It takes a special person to don the red suit and be Santa over the holidays. Not convinced? Disagree? Maybe once we did, too. It's not that we were haters before Hal Reitmeier walked through the doors of the Source Weekly; it's just that we hadn't yet been introduced to the magic a gifted Santa could bring.
Sure, he's got the sparkling eyes and the caring personality you'd expect from Santa—but when he's working the room in an office filled with skeptical, kinda-pissed-off-about-the-world media types, suffice it to say it was a feat to get our attention. Simply put, this guy's the real deal, and we couldn't wait to talk to him about doing what he does.
Source Weekly: We know you're the "real" Santa, but for those looking to get into a side gig at the mall or something, what makes a good Santa?
Santa Claus: Love for children, jolly personality—this is a tough one—a natural beard, if you can, sparkly eyes, a nice smile, calmness and tenderness with the children, showing compassion for them.
SW: How does one get this gig?
SC: I went to Santa Claus school, (and) at Santa Claus school they had the costume—the Santa outfits—there to purchase. They were the ones that they felt best represent what Santa should look like, so that's what I purchased, was from the Santa Claus school. You need a nice costume or clothing that reflects the character of Santa Claus.
Santa Claus is a superstar, so you have to understand that when you are in a Santa Claus uniform you're not (yourself) anymore, you're a superstar and you have to behave and people look to you and respect you. That, you know, the Santa Claus aspect of it, not necessarily you personally (laughter).
SW: What do you learn at Santa school?
SC: You learn how to prepare for events, little things that make you differentiate from other Santas. They teach you the importance of understanding the children, they give you pointers on how to respond to children that are not necessarily asking for toys, but they have other, you know, concerns that are more difficult than just to say "I'll bring that to you on Christmas." So (they teach you) how to interact with different situations that aren't necessarily just a gift.
SW: Wow, I can see how that could get serious. How do you handle those types of cases?
SC: Santa has friends and Santa will talk to his friends and see if they can come and help. You kinda withdraw Santa from the picture. And if it's very serious, obviously, Santa needs to talk to whoever is responsible for the event, that there is an issue that needs to be dealt with outside of a visit.
SW: Did you think about that happening before you went to Santa school?
SC: No. In fact, I questioned it even when I was at Santa Claus school. It has come up since then. Now, at Santa Claus school, they talked about very serious things. "Santa, I'm getting beaten at home, can you do something to stop that?" And I've never run into that, I have never seen that. But that's something that they talk about. That potentially could happen. And in most cases, you go to an authority, either at the event that you're at that's responsible, or (refer back) to an authority and say, "This is what happened" and maybe something needs to be looked into, 'cause Santa Claus can't do anything. Children tend to share things with Santa that they would not necessarily share with anybody else.
SW: What kinds of events do you do?
SC: I do about 30 events. I can do more. I do homeschool, and some of those are just with two or three children and others are where families get together and have Santa come and that might be 15 to 20 children. A lot of resorts have breakfast with Santa, and I go to those. They're somewhat like malls, but I do a lot more, I just don't sit there.
SW: What made you want to be Santa?
SC: I've always been a jolly, happy-go-lucky guy with a personality that you obviously have seen, and when I got ready to retire, people would always ask me, "Well, what do you want to do when you retire?" And that's always a difficult question to answer, 'cause you don't know. So I would just say, "Oh, I'm gonna be a Santa Claus," and that would satisfy their curiosity of what I might do. And then after I retired completely I (had) kind of a transition, part-time for a while. I decided, "Well, what the heck? I'll go see what Santa Claus school is about."
My main concern was my beard. I wanted to make sure I had a beard that was acceptable and how I should care for it and make it look authentic. So that was my primary goal, was to do that, but I got a lot (more), believe it or not. When you say Santa Claus School, people think, "Hey, well you just put the suit on and go, 'Ho ho ho.'" but there are a lot of little things to it that make it a lot more exciting for children.
SW: A lot of guys are pretty diligent about their beards. Any tips for aspiring Santas or others?
SC: I learned that I had a perfect 34th Street beard. You know, The Miracle on 34th Street? And the professor said, "You don't need to do anything." Some Santas will curl their beards, some need to bleach them...
I'm fortunate, I just let it grow, I have a person here in town, a beautician or barber, and she just trims it just to touch it up, just to shape it.
SW: What does Santa represent for you?
SC: I'm a Christian by background, by faith, so I see Santa as contrary to some people, I see Santa as an extension of the Christmas story.
Others, I mean, if you research the history of Santa Claus, back thousands of years ago, it's a pretty dark figure. Like even some of Disney's fairy tales. But I don't perceive him that way, and that is not the way I look at him. So when I do attend, some of my home visits are with families that are Christian, and they know that I will share that message, so they know that, specifically they request that I share. I only do that by request.
SW: Do you think people see Santa as a secular figure?
SC: I think, yeah. I think people nowadays see it as a secular figure. Some Christians would even say that it's a distraction from the true story of Christmas. All of those could be. Personally, with our family, when we had little children, Santa was a day. I mean, we lived in Portland, so we went into Macy's and we went to Santa Claus and we rode the bus and we made it an interesting and fun day, and the children would sit on Santa's lap, and then that was pretty much it. Then we went on to (learn) what Christmas was about. So we didn't exclude or we didn't overemphasize it, but we included it.
SW: I might not get another chance to talk to Santa this year. What else should I know?
SC: I think it's so rewarding when you walk—and this is part of Santa being a superstar—when you walk into an event and the children's faces light up and their eyes glow and they get so excited, and I go to some home visits and the children are jumping and they're so excited, and this morning I did a visit to a preschool, and I walk in ringing my bells and saying, "Ho ho ho" and all the children see me and it's really rewarding for me, as a person, to see that. I know it's not for me, it's for the figure that I represent, but it's fun to bring that excitement to the young children and to see how respectful they are. The children are very respectful and very kind and anxious to talk with you, or some of them are very shy (and) you've got to be very careful not to scare them.
SW: They know you're watching, they're trying to be on their best behavior for you!
SC: I ask three questions when a child sits on my lap, but I went to a home visit, and rather than repeat it to every child because they're all sitting right at your feet listening, I said, "OK, before you sit on my lap, Santa has three questions." And I go, "Do you brush your teeth?" and they go, "Oh, yes." And I go, "Do you eat your vegetables?" and they go, "Oh yes, yes." They all, it's just a chorus of yeses. And then I go, "Do you pick up your toys when you're done playing with them?" and they all said yes as loud as they could, and you heard this giggling and laughing and smiling of the parents in the background.
I looked at all the parents and I go, "You know, you've got the greatest children in the world," and they all laugh, you know, and say "Yeah, right!"