TAMPA — Santa and Mrs. Claus drove their red Dodge Grand Caravan with the "Kringle" license plate from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to a Hampton Inn near Tampa International Airport last weekend. There they paid $299 to attend a two-day school for Santas.
In the hotel's meeting room, two dozen older, naturally bearded men, and one "Clark Kent," the industry term for fake beard wearers, sat in reindeer bowling shirts and red leather cowboy boots. They read textbooks titled Behind the Red Suit and scrawled pages of notes.
They had come in search of answers to unexpectedly hard questions lobbed their way in the jolly red suit.
The Clauses from Myrtle Beach were John and Karen Deane. On the streets of Washington, D.C., John Deane could stay calm in the violent era when a spike in crime was earning that city a grim distinction as the nation's murder capital.
At a shopping mall, surrounded by snow made of cotton, a little girl could turn him into putty. It was years ago, after he'd retired from the police force. The girl sat on his lap, explained all she wanted for Christmas was her mother to come home. The woman had died in a car crash on Thanksgiving.
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Santa John Deane, 67, is 6-foot-2, 360 pounds. He has a dragon tattooed on his forearm. He has a beard like a viking. He didn't know what to say.
Santa Claus is magic. Children and adults know it, so they line up every Christmas season at malls and department stores and parties to share their deepest desires with him. They sit on the lap of a man they've never met, but one they already know and trust. Sometimes they open up to him more than they have to their own families.
Usually, they ask for a toy, but fairly frequently it's a much tougher request. Kids have asked Santa to cure a relative's illness, reunite divorced parents, resurrect a pet or end a stretch of unemployment.
How can Santa respond to that?
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Santa is a Vietnam vet, a former New Jersey teacher, a truck driver and a pharmaceutical salesman. Santa rides a Harley, drives a Nissan Juke, speaks Italian and is a member of the NRA. In the summer, Santa has a business selling Sno Cones by a lake. Santa has had both knees replaced.
Sometimes he's a class clown, such as Santa Steven Hadala, 63, from St. Petersburg, who sat up front cracking jokes with some Santa buddies he hadn't seen in a while. The instructor, Santa Tim Connaghan, gave him a tap on the head with a notebook to get things back on track.
Connaghan, 69, who has appeared in the Hollywood Christmas Parade and on Dr. Phil and attended the World Santa Claus Congress in Copenhagen, instructed the class on Santa history. Santa should never make threats about naughtiness, but instead should be a "Tommy Lasorda-style" motivator for good.
He offered strategies for spotting full diapers in the photo line, charming angsty teenagers and holding toddlers without getting kicked in the crotch. There were tips on hair and eyebrow whitening, beard styling and smelling good (cookie-scented beard elixir).
He introduced Tampa Santa Bob Elkin, 76-years-old and thin, who told the class about membership in the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, and how that comes with insurance and a background check. He showed off a selection of Santa merchandise.
A Santa should never "flirt, smoke or pick their nose," and should strut like a rock star upon arrival, which Connaghan demonstrated. "Santa is not political, his only party affiliation is the Christmas party," he said.
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But more than anything else, the Santas seemed interested in those tough, unexpected questions.
Santa Rich Salamone, 65, from St. Petersburg, hasn't worked a paid gig yet, "but I'm hoping this year," he said. Last year, when he was a volunteer Santa, a girl told him a story about wrestling with her brother and knocking him down.
He wasn't sure how to respond. He needed more training.
Connaghan reminds the Santas to never promise anything, whether it's an expensive gift, or a more intense request.
"Remind them that Santa's magic is toys," he said. "But also, let them know that you hear them, and you love them. Children don't always feel heard, especially by adults. We can't do much, but we can give them a lot of comfort from knowing Santa listened to them and actually cared about what they said."
Santa shouldn't deny.
"Just because you don't think a 10-year-old should have a gun, doesn't mean it's your place to say that," Connaghan said. "The child might come from a family that hunts, who has promised him that rifle."
Santas booked by a photo company, employment agency or retail store should have a protocol with the company for dealing with a child telling Santa about abuse, which isn't unheard of.
"You have to make a judgment call, because it's hard for Santa to be discreet in that situation when everyone's watching, and if you call attention, you could put that child more at risk," he said. "Sometimes it's better to ask the child to tell a teacher, who's going to be better equipped to handle it."
Santas should keep contacts for local charities and resources in their pocket. If a child says their parent isn't working, Santa can offer up a phone number of an organization that can help put a gift under the tree.
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Being Santa is a "big responsibility," Connaghan said. Later, the Santas recited an oath that included "brotherhood," "duties," "difficulties" and "power."
A Santa suit should never be called a "costume," he said. It's a "uniform."
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Why do they do it?
Santa Jay Hancock from New Port Richey leaned on a candy cane that was also a literal cane and called it "addicting" and a "high." He loves walking up to a group of unruly children in a restaurant, and seeing them instantly start behaving. He gives the parents a wink, and slips them a business card.
Santa Steve Rowland from Lake Wales is headed into his first season. He imagines the joy of walking into a hospital on Christmas Day.
"Okay, but don't make it sound like we don't want to make money," said his Mrs. Claus, Jo Ann Rowland. "That's part of it too."
There are heartwarming moments. But of course, it's the "war stories," as John Deane puts it, that linger for years.
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There was the teenager who got a running start and was going to jump on Santa to impress his buddies. His Mrs. Claus, also a former cop, dropped the kid to the tile with a stiff arm.
There was the woman in her 70s who sat on Santa's lap and confided that she'd come directly from the doctor, where she'd just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
There was the couple who brought a photograph of the baby who didn't make it to 1, but wanted Santa to pose for a picture with their child anyway.
And there was that little girl from years ago, the one asking for her mother back. John Deane remembered how he responded that day.
"She's still here," he told the girl. "Close your eyes, and you'll see her."
Contact Christopher Spata at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.