Santa Gets Real

A&E2 GT1452In a rare interview, pop-up artist of the year Santa Claus reveals what he really thinks of reindeer

When I interview Santa Claus in his winter workshop, he still has remnants of the tan he acquires each year in Hawaii, where he spends the summer and fall reading trashy novels and surfing. He is surrounded by Hostess Twinkie wrappers and the remains of a Whopper. “Everybody expects me to show up all roly-poly,” he complains, good-naturedly. “So I gotta spend most of November and December chowing down.” He points to a red and white suit hanging on the back of a rattan armoire at the far end of his workroom.

“Like most performance artists, I love to make a big splashy entrance,” he says. “So you know, that’s where all of the bells and whistles, the reindeer and the holiday theme music, comes in.” After shooing away some of his workshop crew—mostly tiny guys with beards and knit caps—he moves closer and whispers. “I wish people didn’t insist on the reindeer. Frankly, they smell, and some of them are at least 200 years old.”

As he selects toys, including Marvel action heroes and dolls with cute little tattoos, he holds up a few wooden horses and stuffed teddy bears. “I made these myself. Completely without one of those 3D printers, too,” he says with a chuckle. (The man really does “ho, ho, ho” when he laughs.) As he stuffs special parcels and boxes to be distributed during his pop-up event at the end of December, he finishes the Whopper and starts working his way through a plate of glazed donuts.

Santa Claus’ persona began in the third century as a wealthy benefactor in Turkey who became famous for leaving presents for children during the night. That guy became Saint Nicholas—a very popular saint at that. As the years rolled by, St. Nick’s role as a pop-up performer transitioned into an annual gift-giving event by a Dutch guy called Sinterklaas. Soon the English-speaking world called him Santa Claus. “I don’t mind having to be called ‘Santa Claus,’” he tells me, wiping the last traces of chocolate glaze off his beard. “But I am a little upset that every year I try to surprise people with my performance, and sure enough, every year they expect me to show up. I mean what kind of a pop-up is that?”

Santa goes by the name of Sonny Freerider in Hawaii, where he annually competes in seniors’ surfing competitions. “It helps me work on my tan—and keep my cheeks rosy,” he says. He grins and pats his cheeks for emphasis. (I’ll swear he has put on 25 pounds just while I’ve been talking with him.)

Do the elves really help him pack up and deliver the gifts? “Yeah, well, they used to really throw themselves into the workshop aspect of my event, but lately they’ve been talking about forming a union. They want equal billing. They use the word ‘exploitation,’ as they’re too big to be considered ‘Santa’s helpers.’ But hey, it was good enough for them back at the turn of the century. And there aren’t many other places at the North Pole where they can get the kind of cooking that Mrs. Claus can turn out. Man, that woman can cook!” Santa’s wife pops her head into the workshop and blows him a kiss. Incredibly, they’ve been together for at least 150 years. And even though Santa complains about not being able to surprise folks each year, he obviously relishes his brand, the endless commercial spin-offs bearing his name, and the sheer star power of being the world’s most beloved man in red. Check out his gala pop-up on Dec. 25! 



Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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