On the Saturday before Christmas, few places are as alive with energy as New York City's Santaland. Located on the eighth floor of the storied Macy's in Herald Square, the event draws families from around the country. The holiday cheer, located amid cookware and the Nespresso section, came to wide public attention in David Sedaris' exaggerated account, the Santaland Diaries in 1992.
In a snaking line managed by elves and Mrs. Claus, children fidgeted anxiously waiting for the big moment, while determination flashed in parents' eyes. An NYPD officer stood amid the fray — he told Mic that he was brought in by request of Macy's to keep order, just in case. An elf named Turducken offered to teach me how to juggle.
"I want a doll, toys and a Frozen bakery," said Madlyn Roden. Visiting with her parents from Jupiter, Florida, it was Madlyn's first trip to visit Santaland. Madlyn's parents were enthused too — until an elf informed them that the line would take more than four hours.
At the center of the Christmas tradition, which can be found in department stores around the country, has remained one man — Santa Claus.
Since Santa (spoiler alert) isn't actually real, the quest to give him life year after year is regularly taken up by men who feel a special calling by the holiday. The Santa season, a marathon that lasts from November through Christmas morning, regularly takes them from department stores to private parties. Tracking down a genuine St. Nick wasn't all that difficult: Instead of booking a sleigh ride to a remote North Pole workshop, I ended up on a call with the St. Nicholas Institute in Livonia, Michigan.
"I've been at this 44 years. I started out as a department store Santa with J.L. Hudson Company," Joseph Marquis, executive director of the institute told Mic. "One of the biggest things is patience and the ability to laugh at yourself."
Marquis, who is also an Eastern Catholic priest, set up the institute as an advanced training ground for serious Santas looking to get past the the sleigh and reindeer and dig into the St. Nick IRL aspect. The real St. Nick, for those paying attention, was actually born in modern day Turkey and was a major ecclesiastical figure of his time. He was also an attendee of arguably the most historic Christian gathering, the Council of Nicaea. "The real historic figure of St. Nick was very sensitive to the marginalized and the forgotten," said Marquis. "What animated his life was the grace from God."
Divinity aside, being the man in the red suit often carries some weighty responsibilities. Far from just telling kids to be good and asking what gifts they want, an all-purpose Santa needs to be on call for even the toughest assignments.
Marquis remembered visiting a girl dying of leukemia who had always wanted a particular blue dress. The girl's grandfather bought the dress and asked if Marquis would present it. "She had lost all her hair, she had blonde hair. I walked in, her eyes got really big, I came into the room. I gave this girl this dress she always wanted. She was completely thrilled," he recalled. In addition to the dress, Marquis included a guardian angel doll named Emily and a button that read "Santa Says I'm A Good Girl." When the girl died a short time later, she was buried in the dress with Emily and wore the button. "I think I'm a better human being because of these children," he said.
The staunch traditionalist:
Marquis and his training program represent the top of the Santa market, but churning out adequate Santas by Marquis' standards takes decades. Most people, looking for quick Santas on a budget, turn to companies like Florida's Bobby Rodriguez Productions. The Fort Lauderdale-based special events outfit shuffles their fair share of Santas around to private events and parties throughout the season, with Special Events Director Chris Schultz acting as the company's de facto Santa czar.
"All of our Santas are professional actors. When they are not doing Santa at Christmastime, they are doing other character-driven roles throughout the area," Schultz told Mic. "If you saw them out of costume, you would not recognize them."
Schultz said that past experience and knowledge of the larger Santa character were positives but not a requirement. Rather, he stressed that his Santas needed to adhere to a strict code of behavior. "They don't drink, they don't break character, they never deviate, or admit or wink. That person is Santa Claus," he said. "The minute you're at an adult party and someone offers Santa a beer or a scotch, he just becomes another guy in a suit."
Schultz also noted — when prodded — that the Santa market was generally the exclusive purveyor of "traditional Santas," which is to say, Santas of color typically need not apply. It was a sentiment famously endorsed by Fox News' Megyn Kelly. "It is something I would love to do. It is not something I have never had a request for," said Schultz. "I have actually had people who asked for a Spanish fluent santa but they wanted to make sure he looked Caucasian."
While black Santas are not unheard of, showing up in places like the Santa Station of Normal, Illinois and Sedaris' own Santaland, Schultz said that offering up a Santa outside the mold to an unsuspecting group would only be to his peril.
"Certain roles can be cast colorblind. Certain roles have to be cast on expectation." he said. " Our job is to deliver on that expectation."
The "Real Black Santa:"
Schultz's however, was a sentiment roundly rejected by Dee Sinclair, better known as the Real Black Santa. "I've been in the red suit now for 14 years," Sinclair told Mic, saying that the real problem was availability. "It's easier to just send a white Santa to a mall that requires a Santa rather than looking for an African-American Santa."
Sinclair got into the Santa game after leaving his job in insurance sales. Today, he is a a full-time Santa operating 12 months a year. His Santa business rakes in an average of $35,000 to $45,000 a year. And Sinclair says he's yet to encounter an issue about his race — at least not with children.
"The first mall that I worked, I shared a seat with a white Santa. He was there in the morning. I was there in the afternoon. I had a family that came out and [saw] him in the morning and when they came back in the afternoon, they said, 'That's not the Santa we were looking for." The family's kids, however, didn't see the problem.
"Kids don't see color," he said. "They see the fat man in the red suit and that's all they know."
Because let's be serious: black or white, historically accurate or clad in a poly-blend number originally purchased for SantaCon, if he's a fat man in a red suit and can produce that Frozen bakery when it counts, who cares about anything else?