The Santa Express

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.

"One thing I can tell you," says Angelo, finally, "when you feel the love of Jesus Christ, you know he's there." And the kids in the mall probably said the same thing about Santa.

During training, other Santas looked in awe at John Bell. They envied his size, his face, his beard. "I like his boots, too," one of them said. Jeff Angelo said Bell was a true "Coca-Cola Santa" and "smart as a whip." If you want to talk to a good Santa, talk to him, said Angelo. "That guy's cool."

Bell was 55 years old, a Vietnam veteran ("we won't talk about that"), a boilermaker who had become an intensive-care nurse. He wore a shirt that read, "Be naughty, save Santa a trip." He emphasized that he was from Santa Fe. He said a man's life could be divided into three stages: the time that he believes in Santa Claus, the time that he doesn't, and then, the time that he becomes Santa Claus.

"Because of girth, hair color and pigmentation," said Bell, "I have accidentally or by design been led to being Santa Claus." For many years he was just another large man, and then the friends of his children began whispering about him. Then kids began shrieking when they saw him. Then artists wanted to paint him.

In his first charity role, Santa Bell wore an artificial beard, plastic boot covers and a corduroy red coat "with skimpy fur." The experience was among the greatest of his life. The next year he grew a natural beard, a reddish-brown one that he had to bleach. That was the last time he used bleach, for a year later, he said, "some entity decided the beard should be white, and it began coming in that way, as did the hair."

He fell deeper and deeper into character. Aware that he was being watched, he rectified his behavior -- tried not to cuss, or lose his temper. Bell researched Santa's history at the library. He began keeping up with what's selling at Toys R Us and started watching cartoons ("I need to know what the characters of Cow and Chicken do").

During the holidays, Bell began wearing red scrubs to the hospital. He created a long scroll of the names of good girls and boys on which Perfecta would find herself, as would Pasqual, Lasheba and Lexi. In the parking lot outside his condominium, he spent weeks building himself a magnificent golden throne, flanked by giant metal candy canes that he fashioned from diesel tailpipe. The drawer below was for the real candy canes -- six different flavors, including bubble gum.

Santa Bell planned to make a sleigh and was trying to persuade his three grown sons to pose as reindeer. (He was going to raise a few reindeer until he realized their antlers fall off in November). No one in the family is laughing about this. Children believe in Santa Bell, and the Bells are all keepers of the trust. His daughter has stood by him as an elf, his wife, Sue, as Mrs. Claus. For "true believers" they may encounter, his wife carries candy canes in her purse wherever they go.

"This is something we take pretty seriously," she says.

Bell explains that he became Santa Claus for the same selfish reason he became a nurse: the feeling he derived from it. Every year a new generation of children reaches the age of belief. Tens of hundreds of thousands of children suddenly realize that Santa loves them, and they suddenly love John Bell.

He is moved to love them in return. When he is Santa Claus, Bell feels better about himself. He feels he's atoning for past mistakes. He doesn't fly into a rage at the traffic. A sense of joy and peace overwhelms him.  

"I'm not seeking salvation as Santa," he says, "but what I'm getting comes from a higher source, and it's not Jeff, and it's not Sepia, and I don't think I can be crazy enough to feel this without it really happening."

The problem with charity work is that the gigs are brief. Santa Bell wanted more exposure to children, which is why he went commercial this year, for the first time ever. The job offered no health insurance or workers' comp. To discourage profiteer Santas, the pay was only about $10 an hour. Bell made arrangements to donate most of it to charity. He became a seasonal employee.

"Contractor's duties include but are not limited to the following: Helping children onto lap, creating smiles for photographer, telling children stories, taking requests for toys, reading children's letters (when time permits), passing out giveaways, being spirited and jolly."

The perfect Santa was assigned to the perfect shopping environment, the mall in a master-planned community. The Santa set at First Colony Mall was surrounded by two jewelers, a department store and a sporting-goods place. The set consisted of oversize alphabet blocks, bears and toy soldiers standing in a forest of 12 fake trees, over many bushels of plastic snow.

Bell was disappointed the first day by the dearth of children. It was November 12, and most people didn't know Santa was out and about. Things improved, and Bell eased into a 12-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week routine.

He drank exactly a gallon of pink lemonade every day to keep his mouth wet enough for the work. He ate four pickle-and-pimiento-loaf sandwiches ("You do of course recognize the color pattern"), two bananas for potassium, a handful of white grapes for carbohydrates and two Reese's Peanut Butter Cups because, what the hell.

He was granted two 45-minute breaks every day, during which he either ate in his truck or smoked beside the Dumpster. "Santa!" the security guard would say. "That's me," Santa replied.

After a smoke, he would go to his locker and gargle with Targon mouthwash and then massage some through his beard. When he wasn't smoking, he was chewing Nicorette, which was hard to do with just seven teeth, all of them on the lower jaw. Before leaving the locker room, just to get the adrenaline going, he always let loose with a few ho-ho-hos. His boots were equipped with bells, which jingled as he walked through mall. Crowds parted. He made his way to the throne.

"What's your name? My name is Santa Claus, but friends call me Santa."

They were little blond girls in green velvet dresses, red bows and black patent leather shoes. They were boys in monster truck T-shirts, with broken-picket-fence smiles. They were true believers like three-year-old Alison Ondrusek, who in the bath had lately been ho-ho-hoing with bubbles on her chin.

To understand how the children felt, Angelo told his staff to imagine they were going to see God. Some children ran to Santa. Others were dragged screaming by their parents like a dog on a leash. Pictures were about $10 a pop. "Say stinky cheese!" It was often impossible to get a smile. The toughest customer was the toddler, who was generally terrified of Santa Bell. The elves tried feather dusters, teddy bears, bells, keys. Santa tried raising the pitch of his voice, lowering his volume, opening his eyes very wide, even rouging his cheeks. It rarely worked. Until they were about three years old, the children were immune to his spell.

Most kids wanted Pokémon something. Five-year-old Erin Boyd wanted an Amazing Allie doll and some rocks for her fish. Ryne Handelman wanted a train track, more Hot Wheels and he couldn't remember what else. Laura Gorham wanted fingernail polish. Bobby, in his bright red vest, wanted to know why Santa couldn't remember what Bobby had just told him at that other mall.

Santa Bell sprinkled glitter and told them it was the magic dust that allowed the reindeer to fly. He did Buzz Lightyear impressions: "To infinity and beyond!" He cleaned goop from the eye of an infant. He said to three-year-old Amelia, "I love your hat. It is so happening." He hung the candy cane in the child's pocket, hugged him, and with a touch of the finger to the tip of the nose, said, "Merry Christmas! I love you. I'm glad you came to see me."

The children usually walked away slowly, sometimes looking back. Alice Calicher, the grandmother of Alexis, said, "That's the best Santa I've ever seen." Other parents said the same: John Bell "keeps the magic alive."  

He got home late, usually. His back was tired, his biceps sore from the lifting. A green line ran along his temple where cheap Santa glasses had corroded from his sweat. Santa Bell was nearly weeping the night he told his grown daughter about the four-year-old whose only request was shoes for her Barbie. His daughter said to him, "We might have to take you in for psychiatric consultation."

The International Council of Shopping Centers predicted a 6 percent increase in holiday sales over last year. Retailers were expecting to take in about $187 billion.

"Santa matters a lot," said Ashlyn Booth, the marketing director at First Colony Mall. People who came to see Santa usually ate in the food court and perhaps bought a gift. "Santa is a huge draw."

Jeff Angelo said he was too busy putting out fires to enjoy the magic this year. The new cash registers were supposed to forward sales figures to headquarters, but they did nothing of the kind. Angelo had managers who were wandering off to go shopping, and unemployment had dipped so low that stores were hiring away his elves.

In years past, he has had a problem with Santas who quit smiling for the camera: Their cheeks were tired? That was not a problem this year, but there was a Santa in Colorado who was getting his hair styled for free. Angelo called and told him to quit that. The next thing he heard, Santa had gotten JCPenney to install a La-Z-Boy in the break room and was having complimentary meals brought in. Angelo sent him a pink slip. Santa cried.

Angelo called it "Santatude" and said it happened when a man took his job too seriously. In most cases, Santatude displayed itself as greed and imperiousness. In Santa Bell's case, however, it was the uncommon desire to protect those who adored him. Bell was the Santa with a conscience, the one who was more than a prop. And by the first part of December, Bell had concluded, "This marketing effort the child is being funneled through, with Santa as ventricle, has its problems."

He had raised five children and claimed to know what gifts were appropriate for whom. When a child asked, Santa Bell said no, he would not deliver puppies, kittens, iguanas, Ricky Martin or anything that was alive. Neither would he bring anything that kills. This goes for guns, trampolines and any gift that requires gasoline. Santa had treated too many kids in the emergency room for any of that. Santa also declined to bring any dismember-and-cannibalize-the-enemy video games. If parents wanted their child to have these things, parents could put their names to them. But "I as Santa will not condone it."

To the obviously poor child, he suggested an inexpensive present, as a hedge against disappointment. To young gluttons, he said simply, "That is an excessive wish list." To those who wanted Pokémon or Barbie, he generally said okay. Pokémon seemed a gentle game, and as he saw it, parents who are worried about Barbie "need to spend a whole lot of time on their knees grateful that's all they have to be worried about."

Depending on the photo and the conversation, the whole thing took about five minutes. No parents ever said Santa Bell spent too much time with their child, but they did complain of waiting in line for hours. A few griped that Santa had promised something they had not intended to buy. Booth, the mall's marketing director, who by now had noticed that she was not listed among the good little girls, called Sepia to report a few problems.

Santa was doing about 300 pictures a day when Eddie McGregor stopped by. He had black hair, a black goatee and that irrepressible positive attitude. He seemed to be Jeff Angelo's clone. At break time, Eddie followed Santa back to his locker and said as he lightly clapped his hands, "I've seen the little thing you do with the candy cane and the hugs and the whole schmear, and I think you've got great things going on. But we have a few things to discuss, and that's the financial end of the Santa business. We're about 25 percent off where we need to be."

Santa Bell told Eddie that he appreciates the importance of what he's saying, "but there's an appliance in here that's even more important," and he headed for the toilet.

A minute later, when he returned, Eddie told him there had been some staff changes. A new manager would be working the set, and "what we need to do is not take away the love or the magic, but step it up a bit." Need to get a picture in the first ten or 12 seconds. Santa can have his "magic time" while the picture prints. Eddie would talk to the staff, but he needed Santa's commitment to get with the program.  

Santa Bell nodded. Eddie looked around and asked if he had been spraying antibacterial agent on "that thing," by which he meant the red suit. Santa kind of grunted this time, and Eddie, having said all he'd come to say, gave his firm handshake and went about his business.

Isn't it funny?" Santa Bell said afterward. "It's like a training tape for the power of positive management. I've seen it in the Marine Corps, in construction, and now they're trying to bring it into Christmas."

Eddie was the third manager who had told Santa to speed it up. Santa felt a conflict of interest, since time and attention were really all that he had for a child. Nonetheless, he condensed his conversations. He ceased asking a child's age and also began assuming the child had been good. The new manager urged him to pick it up, pick it up, even when the line was short. She arrived with a reputation for meeting her quotas and reminded Santa of an old drill instructor.

Two day-care centers came through one afternoon, desiring no paid portraits. The manager turned Santa into an assembly line then. No sooner had the child touched the lap than she removed him. Santa Bell's mood darkened considerably. He began referring to management as "the glucose gestapo." He did not hug them, or the elves, either.

He's not the sweet, amicable person away from the stage he needs to be," Angelo observed. On December 9 the CEO decided to make a personal visit to First Colony to sort out Santa's problems.

Santa recalls it as "another glucose session." Angelo told him again he needed to have less "interface" with the children. Perhaps it was best if he didn't talk about gifts at all. "Your real job is to hold the kid, so we can get a good picture."

Bell trudged back to his throne. These motivational talks did nothing for him. He was a beard and a lap -- nothing more. He thought it could get no worse, when at precisely seven o'clock, it did. Mall security opened the doors, and around the corner came dozens of people with dozens of dogs.

"What's this?" Santa Bell asked.

Dog and cat night, said Angelo. Surely someone from marketing had told him?

No, in fact, he was never told anything about dog and cat night, and it was not in his contract, either. He had agreed to provide services only to children, and it seemed wrong for the children to wait while he sat with a dog. "Dogs and cats have nothing to do with Christmas and kids, so I tell you what -- this will be my last shift."

"You're kidding," said Angelo.

"No, I'm not kidding," said Santa Claus.

Angelo tried to say that some people think of their pets as children, but Santa would not hear of such absurdity. "That's their problem," he said.

He hugged black Labs that night and German shepherds, and even a fat beagle attired in wings and a halo. He smiled with them all, and long after Angelo had given up on him, he had opened his abundant lap to a little girl, her mom, her dad and the family hound. As one of the elves reached over to adjust the girl's dress, the dog sank its teeth into the elf's arm. Santa Bell recalled a younger day when he had broken the neck of a biting dog. He quickly located the trachea of this one. When the dog released the elf, Santa threw down the dog. He placed his scroll of good boys and girls under his arm, and he went home.

He quit just before the Christmas rush, when Sepia would realize 75 percent of its profits. The company was not badly wounded. By the next morning the throne was occupied by another man who looked very much like John Bell.

As for Bell himself, he reckoned that quitting would probably make it hard to find employment next year. He said this with a HO-HO-HO! and didn't seem very worried about it.

He was last seen driving his pickup down the highway, with his very own throne in the back. It was the night of the Christmas party of the Galveston County Foster Children Association, for which he had built this throne and during which he would be able to say whatever he pleased.

At a stoplight, a man in the next lane rolled down the window.  

"You look like the real Santa. Do you ever go into the stores and take pictures with kids?"

"Not anymore," said Santa Bell. "I tried that. Not anymore."

E-mail Randall Patterson at randall.patterson@

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