It’s fun being Santa – but you might need a ladder
You may not know this, but Santa Claus is an Ozark County native – at least the Santa Claus who has ridden in the annual Downtown Springfield Christmas parade for more than 30 years is. The Ozark County Times interviewed the jolly old elf recently for an update on what he’s learned and experienced through his years in the big red suit.
He first discovered his talent for the role when he was in fifth grade at Gainesville Elementary School, where his parents were teachers. For many years, his grandfather, who owned a general merchandise store on the Gainesville square, would don a homemade Santa suit and hand out presents to his grandkids on Christmas Eve. After his grandpa died in 1961, and as Christmas was nearing, his grandma told him to “go put Santa on.”
He’s not sure why his grandma asked him to fulfill the role. He had one older male cousin who would have been the more logical choice. But this Santa-in-the-making didn’t asked questions; he just went upstairs in his grandma’s house, found the Santa suit and put it on.
“It was kind of different,” he said. “It had a beard made out of glued-on cotton balls. And it had a hood that kind of made you look like someone who was coming to burn your house down or something.”
He might have felt a bit awkward at first, but the family thought he looked like a great Santa in the old suit. And with that, a North Pole star was born.
Eventually he outgrew the old homemade suit and had to find a replacement, especially as word spread that he was good at hollering, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
“I used to buy the Sears Best brand, but now I order from santa.com,” he said. He and Mrs. Claus have a little wardrobe of suits, appropriate for the various appearances they make around Springfield at Christmastime. Some outfits come with interior pockets that can hold ice packs for those times when the parade occurs on an unseasonably warm December day – or when the Clauses make more than a dozen requested appearances at churches and civic and charity groups around town, holding court in overly warm rooms packed with excited youngsters.
Of course the suits also come with assorted “stomachs and padding,” Santa said. All that stuff can raise the temperature too. But the Clauses have learned that, no matter how hot and weary they get while they’re greeting kids and smiling for the cameras, they must drink nothing – no sodas, eggnog, water. Zilch, nada.
Why? Because going to the bathroom while wearing “stomachs and padding” and, for Mrs. Claus, hoop skirts and can-cans, can be a precarious challenge. For one thing, you never know what little kid you’re going to meet in the men’s room, and for another, during outdoor appearances, the Clauses have learned from excruciating experience that hoop skirts and can-cans make porta-potties darn near impossible to use – at least if you want to close the door while you’re in there.
Another thing they’ve learned, as far as the Springfield parade goes, is self-sufficiency. That’s why, for the last several years, they’ve brought their own 6-foot aluminum ladder with them to the parade.
“We learned to do that the first year they decided we would ride in an old horse-drawn wagon,” Santa recalled. “They said, ‘OK, hop on up there,’ and neither of us could even see our feet with all the padding and stuff. We couldn’t begin to climb up over the wheel like they wanted us to. Now we bring the ladder, and they help us climb up. Then we hide the ladder in the wagon under some stuff, and at the end of the parade, we can get off.”
Another lesson in self-sufficiency came the year the parade organizers forgot to pick up the Clauses in a golf cart at the end of the parade, as had happened all the years before that. They waited and waited that year, but no one came. They had no phones and no money for a cab (Santa hadn’t brought his wallet). So, carrying their 6-foot ladder, the Clauses started hoofing it back to their car, parked a couple of miles away.
It was slow-going, joining the throngs of parade-watchers who were also trooping back to their vehicles. Everyone wanted to talk to Santa.
“And everyone wanted to know why Santa was carrying a ladder,” he said.
Finally they reached the Hammons Building on St. Louis Street and were thankful to find that the door was unlocked. In fact, there was a party going on. When the Clauses walked in, everyone thought they were part of the entertainment. But they all wanted to know what was up with the ladder.
The weary couple were delighted to see a familiar face in the crowd. “Hey, what are you guys doing here?” the friend asked loudly.
“Can you drive us to our car?” Mrs. Claus whispered desperately.
Now they leave one car at the parade’s staring point – and another at the end of the route.
How have the Clauses become such popular invitees to so many Springfield holiday events?
“Well, the most important thing is, we’re free,” Santa said.
They limit their appearances to charitable groups’ gatherings, he said, and they never charge those groups to have Santa and Mrs. Claus come visit the kids.
And what are some of the things kids ask for?
Well, said Santa, the hardest requests to hear come from sober-faced youngsters who ask Santa to bring a dad home from jail. Or help a mom get well from a bad illness.
Otherwise, it depends on the group and what kids they’re meeting. And also on the economy, Santa said.
When the economy is tight, the Clauses hear requests for necessities: boots and coats, even new socks and underwear, he said.
But this year, when the economy’s rolling along, they’re hearing a different request over and over, even from the youngest youngsters, Santa said.
“They all want a cell phone of their own.”