Ho-Ho-Whoa! Santa tight­ens belt as times get lean

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY AN­DREA BILLUPS

Den­nis Dick­er­son is a mas­ter of in­ter­pret­ing the head nod.

Af­ter nine years as a pro­fes­sional Santa, Mr. Dick­er­son knows the del­i­cate dance that starts with a child on his knee recit­ing a long Christ­mas wish list and anx­ious par­ents stand­ing nearby, shak­ing their heads “yes” if that present is pos­si­ble and twist­ing them “no” if it is fi­nan­cially out of reach.

Dur­ing re­cent Christ­mas sea­sons, some good St. Nicks — work­ing long hours at malls, cor­po­rate gath­er­ings or char­ity par­ties — are hav­ing to lower youngsters’ ex­pec­ta­tions sig­nif­i­cantly as re­ces­sion woes have im­pacted fam­ily hol­i­day spending.

“Ba­si­cally you cover your­self or cover the par­ents by say­ing that you’ll have the elves do the best they can in th­ese dif­fi­cult times,” said Mr. Dick­er­son, 66, of Wood­bridge, Va. “You have to gen­er­ate this fan­tasy and project that for the chil­dren and at the same time you do not prom­ise items. You don’t com­mit Santa to de­liver th­ese wishes.”

Many top items that were once a given may be out of reach for many fam­i­lies this year as the na­tion marks its sec­ond Christ­mas un­der a deeply con­tracted econ­omy.

As some cities cut costs by dim­ming light dis­plays or cut­ting back on Christ­mas trees and dec­o­ra­tions to save money, Santa re­mains big busi­ness, even if his sleigh is a lit­tle lighter, said Tim Connaghan, a na­tional leader in the Santa trade from River­side, Calif., who trav­els the na­tion teach­ing would-be Kris Kringles the rules that go along with the furry hat and boots.

Mr. Connaghan, 61, who has taught more than 1,600 San­tas and as­pir­ing Mrs. Clauses at his In­ter­na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Santa Claus, a trav­el­ing sem­i­narschool of sorts, said his classes (of­fer­ing the mas­ter of santa clau­sol­ogy de­gree) now in­clude full train­ing about deal­ing with chil­dren whose par­ents may be strug­gling in the eco­nomic down­turn. They dis­cuss ways for San­tas to re­sponded to tough ques­tions chil­dren may ask, fear­ing that money is tight even as they hope for the lat­est and great­est gad­gets that many see ad­ver­tised on tele­vi­sion.

Mr. Connaghan, in his 40th year of play­ing Kriss Kringle, is a star Santa of sorts, ap­pear­ing in the Hol­ly­wood Christ­mas pa­rade and on sev­eral tele­vi­sion shows. He be­gan his Santa work with his fel­low sol­diers in Viet­nam and con­tin­ued for friends, later turn­ing it into a full-time pro­fes­sion and au­thor­ing a book, “Be­hind the Red Suit: The Busi­ness of Santa.”

Even as un­em­ploy­ment re­mains high and job cuts con­tinue, the de­mand for Santa this sea­son, he said, re­mains brisk.

“I have not heard of any ma­jor malls clos­ing where Santa is out of work. That is good news,” he said. “More places are adding Santa. Some, like Bass Pro Shops, have a Santa in all their lo­ca­tions and they of­fer free pho­tos as a way to gen­er­ate traf­fic in their stores.”

He said par­ents who are strug­gling should try to put some type of present un­der the tree, even if it’s some­thing use­ful like col­or­ing books or cloth­ing. Those who can’t af­ford even that should con­nect with char­i­ties who of­ten have free toys and other small gifts that help par­ents come Christ­mas morn­ing — even if it is a toy car or a small plush stuffed an­i­mal. His script for tough times: “If a child does bring some­thing up, if he says, ‘My mom says you aren’t go­ing to leave some­thing this year,’ Santa can say: ‘Santa tries to get to ev­ery child’s home for Christ­mas. I’ll try to make sure to leave you a lit­tle sur­prise, no mat­ter what, even if it’s small.’ ”

He adds a way of com­fort­ing small anx­i­eties over money woes. “I tell them: ‘It’s go­ing to get bet­ter. In the mean­time, I’m still go­ing to come to your house.’ ”

This year, Mr. Connaghan will make 140 ap­pear­ances as Santa, from big par­ties thrown by Tin­sel­town pro­duc­ers to hospi­tal vis­its to bring cheer to young pa­tients. He said he will let chil­dren know that the sea­son is not all about hav­ing the most ex­pen­sive elec­tron­ics or pricey gifts.

“I tell them the sea­son is not al­ways about get­ting but about giv­ing, that this is a time to be giv­ing love,” Mr. Connaghan said. “Chil­dren don’t al­ways see it like that. They still want to hear that there is some­thing un­der the tree or in their stock­ing. [. . . ] And I think par­ents can al­ways get some­thing if they take the ini­tia­tive, con­nect­ing with churches or other pro­grams in their com­mu­nity. It may not be the Gameboy or PlaySta­tion 3, but they can al­ways find some­thing.”

Mr. Dick­er­son, who has an agent and works mainly cor­po­rate par­ties, notes that nine out of 10 chil­dren he will see this year as Santa “are go­ing to still get a fab­u­lous Christ­mas.”

Chil­dren in fam­i­lies with lim­ited means, he said, “are ac­cus­tomed to it. They know their fam­ily is strug­gling so they take that un­be­liev­ably well.

“The fact that they didn’t get a $500 to $1,000 gift doesn’t de­stroy them.”

If he has enough time, he tries to do some “guid­ing” — just to keep the heart of Christ­mas in per­spec­tive for a gen­er­a­tion used to plenty. Al­though his vis- its with chil­dren are short, he tries to em­pha­size that the sea­son is about some­thing more.

“I like to fo­cus on the low­cost, no-cost goals of Christ­mas,” he said.

“To­day, I do­nated blood. It didn’t cost me any­thing, but it was a gift — giv­ing some­one the gift of life. As a grand­par­ent, we love to get home­made gifts from our grand­chil­dren. Those things mean the most to us. [. . .] If you talk to kids, it’s amaz­ing how smooth they are at pick­ing th­ese things up.”

AL­LI­SON SHEL­LEY/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Den­nis Dick­er­son.

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