When not hoisting kids onto his lap in a Kelowna, B.C., mall, Tom Kliner has appeared in commercials and movies, organized international Santa conventions and formed Internet support groups (or “wreaths”) for the Claus community. He’s travelled around North America teaching workshops for other Santas, giving his red suit an off-season workout. But while he’s enlarged the job’s boundaries, it’s the kids that keep him coming back to be Santa for six weeks every Christmas. This year, Kliner celebrates a decade as St. Nick. He’s recruited his wife to play Mrs. Claus, and at just 53 years old he shows no signs of slowing. He spoke with Canadian Business associate editor Jacqueline Nelson.
Handmade Santa suits owned: 5
Beard length (in inches): 9 to 11
Hours worked per day at the mall: 8 to 10
Largest group greeted: 3,000
Now taking bookings for: 2013
Furthest destination travelled: Tennessee
You’re young for a Santa. How’d you get into the job?
It was because of stress, actually. I had a job I didn’t like, so I quit, but then I needed something to do. I’ve always worked with the public somehow—I’ve owned a gas station and a convenience store—so I’m not unaccustomed to dealing with people. I stumbled across an ad in the paper, and I kind of thought it might be for a Santa, but I wasn’t sure. Well, I thought, at least I don’t have to look for work for six weeks. So I took a job as Santa in the mall. And then I absolutely fell in love with it.
What is the most rewarding part of playing Santa?
Oh, it’s the kids and their soul. They’re wide-eyed and honest, and the world’s not jaded for them yet. You look in their eyes and you see all the things you take for granted. For them, it’s all still new.
You are a real-bearded Santa, which I understand is very popular. Is that tough to maintain with such a long off-season?
Well, I’ve had a beard since I was 15, so I don’t mind it, but my hair’s naturally very black. When I took the job as Santa I had to decide if I was going to shave it off and wear a fake beard, or try to make mine white. I did a lot of research, and then there was some trial and error, but my wife and I figured out how to bleach the beard. I have to re-bleach it about every 10 days during the holiday season. It hurts, so during the year I let the roots grow out a little longer.
Christmastime at the mall is nothing short of chaos. How do you deal with the pressure of having a winding line of kids in front of you?
Well, that’s where being self-employed comes in. Sometimes, when you’re employed by the mall it becomes all about the photos and how many kids we can put through in an hour.
I don’t mind some of that, because I know the mall has to make money, but there also has to be repeat business. When I’m on my own, I have more control and can take time to build the relationships. Often I will look down the line in advance and see which kids are ready and which have the total look of fear on their face. I’ll usually know who I can spend time with, and who isn’t going to spend time with me.
How do you make sure each child feels special when you might see hundreds in a day?
You have to be able to extract information and guide a conversation. When you’re asking kids what they want for Christmas, sometimes they’ll get so excited that they stall out. You need to be able to assess the situation quickly. Did this kid show up in Gucci shoes? Or maybe we’re going to talk about colouring books? You have to try to think about what’s on this child’s mind and what can you excite them with. You’re building a dream, but you’re not making a promise.
You have to maintain the Christmas spirit even when you’re visiting kids in the hospital. How do you emotionally prepare for that?
[My wife and I] had some life experiences ourselves where we’ve lost children and had other fairly significant challenges in our lives, and I think that helps a lot when it comes to dealing with special-needs kids or those in palliative care. We’ve done the hospital runs and dealt with wonderful little frail children. I asked one girl who sat down and snuggled into my lap what she wanted for Christmas and she said all she wanted was to be cancer-free. Mrs. Claus has saved me from some near breakdowns on the set.
How do you recover from that kind of emotional low?
You never stop thinking about those kids, but it teaches you that people come from so many different places. You’re also going to have to see the kids who want a new snowmobile because their dad sold their other one. You can’t train yourself for that. It just comes from life experience.
Sometimes little kids are afraid of Santa. What do you do when they panic?
There’s always a few kids that get a little bit scared, and that’s understandable. Here’s a big furry character with a deep booming voice, parents throw their kids at him and walk away! What have you been teaching them? “Stay away from strangers, and stay close to mum and dad.” I know those kids are just trying to get through the experience, and I don’t force it.
The Christmas season is very short. What keeps you busy the other months of the year?
In the summer, I work at a winery here in Kelowna. It’s another people-person job, and I meet all kinds from all over the world. Some of them have beards, and their wives will tell me, “Oh, he hates when people call him Santa.” I’ve learned that just because you look like Santa, and you have a big white beard, it doesn’t mean you have the patience and tolerance.
So, what other traits does a person need to be a great Santa, then?
You have to always be ready and in character, whether it’s summertime or Christmastime. You can’t be running around swearing at people or stumbling down the street just because you’re not wearing the costume. Your costume and vehicle always need to be ready. If the car’s not running quite right, there’s no putting off fixing it, because you absolutely cannot fail to show up for an appointment. If the kids are promised Santa, he must show up. Preparation is totally key.
You work frantically for six weeks straight. On Christmas Day, when it’s all over, are you a little relieved?
When it’s over, it’s weird. Christmas Day for me is almost a little depressing. It’s not even a slide down; it’s like walking off a cliff. It goes from being all about me to waking up on Christmas morning, and it’s all over. I always wish it would go on, but I also know that if we had Christmas every month, it would start to take some of the magic out of it.