The Year That I Played Santa Claus at Kmart

Now that Thanksgiving is over, the nation’s attention turns toward Christmas. After having devoured countless big, fat birds this past weekend, we start thinking about what the big, fat man is going to bring us.

Thinking about wish lists and buying gifts reminded me of my own pitiful time spent playing Santa Claus.

It was 1995. I was a high school senior. My last class of the day was either an acting class or a drama class. I took one the first semester and the other the second semester and I can’t remember which was which. Both were taught by the fantastic Bill Bodnar, who ran the theater department at my high school.

One afternoon in mid-November he told our class that the local Kmart had contacted him in search of a student to play Santa in the store. Two things should have steered me away from the gig. First, the store must have been the pits if the real Santa didn’t want to go spend some time there. He’ll go anywhere. And second, idiots must be in charge of the store if they think a high school student is a good choice for a Santa stand-in.

But neither cautionary tidbit caught my attention, so I volunteered, along with another kid. Bodnar told the other kid that I was more responsible and a better actor. For the final exam in one of the classes I performed a fifteen-minute scene from a classic American play (it’s driving me crazy that I can’t remember which one! Let me know if you can help!) with a girl in the class and we killed it. And it felt great that Bodnar had confidence in me.

So I went to Kmart, met with a manager, and got the job minutes later. I’d work three or four consecutive Saturdays, 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Seemed easy enough.

I showed up bright and early the first Saturday, went to the back to put on the suit, and immediately regretted my decision.

The suit was awful. I was stoked to wear the traditional Santa suit. No such luck. Instead, Santa’s clothes consisted of a red hat, white shirt, and red pants, which were fine. But instead of the red coat I had to wear a ridiculous, multi-colored smock, and instead of black boots, I had to wear knee-high white socks (the pants only came to just below the knee) and slippers.

Who the hell thinks Santa wears slippers at the North Pole? Don’t they know it’s cold there? Santa only wears slippers when he’s shirtless on the beach in January, sipping an ice cold Coca-Cola.

I thought about asking if maybe they had last year’s costume somewhere, or maybe they had one on the shelf that I could buy, but I didn’t want to be labeled as difficult to work with on my first acting job, so I kept my mouth shut and decided to be a good little Santa.

I got ready in the back of the store, and had to walk to the front of the store to sit on the bench just inside the entrance. As soon as I emerged from the back and walked into the aisle, a little kid saw me. He was so excited, which I thought was cool at first, but then he came up to me, and I realized he wanted me to talk to him.

Oh shit! I hadn’t practiced a Santa voice. I hadn’t tried out different Ho Ho Hos. I had no clue what the hell to do. So I ended up talking to the boy in my normal Brett voice. No disguise at all. I had to hope that this little kid wouldn’t realize that fat, old Santa sounded just like a seventeen-year-old high schooler.

Fifteen or twenty hours playing Santa and I didn’t utter a single Ho Ho Ho. What the hell kind of Santa doesn’t say Ho Ho Ho? I feel sorry for the parents who had to explain why the Kmart Santa seemed like such an idiot and didn’t act like Santa from other places. I hoped they’d blame the Santa shortcomings on the “suit” or on the fact that it was Kmart, and not on the pitiful jerk too cool to say Ho Ho Ho.

A couple parents mentioned how young Santa looked. Apparently a faux fat stomach, and an ill-fitting white beard and wig didn’t add the requisite years to make me look old. One dad said, “Looks like Santa’s eyebrows haven’t turned white yet.”

I chuckled, but inside I hoped Santa brought that asshole a lump of coal for Christmas (and shoved it down his throat).

I’m the youngest in my family, and I hadn’t spent any time around little kids, which meant, although I’ve always loved little kids, I had no damn idea what kind of toys they played with.

How was I supposed to know that a two-year-old is too young for Barbie? Nice of her mother to point that out to me though. “She’s a little too young for that yet,” she said, as she threw a “Can you believe this Santa?” glance at her friend standing next to her.

And no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t understand what some of the kids were saying. Did that kid just say he wanted, “More fun Legos,” or did he tell me, “Go f$% yourself?” I don’t know. I just nodded and smiled.

Photo: Flickr user me5otron

Photo: Flickr user me5otron

Luckily, kids didn’t have to wait long to see me. I think we took pictures—I can’t really remember, but I'd kill to find a picture of me in that Santa getup—but I just sat on a bench and the kids just sat on my lap. There wasn’t a big Santa’s village setup like at some stores. A line rarely formed, and I think that some parents, after seeing how cluelessly I interacted with other kids, steered their own children clear.

And I don’t blame them one bit. If my own kids wanted to see an incapable Santa like me, I’d offer to take them to the back of the store to see the fish and tell them they could pick out a candy bar at the cash register.

Perhaps the worst moment came when my eleventh grade English teacher walked in with her young son. He came and sat on my lap, and I had no idea what he was saying, and after a few Ho-ho-ho-less uncomfortable minutes, she said something like, “Okay, let’s leave Santa alone,” and put him in the cart and they walked away.

“Let’s leave Santa alone!” Great. There’s nothing a kid wants to hear more than “Santa can’t be bothered with you.” I was glad that I wasn’t in her class that year. I didn’t want to have to face her everyday after ruining her son’s childhood.

Mercifully, Christmas came and I didn’t have to play Santa again. Ever since then I’ve gained a new appreciation for how difficult Santa’s job is. I’d like to think that having spent the past seventeen years raising my own kids that I’d be a better fill-in Santa now, but I’ll never know because I’ll never accept the job again.

Still, maybe I’ll start practicing my Ho Ho Hos just in case.

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