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Richard Johnson - Shopping Centre Santa Claus

Richard Johnson
'I started 30 years ago when a lot of the local kids wanted to go carol singing.'

Richard was 31 and working in pest control with the Maritime Services Board when he first squeezed into a Santa suit. His wife and family persuaded him to give it a go. He took quite a lot of convincing but, once he was in the suit, there was no turning back. That was 30 years ago.

At 61, Richard has been out of the workforce for 10 years after being forced to retire following a knee replacement. But he gets back into the workforce for five weeks every year as a professional Santa Claus. In 1995 he signed up with RegProm, a marketing and promotions company, and became a Santa Claus at Westfield shopping centres.

When did you first get into a Santa costume?

I started 30 years ago when a lot of the local kids wanted to go carol singing. My wife and family wanted me to put on the suit and eventually I got into it – I was a reluctant Santa Claus. It was Christmas Eve and we did a round of the street. At the third house a little girl who was probably only two or three years old came out to meet me. She was just so amazed to see Santa, and it was such a tremendous feeling.

We continued that tradition until about five years ago, when we ran out of kids to visit. I also used to dress as Santa for the local Scouts and I was Santa in a nursing home for a while.

How did you become a shopping centre Santa Claus?

In 1995 I saw a job advert for Santa Clauses and decided to give it a try. I rang Liz Evans at RegProm and was asked to come in for an interview. She spoke with me and checked me out – made sure my eyes twinkled – that’s what she does.

What was the recruitment process like?

I did hand in a resume but, really, what sort of a resume do you need to be Santa? The jobs I’d had up to that point were all regular kinds of work. Getting a job as Santa is based more on the interview. It’s then that they can work out how you’ll look as Santa and how you will be able to talk and interact with children, which are the most important things in this job.

Why do you like working as Santa?

I’ve liked the job since that first night when I realised that seeing Santa made that little girl so happy. I like doing this job because it gives so much pleasure to the kids.

Are there any moments you remember in particular?

There was a little girl who could just walk, and she came up to me all by herself. I asked her where her mum was and she couldn’t talk – she just pointed. I could hear her mum’s feet on the tiles as she came running around the corner – she knew that her daughter would have gone to see Santa. That little girl is 11 now and she still comes to say hello to me.

Does the costume get uncomfortable?

The suits we wear are velvet and completely enclosed so it gets very hot. When you’re in costume, you’re fully enclosed with the suit, boots and hat. I’m lucky that I have a white beard and white hair – the guys in false beards and wigs just cook. They can only work four-hour shifts, but I can work longer hours.

What personal qualities do you need to work as a Santa Claus?

I’ve always been a very patient person. To be Santa Claus you need to be very, very patient. I get mothers coming in who tell me I have the patience of a saint.

How do you deal with crying children?

It’s just an age thing – they’ll grow out of it. You have to expect that most children aged between nine months and two years will cry. They get frightened – some of them get over it very quickly, others don’t.

How do you handle requests for gifts that you can’t give?

The first thing I do is look at the child’s mother and gauge her reaction. I get kids asking for a PlayStation 3 all the time. I’ll ask them what a PlayStation 3 is and then turn towards the mother, if she’s shaking her head, I’ll say ‘sorry, maybe when you’re older’.

Other kids, even eight- and nine-year-olds ask for mobile phones. Some of them already have phones and want a new one, but other kids will definitely not be getting a phone until they go to high school. So I will always turn to the parent to find out what’s happening. That way I’ll try to avoid giving something that I can’t.

What about the other requests that you can’t buy?

They’re the really hard ones. Kids ask me to get their parents back together and I have to say I can’t do that, and that it’s up to mum and dad to sort out. Two brothers who’d been in a car accident used to come in. The youngest was OK, with only a broken leg, the oldest had become a paraplegic and their middle brother had passed away. All they were worried about was whether their brother would have a Christmas present in heaven. It was just so sad.

I also get children with cancer and other illnesses because we’re pretty close to a hospital where I work. It’s hard to know there are things you can’t fix.

How will you celebrate Christmas Day?

This year I’ll be working as Santa at a hotel in Coogee. It doesn’t bother me to work Christmas Day because it’s only for four hours. I’ll visit friends in the morning before I begin and then I’ll go to my sister’s house afterwards for Christmas dinner with my family.

How long does the Santa season last?

I’m usually employed as a Santa for about five weeks. This year it’s a little more. And, even though I’m retired, I’ll keep doing this until they take me out in a box.

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