Behind the Beard: Conversations with a Santa
Earlier this week, we wrote about the business of Santa photography. We interviewed Dave Mickelson of Arthur and Associates, a leading Pacific Northwest Santa company. As a special treat, Dave connected me with Santa Russ, one of A&A's most beloved Santa characters. Santa Russ shared with me the incredible responsibility that comes with putting on the red suit and why he's recognized year round.
This year Santa Russ is on his 14th season as a Seattle santa. The first thing I noticed was his laugh. He has the perfect santa laugh — deep, warm, and exactly the right amount of jolly. I can picture the twinkle in his eye and am positive he has a nose like a cherry. So how does one get into the Santa trade? "I was semi-retired from my previous job in computer work and wondered what a middle aged, overweight bearded guy should do with his time," he chuckles. "My pastor knew a guy in our congregation did work as a Santa, so he suggested I talk with him, and that's what led me to Arthur and Associates."
Santa Russ has a long white beard and says he has evolved slowly into becoming a year-round Santa. "I wear red almost exclusively. I drive a red PT Cruiser. Even in the middle of the summer, children in restaurants will see me and ask if I'm Santa and tell me what they want for Christmas."
Over his 14 years as a Seattle Santa, Russ has gathered a rich collection of stories and memories. He loves what he does. "Hearing what the kids want, that's the greatest thing," he says. "But being able to be there for the kids when they need someone to talk to? It's about them; that's why I'm there." But what about the requests Santa can't promise? "Once, there was a boy who was couldn't have been more than 10 years old. He had longish hair, dressed like a tough kid, all in black, you know. I was surprised he wanted to see Santa. He came with his dad and, when his turn came, he told me he wanted his dad to quit smoking. I was stunned," Russ recalls. "But of course, I couldn't promise that to him. I told him,'Santa can’t do everything himself and we all need to work together, but you should tell your dad directly that you would like him to be part of your life for a long time by quitting smoking.' His dad heard and, I hope, took it to heart," Russ says.
While it is common for children to ask for things like dolls and trains and even an XBOX or iPod, Russ told me that he gets some unusual requests as well. "Recently, I had a 15 year old girl come see me. She'd just gotten her license and wanted a Cadillac Esplanade," he chuckles. There's a gift that wouldn't fit on the sleigh.
But sometimes people just need the comfort of seeing Santa. "An older woman recently came to see me. Her husband had died that year and he had been a local neighborhood santa. She came in just to have a hug from Santa," Russ recalls. "It's a huge responsibility, being such a recognizable figure. You have to watch everything you say, you have to take everything to heart, and you absolutely have to maintain Santa/client privilege. Sometimes the kids will talk to Santa because they won’t tell their parents what they want. In that case, I pretend my hearing isn’t as good as it could be, so I repeat things back, loudly, so the parents can hear," he laughs.
Santa Russ has to get to his next appointment at the Seattle Center, so our conversation needs to come to an end. Before we hang up, I ask him if there's any common item he's asked for. His answer put some hope back in my heart. "World Peace. And it's not a pat answer if you really think about it. It’s something we all really want. Sometimes we feel helpless not knowing how to achieve it. Sometimes the things people ask for really make you think. How can we work on this? It starts a conversation and that, really, is what matters most," he answers.
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