I’ve never believed in Santa Claus.
It’s a Jewish thing. When you’re raised without Christmas, the concept of a fat man in a red suit bringing presents down the chimney doesn’t fully resonate. So, early on, my folks let me in on the secret, with the requisite order, “Don’t tell your friends who believe …”
Of course, being a little asswipe, I told them all.
Why? Jealously. Beneath my, “Chanukah is better than Christmas!” banter, I knew the truth: Christmas is the greatest holiday known to man. Easily. Yeah, there’s the whole confusing Jesus-is-born-to-a-virgin thing. But, beyond that, it brings together family and food and a tree and tinsel and ornaments. Why, every December 25 I’d find my way two houses up, at the Gargano house, pretending their holiday was mine.
Alas, it wasn’t.
Though I’m not entirely certain the point of today’s lead-in, I am quite sure why Pat Barry is the glorious 184th Quaz. Namely, because he’s THE Santa Claus. Look at the beard (legit). Look at the outfit (custom made). Look at the red cheeks and the jolly glow and the desire to bring genuine happiness to myriad people. I initially saw Pat’s business card hanging in a Dana Point coffee shop, and I immediately knew he’d be perfect here.
Which he is.
Ladies and gentlemen, ho … ho … ho …
It’s Santa Claus.
JEFF PEARLMAN: Pat, you’re a professional Santa Claus. Which makes me immediately wonder—how does one become a professional Santa Claus? Like, when did you decide to do this? What was the impetus? Why?
PAT BARRY: About four years ago I returned from a vacation during which I decided not to shave. About two months into it someone mentioned that I looked like an old-fashioned Santa Claus, like the one from Miracle on 34th Street, and it just piqued my interest. I started looking in to what it would take, took a class over a weekend on some good do’s and don’ts and decided to pursue it. I resolved that if I was going to do this I would do it right. I bought a good custom-made suit (it is all about the suit … but more on that later), boots, belt, glasses, gloves etc. I made up cards and joined FORBS (Fraternal Order of Real Beard Santa’s). This is a group of Santa’s in Southern California and throughout the nation who all believe in keeping the spirit of Santa alive and in good taste. I learned a lot from them about not only the business aspect but the charitable opportunities available.
Most all of my business has been word of mouth and then repeat business. I work with a catering company, Spectacular Catering, and am the Santa for a number of his events. I do a few charitable visits, including a Marine Corp Christmas Party and others as requested. I do post a few business cards here and there and am always looking for new clients. When I’m not at the North Pole, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
J.P.: So I’m a Jewish guy who sorta looks at Christmas with sadness. It seems like it should be such an important holiday, religiously, and yet it has been reduced to this commercialized marketing bonanza, mostly about gifts and chocolate and lining up to throw elbows at WalMart at midnight. Am I off on this? Am I missing something? What’s your take?
SANTA: No, you are probably not off about one aspect of Christmas but there are plenty of other parts you need to look at. Christmas is also about family, hope, charity and good times. I meet with hundreds of kids each year at events put on by Home Owners Associations, private parties, corporate events, and home visits (I do not sit at malls). They are frequently dressed in their ‘Sunday Best’ for pictures or matching clothes with siblings. Each one is thrilled to get a chance to meet Santa and talk with him. After all, this is something they usually only get to do once a year. I often have to ask what they want for Christmas—because they forget to tell me or are too excited. Some bring me hand-lettered lists with pictures colored in.
On almost all of the occasions the close and extended family is there with cameras. The visit is a family event that parents want to remember. I try to make it as personal as possible for each child. At a home visit I get kids names in advance but you can always come up with something to make it memorable for each child. I often stop kids at first and talk about something; matching red clothes to my suit or missing teeth (‘Didn’t you have all of those last year?’) or how much taller they look! I never promise anything, but see what I can do.
J.P.: Why do you think people respond so profoundly to the character of Santa Claus? I mean, he doesn’t fly like Superman, he doesn’t have a cool costume like Batman. What’s the universal appeal?
SANTA: But he does fly in a sled pulled by reindeer; try and top that.
There is something about the red suit. Put yourself in it, add some boots and small glasses and you become transformed. How often does a child get to meet someone he/she has read about or been read to about since he/she was very young and who does these magical things. Do you know of anyone who has elves for friends? Or a wife who bakes the best cookies in town? When was the last time you left cookies and milk for the plumber?
The red suit I have is custom made for me and very high quality, but the tackiest suit with a fake beard will often suffice as someone’s home Santa suit. We used to dress up a different member of the family or a neighbor for when my kids were small. Looking at the pictures now it is embarrassing but the kids loved every minute of it.
J.P.: What’s your absolute greatest moment from being Santa?
SANTA: Hard to say, as there are so many. The thrill of having a youngster come up and give you a hug for no good reason rates pretty high.
J.P.: What’s your absolute worst moment from being Santa?
SANTA: Honestly, I have not had one yet.
J.P.: How do you prepare for a gig? You’ve got a party to do in an hour. What’s your warmup? Your voice exercises? Your jolly jolt? Do you eat? Do you get nervous?
SANTA: My only routine is in the order of putting on my suit and accessories. I need to stay focused so I do not forget anything. Often the hardest part is fitting into my small car. When the elves got it for me they thought a Miata was really big.
For longer gigs I often have a changing room on site. Once in the suit I never drink or eat except water as I always want to look as good for the last child as the first. I am not a singing Santa so no vocal warmups. I was never in theater before so I wouldn’t know a routine or warmup if it hit me in the belly. Surprisingly I do not get nervous although I would never consider myself a performer. So much of what I do is one to one so I do not feel like I am standing out in a crowd (ironic, as I am the only one in a red suit and boots).
J.P.: Do you think it’s wrong for parents not to let their kids believe in Santa? What I mean is, surely there are parents who want their kids to know the real world; who would rather just have children know their presents are from the store, and Mom and Dad bought them. Is that not cool in your mind?
SANTA: As my role of Santa it is not to judge how parents approach my image. No matter what a parent may tell them they can still believe if they choose. We all know the Cat in the Hat is not real, but that does not mean we cannot enjoy the story. Do you still make a wish before blowing out a birthday candle and hope it may come true?
As kids mature they know the presents came from the store and parents buy them. But Christmas is about the whole package. Its the change of seasons, the decorations, the excitement of Christmas morning, the family gathering.
J.P.: What’s your story? Womb to now? How’d you get here? Where are you from? What’s your career background/path?
SANTA: It all started over 1,700 years ago in a small town in what is now Turkey with a man named Nicholas …
Actually, Southern Californian born and raised. Grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, went to college in San Diego and started working at a Boys and Girls Club in northern San Diego County. From there I ran the Boys and Girls Club in Laguna Beach for 16 years, was the Director of Community Services for the City of Laguna Beach for 11 years and then moved into property management for the last nine years. I retired from that career last April and besides Santa have not decided if or what comes next.
J.P.: What’s the difference between a great Santa, a good Santa and a meh Santa? Like, how do you define greatness in the gig?
SANTA: You have to believe. Each child only sees you once a year and maybe for only a few minutes, and for only a few years while they believe. It is my job to give them the best experience on each of those few occasions. Santa is always friendly, will adjust to any occasion and cares about them as individuals. Remember that they believe you know them as individuals, you know their house, what you gave them last year, etc. You are allowed to be a little forgetful as I am old and have lots of kids to keep track of. If they walk away with a smile and a wave Santa has done his job.
J.P.: How do you feel come December 26? Is it a relief? Deflating? Do you take a long vacation?
SANTA: This year for the first time I am going to keep the beard year around. I usually shave on Christmas Day in deference to my past employers and start growing again in April. No employer now so I decided to keep it on and gain a little length.
The month of December is a whirlwind. I do about 20 visits that vary from 15 minutes to four hours each. I suddenly have no commitments; relief yes, but also sorry that it is over as I enjoy it so much. No vacation planned yet.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH SANTA CLAUS:
• Five all-time favorite holiday songs: Not big on any particular holiday songs but once heard the ‘Bonanza’ TV cast do a holiday album that was memorable to say the least.
• I’m skeptical that, in a really fierce storm, one reindeer’s nose could lead the way. I mean, how much light can one nose generate?: You would be surprised. I consulted Rudolf about this question and he was offended that you would doubt his abilities to navigate the globe.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Sammy Hagar, almond extract, Mongolian food, the Easter Bunny, C.J. Wilson, P.F. Chang’s, snow, A Walk to Remember, New Edition, Huntington Beach: Easter Bunny (a very old friend), snow (who wouldn’t like it?), PF Chang’s, Mongolian food, almond extract (any food is good food), Sammy Hagar (rock and roll is here to stay), C.J. Wilson (lots of time for baseball in the off season as long as the elves are doing their jobs), Huntington Beach (good pier), A Walk To Remember (never read it but will have to now), New Edition (do not know them).
• One question you would ask Sandy Koufax were he here right now?: How fun was your career?
• Do you think Justin Timberlake will ever reunite with the rest of the Nsync guys?: No
• Would you rather have a wool hat permanently glued onto your head or change your name to Oyster Snail III?: As long as it was red, fur lined and had a tassel at the end of it.
• Best joke you know: Three elves walked into bar …
• Why do you think Barry Bonds can’t get in the Hall of Fame?: Once you get a dark cloud over you it is hard to get rid of it.
• What’s the coolest car you’ve ever driven?: The sleigh, of course.
• Would you rather have $500,000 or the power to never again have to go to the bathroom?: The bathroom is a peaceful quiet time.