Santa Round-Up Part Three: At Least When You're Done Juggling Quadruplets, There's A Beer Waiting

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This and every Christmas season the most important person is the baby Jesus, with a bearded, white-haired toy factory owner coming in a close second. Every year we flock to the malls to sit in our kids down on Santa's lap. Sometimes they run off screaming, while others take to the old guy just like they would an elderly relative.

Santa Round-Up: First Colony Mall ---December 15, 2008 8pm

I had never met a Santa Claus that I wanted to have a beer with before. But Santa John over here in Sugar Land will end up changing my opinion.

It's Puppy Night tonight for Santa Claus and his photography team. The line is a mixture of bewildered and scared children in itchy suits and tights along with barking and excitable dogs of all shapes and sizes. Dobermans mingle with beagles. Chihuahuas snarl at terriers. Parents fuss over their Goth son's messy mane of dyed black hair, adjusting the sleeves of his hoodie.  

Elliot and Edith have been running this booth all season. Edith spends her days working for the City of Houston in the Missing Persons department. It's odd to come here after spending hours working with broken families torn apart by loss and the unknown, she says. She gets to see two sides of the family experience. The joy and hope of a holiday, and the fear and sadness when a loved one doesn't come home.

"It makes you appreciate what you have at home" Edith reflects as she rings up another batch of pictures. A cairn terrier, like Baxter from the film Anchorman just spent a good five minutes wreaking havoc. They were lucky to get a decent picture, what with the little guy trying to hide behind Santa.

Santa John works for a paint company when he's not juggling dogs or your kids every day for twelve hours. There are no other Santas working with John at this location, so he's been working the crowds here since early November solely with the Elliott and Edith. Each team I visit seems to form a symbiotic relationship that gets them through the rush. They can look at their Santa and read his eyes for break time. The photographer works with him to gauge when a subject is ready for their picture to be snapped. It's like an assembly line, with a heart.

John has been at the Santa game for eleven years. He started out in Cincinnati, before relocating here with a girlfriend. He speaks in a raspy voice, the kind you would find in a sports bar, talking over Texans stats or the ineptitude of Cecil Cooper. You can imagine tailgating with him outside Reliant Stadium. He has no kids of his own, but his partner more than makes up for it with her brood of grandkids. One of which who wanted to ride the mechanical five-foot Rudolph display that is slowly spinning on turntable.

An Asian family sits down with Santa and the big guy almost gets lost in the picture. One of his favorite stories he tells is of the set of quadruplets that showed up last year, just a few months old. The parents delicately placed the four babies around Santa's lap. They were docile and half-asleep last year. This year they showed back up as a teeming mass of flailing arms and teeth. Arms with hands attached that wanted to pull at beards.

The best story I will hear from Santa regards a woman and her dog. It seems that she showed up on Puppy Night ready to get her animal a picture with St. Nick. The picture went off without a hitch, just a quick snap. But when the woman saw the picture, and her dog not smiling, she became agitated. Not miffed, but angry at an animal for not exhibiting a human trait. This transferred to disdain for the photographers for not delighting the animal into amusement. Needless to say, they lost a customer.

One of my questions had always been if these guys lose weight over the course of the holidays, what with wearing a wool suit in a crowded mall for twelve hours a day. Santas keep cool with plenty of water and an intricately placed fan nearby. Mall break rooms are like oases during a shift. Santa John doesn't lose weight during the season. He has a system.

"Oh, don't worry. I eat plenty to keep it on, plus I maintain a steady diet of Vitamin B if you get my drift" he chuckles as a cocker spaniel licks his beard.

I keep thinking of that last comment as I make my way out of the mall through perfume counters and the advances of zealous associates. What did he mean by Vitamin B? Is that some sort Santa survival secret that I hadn't heard of yet? Wikipedia later tells me that the vitamin is a main ingredient in brewer's yeast. And brewer's yeast is used to make, well you know.

-- Craig Hlavaty

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