going to say.
“I still remember two years ago at a Kids of the Community party when a child told me he wanted his daddy back. I figured the parents were divorced or maybe he was serving in the military overseas, but then he told me his daddy had died and this was his first Christmas without him. It nearly brought me to tears. At that point all I could do was pray. I told the child I wanted to pray for him and his daddy and that’s what we did. We prayed together with him sitting on my lap.”
Rodney Reynolds, the Santa at Three Star Mall for the past three years, doesn’t have a story nearly so emotional, but he says you never know what a child will ask.
“They want to know where’s my reindeer and where’s my sleigh,” said Reynolds. “They ask me how I got here today. But I enjoy it. I really do. Every year I get one or two adults who want to come sit in my lap and one lady came in and wanted to get a picture of me with her dog.”
When it comes to toys, Reynolds says the requests are all over the map. Some kids want a simple doll or truck, while others opt to ask for expensive electronics.
“The Wii and things like that seem to be popular this year,” said Reynolds.
Womack takes his job as Santa seriously. He’s even attended Santa Claus conventions in Gatlinburg in 2009 and 2010, although the convention was canceled this year because one naughty Santa was accused of having his hand too deep in the cookie jar.
“It’s a time to get to know other Santas and learn a few things,” said Womack of the Santa Claus convention.
He said seminars include how to raise reindeer for hard-core Santas, make-up tips on how to look your best, and even a class on the history of St. Nick.
Santa Claus conventions are nothing new as an organization called the Benevolent Order of Santa Claus bills itself as holding the first Santa convention in New York City in 1939 with 14 Santas in attendance.
Longtime Santa Tim Connagham holds a one-day Santa conference that costs $89 to attend. He also sells a 124-page book called “Behind the Red Suit,” which offers a variety of Santa tips.
“You can’t become a Santa just because you’re a big guy with a beard,” said Connaghan, who has 38 years in the professional Santa business. “It takes a lot more.”
Tammy’s Little Tikes owner Tammy Young says Womack is dedicated to his job, even playing Santa Claus for her on the day his mother died.
“This was about 20 years ago and I had rented the Civic Center and had about 80 kids in attendance,” said Young. “Santa was supposed to be there at 7 p.m. and it was 7:10 p.m. so I was starting to worry. When Joe finally showed up I could tell he’d been crying so I asked him what was wrong. He told me he’d just come from Raintree Manor where his mother had passed. I told him to go home and to forget about this and he told me there was nothing more he could do for his mother and he’d hate to disappoint all these kids.”
As you’d expect, Womack says it’s the kids which keep him coming back as Santa.
“My daughter travels overseas to help people and that’s her ministry,” said Womack. “Being Santa Claus is my ministry, trying to bring joy to the kids. Some kids come up to you and they just want a hug and that’s really why I do this to show my love for the children.”