HGTV and Mall Developer Exploiting Santa More in 2014

santa_claus_2011_29Santa Claus gets more commercial through a new interactive experience called Santa HQ in a mall put together by HGTV and mall developer Macerich. The attraction is being placed in ten malls across the country and is intended to elevate the traditional holiday experience into the 21st century with digital and social media.

“Visits and photos with Santa at the mall are a holiday tradition, and we are thrilled to be partnering with HGTV for a ground-breaking digital and social holiday consumer experience called Santa HQ,” said Melissa Eigen, the senior marketing manager at the mall. “As a Macerich shopping center, we are always looking to ways to enhance the customer experience in every way possible.”

Ken Volk, the chief marketing officer for Macerich, said that in addition to delivering exciting new opportunities for their shoppers, the installation also offers HGTV, “unparalleled access to millions of highly engaged shoppers.”

He added that every element of the Santa HQ installation is designed so that individuals can immediately share their experiences through social media outlets. The installation was designed in collaboration with and produced by New York based Pop2Life, an experiential marketing agency.

Angelina Jolie Defends Santa

Angelina-jolie-christmasEvolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie are in a verbal spar over whether or not children should be taught about Santa Claus and fairy tales.

Jolie—who stars in the new film Maleficent, a spin on the Sleeping Beauty story—recently said fairy tales play an important role in how she raises her six children.

“There are morals in these stories, and you want a little magic—it’s important to have something that we’re a little bit in awe of,” she told Psychologies magazine.

The 39-year-old actress was responding to the 73-year-old scientist’s talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival last week.

“Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are?” the father of one asked. “Or should we be fostering a spirit of skepticism? I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism—we get enough of that anyway.”

Dawkins faced a backlash for his comments; former Labour MP Tom Watson even called him a “soulless bore.”

Jolie added: “The other day, one of the kids lost a tooth and I talked about the tooth fairy. Half of them are old enough to think: ‘What are you talking about?’ yet they’re still not sure there isn’t something. And I’m not lying to them. I say, ‘I really can’t tell you. I don’t really know. Mothers are sworn to secrecy.’ “

Court Declares Black Pete Racist

Sinterklaas (C) and his Zwarte Pieten (RSanta Claus traditions vary around the world and in the Netherlands one of Santa’s helpers has come under fire as a racist figure. Black Pete, or Zwarte Piet, as he is known, is a traditional figure dating back to the 19th century. Though portrayed as a helper to “Sinterklaas” the modeling for the character is believed to have origins in the Spanish slave trade dating more than 200 years.

Santa has “helpers” in many lands and some of them can take on sinister qualities. Some dole our punishment for children who are naughty while others, like the modern-day Black Pete, are more jovial and kindly in their presentation.

The issue came to forefront more than a year ago after more than a century of protest-less existence when a UN observer commented that the depiction of Black Pete by decorating white faces with black paint was racist. A local rights activist picked up on the controversy and sued.

Public opinion polls overwhelmingly disagreed with the assessment with more than 80% of the Dutch population declaring the tradition harmless. Many opined that activists were advancing their agendas at the expense of children.

The court, evidently, disagreed. For more on this story, see this link.

The Servant Santa’s Secret: Mrs. Claus

By Jeff Westover of My Merry, Part 6 in a series (Parts 1,2,3,4,5)

2106294356_6c61c83ff3_oMrs. Claus’ eyes were full of tears by the time I arrived at the hospital.

Santa stood there stunned, as if hit with unbelievable news. “What is it?” I asked.

Ryan had just hours to live. Santa and Mrs. Claus had met the boy just months previous but it was only within the past few days that things seriously took a decline and hope was lost.
These are the calls Santa hates to take. How do you present the hope and love and brightness of Santa Claus to a dying child?

“Why am I here?” I asked, nearly sucking in my breath at the bad news they shared. “How can I help?”

Santa looked at me. “I need advice” he said. “What do I do? What do I say to him?”

I was a little taken back. I had now seen this man in several personal situations and had never seen him at a loss for words. At times, I even felt he was inspired. How could I possibly help him? What would I say to the boy if I was in his shoes?

I recalled something I had heard on before.

“Just be Santa,” I said. That’s it. He nodded, as if the answer was the only thing acceptable in that moment.

As we entered Ryan’s room Mrs. Claus clung to my left arm. As was so often the case, she would not be included in the conversation. She would be a visible but silent participant, a supporting actress who rarely got the applause. In this scenario, she was grateful and I could feel it.

Santa was recognizable to Ryan almost immediately. He smiled weakly and barely lifted a hand from the sheets. His chest was bare, his feet uncovered, an air mask covered his small mouth and nose. Despite his illness he exuded the love, brightness and purity of a child. Ryan would die at just 8 years of age.

“Ryan,” Santa said. “How do you feel today?”

“Ok,” Ryan said, almost as if he believed it. There was a long, silent pause. Not a lot of words could be thought of or were necessary.

Suddenly Mrs. Claus looked up. “Ryan,” she said. “I want to share a song with you. Would that be ok?” He nodded yes and Mrs. Claus began to sing a song I had never heard, a song about where snowflakes go after Christmas. It was a hauntingly beautiful tune, yet bright and cheery. She eased from that tune into a song I am familiar with, “I am a Child of God”. Ryan smiled at the familiar song.

The music erased the tension and freed Santa from his justifiably enormous fears. It was as if sunshine had broken through the clouds and things were basking in a golden glow. It was, quite clearly, a sacred moment. As Mrs. Claus completed the song Santa took a seat next to Ryan and held his hand.

This curious moment reminded me of a conversation Santa and I had shared about Mrs. Claus months before:

“She didn’t want anything to do with it at first,” he said. “The idea of dressing up as an old lady really did not appeal to her. I had the toughest time convincing her she is an old lady!”

Santa explained that he isn’t half as good when she is not with him.

Indeed, many times I’ve watched them work as a team, communicating with eyes and nudges, one picking up the other in any given moment – just as with this moment in the hospital with Ryan.
The work with parents is nearly as magical as the experience with kids. This is Mrs. Claus’ expertise and Santa is quick to credit her decades as a mother and grandmother for knowing just what parents want.

“I once had a lady livid with me because I would not promise her daughter a certain thing for Christmas. She told me in advance of meeting the little girl what she wanted me to say and normally I don’t have a problem with that but in this instance I felt it was out of character for me and for Santa Claus” Santa said. “Long after that child was out of earshot that woman was giving me the business for not complying with her wishes. Mrs. Claus stepped in and saved my butt, telling the woman to use her heart to hear what I was saying was true. It never would have occurred to me to speak to her that way, my inclination was to give it right back to her. Mrs. Claus has the touch whenever I fumble and am at a loss or in danger of losing it.”

Mrs. Claus has talent beyond just the parents, of course.

Kids, especially little girls, are enchanted with the very idea of Mrs. Claus. Her outfit is a flowing red velvet gown, very simple in design and very modestly adorned with subtle accents of white trim. “I can’t overshadow Santa,” she once told me. “I complement him. I complete him. But kids sometimes see Mrs. Claus as less imposing, someone who might answer questions they might not ask Santa. I love that!”

Mrs. Claus also has a knack with babies and frightened toddlers. Watching Santa and Mrs. Claus work on that level is amazing. There is no hesitation to get down on hands and knees, though it sometimes is painful for them to do so. “Fear is the opposite of faith,” Mrs. Claus says. “Santa is all about faith and believing. We can never have children frightened of Santa.”

Santa tells me he nearly gave up being Santa after a few appearances. But as Mrs. Claus came around and they worked to develop their rhythm, their technique, their “style” and their “Clausness”, as they like to say, they found it fulfilling as a couple to serve in the capacity of Santa and Mrs. Claus.

“Santa has become such a secular figure that I can get away with teaching morals in the suit than I cannot when out of the suit,” Santa noted. “If I show up at a school and say “Merry Christmas!” during an event nobody thinks a thing about it because I’m Santa Claus. If I were saying those same words as Joe Citizen, I have to be more measured, more inclusive, more politically correct and all that other nonsense. It is ironic to me that Santa was once a religious figure and isn’t any more, yet he can be such a powerful influence for good.”

Business and the stuff of life prevent Santa and Mrs. Claus from most activities during the year, unless, of course, pressed in to duty by situations like Ryan’s. But when Santa hangs up his suit after Christmas he is content to let him rest until December rolls around again. It is now how Santa spends what vacation time he’s got coming to him after a year of work. Being Santa relaxes him and releases him from the pressures and inconveniences of everyday stuff.

“We do this to relax,” Mrs. Claus laughed. “We’re blessed, we really are. We’ve traveled a lot. We enjoy our grandkids. But we are not the retiring type. We were lucky to find a form of service that, yes, it’s work but it is so rewarding and fun at the same time. I love what December has become for us.”

Santa heartily agrees.

“I could not be like some of these guys who walk around wearing red all year long,” Santa said. “I love Christmas and I love being Santa. But to keep Santa special I have to keep him separate. I think it is a sad commentary when a grown man has to maintain an identity outside of himself in order to be validated. There might be a handful of places where a year round need for Santa is necessary but for the most part Santa belongs at Christmas and, lucky for me, that’s when I have the time to do it.”

This theme of service seems to be something Santa and Mrs. Claus hit on a lot.

“I’ve operated my whole career on the idea of servant leadership,” Santa said. “It’s a subtle difference in viewpoint. You don’t command from on high, you command from behind. When you understand people’s motivations you can do great things. To understand people’s motivations you have to know their needs. What works for the boss works for Santa. What people really want from Santa isn’t toys and it isn’t presents. It’s love. It’s warmth. It’s that Christmas feeling we should have present every day of the year. I could not be Santa Claus without that servant mentality. The absence of self leads to the expansion of self. Serving others always achieves that end. When you lose yourself you find yourself.”

Keeping the Servant Santa Secret Jeff Westover of My Merry, Part 5 of a series (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

“I recognize that suit,” I said nonchalantly at the dry cleaner as I was doing business. There, on a hanger and freshly bagged, was Santa’s suit.

Her eye brows lowered and she looked at me suspiciously. “How do you know that suit?” she asked.

“Well it belongs to Santa,” I said. “Everyone knows that.”

She relaxed a bit and smiled. “But not everyone knows this Santa,” she sighed.

“Well I do,” I said. She put down her pen. She stared at me. “C’mere,” she said, pointing for me to follow her to an office.

“You know who Santa is?” she asked. “Who told you?”

“He did,” I replied innocently. “We’ve been meeting for a while.” I handed her my card and began to explain my experience of the previous two months. It took me a while to convince her that I wasn’t going to tell his secret to anyone.

“I would never do a thing to violate that man’s trust,” she told me. “He’s sworn me to secrecy about that suit.” It was his routine to bring the suit in for cleaning when it needed it. Instead of using a credit card he always gives her a check – a signed blank check.

That began when she refused payment for cleaning the suit. She said she could not in good conscience ask Santa to pay for his dry cleaning. She asked him instead to donate the money to a good cause. Because this transaction usually took place after Christmas Santa would claim he was too tired to do it and would she just find someone in town to help with the money? Over the years she had given his blank check to a shelter, another to the food bank and others to local churches.

In every instance, the $100 check would clear and Santa would follow up with a donation of another check mailed in soon after – a check frequently in the thousands of dollars.

“Frankly that suit requires special handling. I can’t do it here.” She told me. “So when he called me one day to find out how much it cost to clean it I told him it would be about $100 because it was out of my league. He just hung up and brought in the suit and we started playing these games. He swore me to secrecy about the suit and said that if I told anyone he would have to take the suit somewhere else.”

She sits on the town council. She is also a part-time volunteer librarian. I could see easily the kindred spirits they were to each other, conducting a private little holiday game all in the name of community service and anonymous giving.

Nothing shocked me about this guy anymore.

I once asked him if he took money for his appearances.

“Never,” he said. “I just couldn’t do that, even if I didn’t have other means. I’m not just saying that. Santa should never take money and should never be seen around money. Products should not bear his image. Nothing should be sold because of him. That’s why I could never work in a mall or something like that. It runs entirely against my principles.”

I explained to him that I knew many folks who wore the suit because at his age it was the only way they could support themselves. Many folks, I told him, find themselves retired or forced to retire from other careers and get into this because they fit the part and can’t find anything else.

“I don’t mean to be critical of those people,” he said. “But I could never be one of them. Especially now that I know what being Santa really means.”

I was beginning to understand what he was saying.

Weeks before I was asked to represent him to Rita’s priest and Rita’s children, who all wanted Santa to attend her funeral. Santa wanted to be there – but just as a face in the crowd.

It put Santa in a spot. He did not want to attend her funeral in his suit because he didn’t feel that proper respect would be paid to Rita, that he would distract from what the event was all about.

But the priest specifically said that Rita would want him there, that their identity was intertwined since that night at the Church. Rita loved Santa like a family member.

Santa had no intention of not going to Rita’s funeral. But in the end it was decided, he would show up in street clothes for the service. And while the priest conducted the last portion of the services he would slip into the Men’s room, change into his suit and then take his place amongst the pallbearers, he being chosen to carry Rita with her sons and grandsons.

The local newspaper wanted to feature the story. Santa would hear nothing of it and I was tasked with getting them to stay away.

Rita was Catholic. Santa is not and neither is most of the community where she lived. But they all came. They all wept. Appropriately it was for the sweet “candy lady”, as she was known, and not because Santa was there.

I didn’t see one child, not one family approach Santa at the cemetery. His hat was off with the rest of theirs, his face indeed just another in the crowd of admirers who came out of respect for someone who had served the community so very well.

“You’re more one of them than you know,” I told him on the way home.

“I try to tell myself, especially when there is a crowd or a camera present, that it isn’t me they like,” Santa said. “It’s the suit. It is the position. It is the happy nature, the giving ways, the very heart of Christmas that Santa represents. If you’re not careful, it can go to your head.”

He hit a nerve with me.

I told him of some of the experiences I had over the years and have documented by way of I told him I was looking for more stories like his to tell – that Santa needed positive promotion and even role modeling for those who portray him.

“Take their names away,” he suggested. “Tell them to stop using their own names in association with Santa. Tell them to refuse the cash, turn the checks away and get out of the business of Santa and money. When they put up that suit they don’t exist any more than Santa exists in the minds of non-believers. Being Santa means giving everything – especially your name, your identity and your being. That is when you really start to learn that as Santa, you’re receiving far more than you could possibly give as a human being. To do anything less in that effort is to deny yourself one of the biggest blessings of this life.”

I didn’t know it then but I wouldn’t see Santa again until the heat of summer. On a warm June day I got a phone call.

Santa wanted to see me – at the hospital.

To be continued…