Becoming Santa - What's it like to be the main man at Christmas?

In putting on the suit and entering the sleigh, the wearer waives any and all rights to their previous identity.


Luke Benson

10:30 20 Dec 2015 Joseph Conroy 10:30 Sunday 20 December 2015

“August I’m Santa Claus - February I’m Santa Claus - September I’m Santa Claus - December I’m definitely Santa Claus,” Geno Kavanagh says - sitting by an open fire on a damp, cold, mid-November day in the seaside town of Tramore, Co Waterford.

The former-postman has been playing Santa Claus for 15 years now and says he has “grown into the role,” cultivating a long jagged beard and a shock of white hair. Geno initially took the role after a family member suggested that he give it a go because he was “like one anyway."

He's featured as Santa for Aldi in Christmas advertisements used across Europe, and was offered a spot paying St Nick in Lapland on the Finland / Sweden boarder - but opted to stay in Ireland instead.

Shortly before we arrived for our chat, Geno had been at the Winterval festival in Waterford City - the choreographed affair featured a pack of Storm Troopers borrowed from the Star Wars galaxy capturing Santa before he was saved by a group of local vikings.

Dan Young is also a veteran of the Santa game with 12 years of experience under his brass belt. He's an actor and caricaturist by trade, but was picked up by St Stephen’s Green shopping centre after being spotted at a social event.

He’s arrived in Dublin earlier than usual this year to be in town as the lights on Grafton Street are switched on, almost six weeks before Christmas. It might be slightly too early - he says that business is slow, but this affords him the luxury of spending extra time with the families who do come.

The Baltimore-native has retained his American accent after years in Ireland. He is keen to point out that “Santa is American” - making a clear distinction between ‘him‘ and Father Christmas, the Dutch Sinterklass, and other European takes on the character.

He speaks fluently about the advent of Santa as an amalgamation of traditions carried over to the United States by European settlers, adding that, contrary to popular belief, Coca Cola did not “invent” Santa. They did, however, give him his red garb, and re-imagined him as a plump “everyman," rather than what Dan describes as the “austere” lean European incarnations.

Geno, Winterval Waterford

Geno has a different take on the role; he likens it to the mythical figures of father earth, or father time. He says he doesn’t like the “garish,” bright red costumes, so instead had his own suit custom made - a long one piece outfit in a deep-red.

Both men relish playing the role and say that it’s the reaction from the children that makes it all worthwhile, but like the broader festive season, playing Santa can have its heavier moments.

Dan professes that being Santa “makes him a better person”.

“There are sometimes when I say things [as Santa] that I couldn’t say. I show a wisdom,” he continues before citing one instance when he felt the power of the suit take over.

He noticed that one of the children who came into the grotto seemed sad, but not the normal nervousness or fear of Santa that can hit kids as they meet him. An adult accompanying the child had a word in his ear and explained that they had recently lost both their parents.

Confronted with the situation, ‘Santa’ took over as he told the young child "well - you understand that Christmas is a birthday party. Now your mom and dad have been invited to the table of the birthday boy himself. That doesn’t mean they’re not with you. It doesn’t mean that they’re not thinking of you. But they were such special people that he wanted to include them, and that’s where they are right now”.

He asked himself “where did that come from?” after the child made their exit.

Both men say that they know that they are playing a role for a few weeks a year - but neither can shake the feeling that there actually is something “magic” about the suit.

Dan remembers seeing Santa twice as a child in the US, and receiving a stapled-together copy of A Visit from St Nicolas - the 1823 poem which is more commonly known as 'The Night Before Christmas.'

“Santa was a draw, you have to look at it like that - it was for money and ultimately that’s why he was there."

There was the "monetary thing" when department stores in New York, and later across the rest of the US, started hiring men to play Santa in ‘malls’ between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For him Santa and the holiday are about more than that. At times he feels that it is necessary to remind kids about the ‘Christ’ part of "Christ-mas."

“If that element has to be removed entirely, and we really are just having a massive, celebration of commerce, a celebration of consumerism, a celebration of ‘how much can I get?’ - ‘’do I get the big box?’ - if that’s what this really is then I wouldn’t want to do it."

Stoking the fire in Waterford, Geno says that he can’t believe the amount of “stuff” that children get today.

He enjoyed simpler Christmases when he was young, like one year when he was given a broken toy gun that couldn’t shoot - but he remembers having the time of his life with it.

Speaking about Christmas as a child, he recalls the image of his own father coming back from the local pub with his friends for a sing-song in the living room.

“My mother used to sing a song called ‘Little Boy that Santa Claus forgot” - he starts to sing in deep-drawn tones - “I’m the little boy who Santa Claus forgot - and goodness knows I didn’t want a lot.”

It’s about a boy who is left empty handed and “broken hearted” on Christmas day when Santa hasn't arrived. By chance the same song came on during his first shift in Santa’s grotto this year, almost bringing a tear to his eye.

‘Being Santa’ is a year-round job, especially for Geno. With his natural long white beard he has gotten into the habit of avoiding Tramore beach while on his daily stroll during the crowded summer months.

Walking in his sandals, shorts and t-shirt he can’t help but get stopped by excitable children, asking if he’s Santa, but he’s willing to play the role, saying that he is, and he loves Waterford so much that he comes there for his summer holidays.

Geno describes himself as a “free spirit and a bit of a hippy at heart,” his house is covered in Native American art and his body is dotted with tattoos, many of which also take their inspiration from Native American themes.

When caught out-and-about in the summer months, he calmly explains that the tattoos are camouflage and that he can wipe them off when he gets back to the North Pole. He's found himself marooned on the beach for up to four hours, talking to queues of children who want to meet Santa, even though it's July or August.

However, he's happy to take the time out when he has it to the keep the illusion alive: “That’s what we’re there for - we are there to make these children believe that Santa is real. In my own strange way, even though I’m 64 years of age - I still believe he’s there. I’d love to visit a Santa myself.

Dan is more philosophical about the role of the big man in the grand scheme of things as he sits in his empty grotto on the top floor of St. Stephen's Green Shopping Centre.

"Santa Clause is a spirit, not a person," he says.

When children ask him if he's really Santa, he "never lies" to them - he tells them that Santa is a spirit, and that he's in the North Pole supervising the making of toys with Mrs Claus, but he's also able to show up wherever he's needed.

His voice hardens as he says, “Sometimes you see him through the eyes of a man; in a red suit, sitting in a grotto, talking to you. Right now, this second, I am Santa Claus - and I believe that."