Santa Claus’ helpers

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(Host) Santa Claus and his helpers are a familiar sight this time of year. Practically every shopping mall features a Santa who poses with children and listens to their Christmas wishes. One recent Saturday, VPR’s Steve Zind visited the Diamond Run Mall in Rutland and spent time with a man who, every year at this time, takes time off from work and dons a red suit.

(Santa) “Hi, how are you? Come right up here! Can you tell Santa your name?” [No response] “What’s his name?”

(Zind) Arnie Kasuba has been standing in for Santa in schools, at parties and in shopping malls for 15 years. With his bowl-full-of-jelly midriff and cherubic face, Kasuba looks the part. He loves the way children respond to Santa.

(Kasuba) “I love their reactions when they see Santa Claus. It just gives me so much enjoyment and they get so much enjoyment out of seeing Santa Claus. I’ll probably do this the rest of my life.”

(Zind) Kasuba likes dressing as Santa so much, he uses his vacation time to take off from his job at the nearby General Electric plant. Over the holidays, he spends up to twenty hours a week as Santa. On a busy Saturday, Kasuba prepares to meet his public at the Diamond Run Mall. It takes him a half-hour to dress: Pinning his hat to his hair, whitening his eyebrows and tugging on his boots.

(Kasuba) “Hi. Hi.”

(Zind) He makes his way through the mall. As he goes, children call to him. They run up and hug him.

(Kasuba) “How are you? Ho Ho Ho.”

(Zind) Kasuba will spend the next several hours in a chair surrounded by a mock up of the North Pole. Children wait to take their place on his knee. Kasuba says the job has a few occupational hazards.

(Kasuba) “Of course one is for them hopefully not to be pulling on your beard. And most of the children, young ones, have their diapers on. That’s another thing. Hopefully no child wets on your lap and you’ve got to be in the chair for about three hours with a wet suit.”

(Zind) Santas are born, not made. It takes patience, a naturally sunny disposition, and a strong back.

(Santa) [Grunt] “Matthew, what would you like this year for Christmas?”
(Child) “Toys!”

(Zind) It also helps to be familiar with unusual dialects.

(Santa) “Can you tell Santa what you want for Christmas?” [Enthusiastic but unintelligible response] “You did! What else would you like?” [Unintelligible response]

(Zind) Most children have modest Christmas lists. Dolls and video games are popular. One girl asks for a diamond. A boy has some serious transportation needs.

(Santa) “Can you tell Santa what you want for Christmas this year?”
(Child) “A lava lamp, a dirt bike and a snowmobile.”

(Zind) Kasuba never promises he’ll make good on the children’s requests. He simply says he’ll do his best. Sadly there are some Christmas wishes beyond Santa’s control to grant.

(Kasuba) “But you do have some sad moments. You try to do your best to satisfy them when you have a little boy or a little girl come up to you and say, ‘I don’t want anything for myself, all I want is my Mommy or Daddy to come home.'”

(Zind) Even a precocious child can fall silent in the presence of Santa. Some children cover their eyes as they approach him. Others freeze in awe. Many children stare mutely into the middle distance when Santa asks them what they want for Christmas. After all, he knows if they’ve been naughty or nice.

For the very young, the sight of a man in a bright red suit and face surrounded by white hair can be overwhelming.

(Santa) [Baby cries] “It’s alright “

(Zind) Other children take right to him.

(Child) “I like your hat. It’s nice and fuzzy.”
(Santa) “Can you tell Santa what you want for Christmas this year?”
(Child) “Ummm…you know what I really would like? Glow pens with stencils.”
(Santa) “What else would you like?”
(Child) “I don’t really know.”

(Zind) Kasuba sits for hours at a stretch in a hot suit, asking children over and over and over again what they want for Christmas. It’s fair to wonder why anyone would want to do this. To find the answer, you have to see the experience from his perspective. He’s an object of sheer delight for the children, an uncomplicated figure with one simple wish: To make them happy. In the noise and bustle of the holidays, Santa’s lap is a sanctuary. And not just for children.

(Santa) “Grandmothers have been on my lap. Husbands have been on my lap, it’s just a fun time of year. That’s what it’s all about. Enjoying the spirit of Christmas. Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho…Merry Christmas!”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Rutland.

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