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Holiday Guide Feature

Holiday Shift

Wanted: White-Bearded Man With Nice Lap and Good Kidneys

John Davis Jr.

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By Michael Anft | Posted 11/15/2000

When Linda Clift goes Christmas shopping, she doesn't limit herself to dancing sugarplums, chestnuts roasting, or the odd bottle of holiday cheer. She also goes in search of a jolly fellow with an ample belly, red cheeks, white hair, and a beard--and other special features, including a strong bladder and a way with kids. Clift's yuletide mission includes not just playing a Santa of sorts to her family, but hiring the genuine imitation article for the holiday season at three area halls of commerce.

Based at Eastpoint Mall, where she also works the customer-service desk, Clift outfits of Westminster's TownMall and Baltimore County's Eastpoint and Westview malls with Kris Kringles, relying on her nine years of experience to guide her through a pile of red velvet and pale, curly locks. So far, she's steered clear of re-creating some harrowing holiday memories of her childhood in Highlandtown, which serve as a constant reminder of the need for limits on St. Nick's, uh, jolliness. "I remember going to Epstein's [on Eastern Avenue] as a kid," Clift says. "The Santa there smelled like a bar."

Her own experience notwithstanding, the drunken Santa is probably just a bad stereotype, says Clift, a bright-eyed, slightly graying woman of 51 whose husky voice frequently gives way to gusts of laughter. "I don't think I've ever seen a Santa with that problem since," she says. "We've been real lucky."

Besides sobriety, Clift's basic qualifications are simple and predictable. "It's all about personality," she says. "It doesn't hurt if they have a twinkle in their eye. They have to have that I'm-a-happy-guy look." An empathy for kids helps, as does a sense of self-possession: "They should be sure of themselves so that they're comfortable enough to hold newborns." An attention span that allows for said Santa to nod and interject while a youngster goes on and on is a requirement, she adds. "They have to be willing to take the time with the kids. If one kid wants to talk for 15 or 20 minutes, I expect him to listen to that kid, or to read that kid's letter," she says. "Some guys think they have to hurry through kids, but unless it's the three weeks before Christmas when there are 30 kids in line, they really should take their time."

Real beards and hair are essential in the Santa-eat-Santa world of modern retail, Clift says. "Competition is too hard now to have fake beards and hair. We'd get killed." (Clift keeps pseudo-Santa hair and suit handy, though, in case one of St. Nick's elf helpers has to fill in when the "real" Santa misses work, as happened once four years ago at Eastpoint.)

Along with fulfilling the fatherly Père Noël role and mustering the requisite amount of jollity, Clift's Clauses must demonstrate a few more arcane attributes. First, there's the all-important lap. It's not enough for her Santas to possess ample avoirdupois, she says--"They need to have the right kind of belly, a top belly that leaves room for a good lap underneath it." And it doesn't hurt to have some special powers inside the belly: Santa's 11-hour days include only three or four breaks. "It helps to have a Santa with really good kidneys," Clift says, "because Santa can't just get up and run off to go potty any time he wants to." She advises neophyte Nicks to skip the morning coffee and offers a bit of encouragement about making the adjustment: "By the end of the holidays, your bladder gets used to it."

Apparently, her charges' urological systems aren't the only things that take a beating. The constantly bouncing kids take their toll on the usually older men beneath them. "Their beards get tugged and their hair gets pulled," Clift says. "But worse than that, [children] manage to get those little feet in every crevice of Santa's body. [Santa's] knees and the tops of his legs are bruised up pretty bad by the end of the season."

For all of the above reasons, Clift's malls pay Santa more than a few lumps of coal. Her lengthy checklist for her prospects, plus the job's long hours and seven-days-a-week schedule, add up to about $1,000 a week. Elves, six of whom she hires to help the old man at Eastpoint, make less, but they aren't the stars of the show, Clift points out. "It's hard work being Santa. It's not just sitting there. Those last three weeks [before Christmas] are hell."

For all of Clift's rigor in selecting her St. Nicks, it seems the old truism that it's not what you know but who you know holds fast, even in Santaland. Eastpoint's current ho-ho-hoer, Jay Hensley, a native Tennessean, came to be Dundalk's Santa because he once worked with Clift's husband at a trucking firm. "He lives up the street from us in Aero Acres," she adds. "One time, someone asked him, 'Do I detect a Southern accent?' And he said, 'Well, I was born on the South Pole, but after they made me Santa I moved to the North Pole.' He's a natural at this."

Indeed, this year all three of Clift's mall Santas are veterans she's worked with before. Clift is a rarity in the rent-a-Claus business, a local mall representative who still hires her own Kringles. The industry trend is to farm out the job to national agencies. Nancy Tucker, spokesperson for the Rouse Co., says most of the Columbia-based firm's five Maryland malls use a New Jersey firm to take care of their Santa needs. Traci Lee, marketing director at Security Square Mall, says a California outfit called Santas Plus employs local managers to screen prospective Clauses at Security. In both instances, however, Baltimoreans needn't worry they're getting carpetbagger St. Nicks; usually, only the people doing the hiring are imported, not the Santas themselves.

Clift, who works the camera at Eastpoint while kids sit on Santa's lap, says there is one downside to being the on-the-scene point person behind the Old Man from the Pole: Most of her hirelings eventually quit because of illness or frailty. As we speak at Eastpoint's customer-service desk, an aged man comes to the counter and asks, "What about the old Santa--is he still alive?" Clift explains that the mall's former Santa, brought down by throat cancer, had taken a job in a small mall in Pennsylvania; his surgically induced speech problems necessitated a smaller audience. "He can't talk very well since his surgery," she says. "It's a shame. He really wanted to come back and be the Santa here."

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