The Santa Express

He was the perfect St. Nicholas. If he could just move faster.

Santa training this year was a Power Point presentation on maximizing your potential -- how to be the best Santa you can be.

About 20 seasonal workers met in a conference room at the Sheraton Brookhollow, just after Halloween. They were old, stocky fellows with long gray beards. A few had the rosy cheeks of an alcoholic. Jeff Angelo whispered that in tattered clothes, any of them might look like he lived under a bridge.

Angelo himself was a young, stocky fellow with just a goatee. He looked very sharp. When the men had taken their seats, he told them they were all heroes and without them, there would be no show. But he was going to offer a few tips anyway. Number one, "I know we're all working for money, but mostly we're working for children." If you love the kids, the money will follow. Just focus on loving those kids.

Otherwise, "We like our Santas to look pristine," Angelo said. Launder your costume. Keep your white gloves white. Groom your beard.

Your beard is your essential attribute. You should brush it against the grain for maximum fullness. When you bleach it with 40 percent peroxide, you should put straws in your nostrils and try not to breathe. Be careful about burning your skin. A ruddy look is desirable, but peeling is not.

While wearing your costume, do not smoke or eat onions, garlic or other "odiferous foods." You are not to eat in the food court. "It cheapens the product." If you tend to sweat profusely (the costume is hot), try to understand that body odor is not one of the smells of Christmas. Sprinkle peppermint oil on your suit. Discreetly surround yourself with stick cinnamon. If your breath is foul, suck Altoids.

Regarding the customers, don't worry about spit-up. It washes out. About 90 percent of all babies will be wet; you might want to keep a red vinyl place mat handy for your lap. Always let the mother place the baby on your lap. Santa has dropped a baby or two.

You should watch out for teenybopper vixens. Keep your hands visible, and when they start lap-dancing on you, tell them, "Thank you very much for coming to see me," and send them on their merry way.

Regarding your mental health, it is hard for anyone to be jolly for 12 straight hours, so do take your breaks. Regarding your physical health, never touch your face with your gloves. They are a vector for disease.

Regarding the elves, you are to hug them. "I know it sounds weird, but I want hugs all around."

What else? Oh, yes, "I want to hear some 'ho's. It's been a long time, and if we're going to go out, we may as well go out with a good 'ho.' "

The old men stood then, one after another, and dutifully did their thing. The room echoed with reedy cackles until a colossal gentleman arose from two chairs and laid his hands over his enormous belly. "HO-HO-HO!" thundered John Bell, the one true baritone in a room full of tenors.

The story of Christmas, as it turns out, is the most wonderful motivational tale. A guy is born in a barn. He faces adversity for all of his life, and finally has to come back from the dead to accomplish his goal. He reigns now as king of heaven and earth, the greatest testimonial yet to the power of positive thinking.

Jeff Angelo loves a good rags-to-riches story, and he's a big fan of Jesus' and Zig Ziglar's. He runs his Christmas business from a strip center near Highway 290, in an office with bars on the windows and sales goals posted on the walls. From behind the desk, he tells his own success story as though he had told it many times before. He admits he'd like to tell it on the motivational circuit.

"I was a buffoon," he begins. Angelo was a singing telegram messenger with a dream of getting rich. He had begun to think it would never happen when about ten years ago he turned on the television and found an evangelist. When he heard that Jesus could "get you where you need to be," that's really all it took. Angelo dropped to his knees, confessed his sins ("I'm sorry for my sins, da da da") and asked Jesus to lead him to the money.

What happened then was, Jesus gave Jeff Angelo something to sell. This is where Santa Claus comes in. An old friend at Town & Country Mall called to say it happened to be looking for an upbeat guy like Angelo to run the Santa photo set. Angelo hired a few elves, bought a red suit and began dandling the kiddies. The next year, as Sepia Photo Promotions, Inc., he made his way into more malls with more Santas. Then Sepia began gobbling up little mom-and-pop Santa outfits and eventually became part of a giant syndicate that is now the third-largest Santa provider in the country.

"It's the most wonderful time of the year," Angelo says with a grin. He's hoping to gross $3 million in the Santa business this year, and the irony is he doesn't even believe in Santa. The relationship among Jesus, Jeff Angelo and Santa Claus is like the Trinity -- sort of hard to explain. Angelo says Christ and Claus are not the same, though there are similarities. He agrees they both offer rewards for good behavior, but he points out that Jesus also performed miracles. If not a miracle, though, what would you call Santa's one-night global gift trip? Angelo believes that Jesus is real -- but then, he has never actually seen Jesus.

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