Being There

Ho-ho... hold it, Santa’s not amused

In one of the more relaxed moments, John Lui poses for shoppers.
In one of the more relaxed moments, John Lui poses for shoppers.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Despite the jolly image, playing Santa can be a harrowing experience

Gather round, my friends, listen to my Christmas tale of woe. Santa is unhappy. You made him sad. He was at the nex shopping mall last week, and it is hard for good old jolly St Nick to say this, but he made a list and checked it twice, and many of you were naughty. Not at all nice.

So there I was, the world’s least convincing Santa Claus, spreading good cheer at nex. Alright, my suit might have been a little on the thin side and my wig and beard felt like they had been made of discarded fishing line. And no, I am not blue-eyed, nor am I a 6-footer, which seem to be the accepted Santa qualifications. Sharper eyes may have noted that I am not even slightly Caucasian.  

But that was no reason for the grown-ups to thrust their hands inches from my face, to shove past the children at my knees so that their little hands and faces were blocked by their big, hungry palms. 

Father Christmas was close to losing it. He was ready for ho-ho-homicide. But he held on. You see, wearing a Santa suit is like putting on a superhero costume. With power comes responsibility. 

Children do not want to see Father Christmas have a meltdown (would that be called a de-Frosting?). To have him go bonkers, slapping those big hands away might make them too cynical, too soon. Let the world take care of that. I will not.

Luckily, I had come mentally prepared for chaos. Before my Friday evening walkabout in nex, the just-opened and therefore very packed mall at Serangoon Central, I was immersed in the Tao of Santa.

The good people of Joan Walker, an events company, had lent me one of their costumes. Inside the safety of the nex management office, Joan Walker employees trained me in the Santa rules – the standard clauses, if you will. 

So what if my mentor was 18 years old and a polytechnic student? Low Yan How has been around the block a few times in Kris Kringle’s fur-trimmed boots. We are the fraternity: Under that red hat and snowy beard, we are all brothers, no matter what age or race. 

People will want to stand close to Santa for photos, so lesson one is: “Don’t touch the ladies,” said Low gravely. Noted. 

Lesson two.  ”Don’t lose your cool,” he said. He had a steely look in his eye, the one you see in combat veterans who have seen too much war. He told me how, in the heat of the moment, when the crowd is pressing in, panic can take over. I will have to fight the instinct to fling the sweets into the air and run.

I nodded, acting confident. But I was sure he saw that I was just as green as they come. Think glad tidings, good cheer and goodwill to all men, I reminded myself, as the rumble of the shopping crowd grew louder.

We mall Santas in Singapore have it easy, I told myself. No child here is likely to ask us the names of our reindeer, or what reindeer games they play, or how I slip into homes that have a condo security guard and no chimney. And unless I happen to pick up a Santa gig at a house party, it is not likely I will have much interaction with kids and their awkward questions. 

My task that Friday was to promote. I would walk around in as jolly a fashion as I could muster, distributing about 1,000 matchbox-sized, sweets-filled plastic bags. The packs had a sticker on them promoting nex. As I would find out soon enough, this was unnecessary because it would feel as if most of Singapore had turned up.

Earlier in the week, I had sought out Mr Peer Netze, 48. The German is one of a few working Santas in Singapore with one valuable trait: He is Caucasian. For those who want a “white” Christmas, there is nothing like the genuine article.

“A lot of companies prefer it,” said Mr Netze who, outside of the Yule season, is a teacher of English and German and an actor. In the four years he has donned the red-and-white suit in Singapore, advertising himself on his Web advertisement as a Caucasian Santa, he has spied Santas of every race. 

He has no problem with non-traditional Santa casting, he said. There is more than enough work to go around for Santas of any colour and besides, every year, his workload increases. Shopping malls, condo parties, corporate functions, they all want a Santa like him: fair-skinned, 1.8m tall, deep-voiced. 

Kids tell him their secrets. It comes with the job. Sometimes he hears things that give him pause. One child gave him a letter of wishes. The No. 1 wish was “to get rid of the cane”. Elsewhere on the list was: “I wish mum could spend more time with us.”

“Oh man,” groaned Mr Netze at the memory of the letter. My mall job suddenly seemed much easier. 

Back at nex, it was showtime. Low helped me don the iconic outfit, complete with a belly pillow and gold wire-frame glasses. I was to be guided by four elves, including Mr Low. They would perform crowd control as well. It was hard to see through the sweat and wig, and over the belly at my feet. 

Things fell apart almost immediately. We had planned to scoot to the lift, head to the basement, from where I would “Ho-ho-ho!” and “Merry Christmas!” my way to the upper floors.

The San-tourage was not 20m from our base when the wee faces and hands started to press in. No problem, I thought. But at the lower floors, where the crowds were bigger, things began to get out of control. The kids started pressing in, one layer deep, then two, then three. One is never sure how this happens, but something was triggered. Grown-ups suddenly joined the melee, perhaps to even the odds for their kids in the outer circle. 

For a brief, frightening moment, I was overwhelmed. There were two dozen pairs of hands ringing me and as soon as I put something into one hand, two more took its place. Where were my elves? A stab of regret hit me. We had failed to agree on a safety word so I could call for backup without breaking character. “North Pole! North Pole!” or “Oi, Rudolf!” might have been good choices. And as Low had guessed, I was gripped by the urge to throw the sweets into the air and run away.

Luckily, my teen elves picked up on my distress. They formed the crowd into queues and the rest of my one-hour job was spent with more merriment and less fear that I would be torn apart.

The more cynical among you might just peg the whole affair as another promotional stunt gone slightly awry, but the thing to remember is that I, as Santa, escaped without a scratch. 

That, to me, is my personal Christmas miracle.