Becoming Santa: a special gift

Local St. Nicks talk about their unusual trade

Posted 11/16/18

Bryan Austin didn’t have to wait for his beard to turn white to become Santa. The 60-year-old Austin has been performing as Santa for 11 seasons and wore the red suit while his hair was still, …

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Becoming Santa: a special gift

Local St. Nicks talk about their unusual trade

Posted

Bryan Austin didn’t have to wait for his beard to turn white to become Santa.

The 60-year-old Austin has been performing as Santa for 11 seasons and wore the red suit while his hair was still, actually, red.

When he’s not wearing the suit, the Highlands Ranch resident does computer security work for IBM.

He was just 49 years old when he began as a mall Santa, developing an entire act to sell his Santa-ness.

And he has Santa down to a science.

“If I come into your house and I don’t leave you with a strong memory,” Austin said, “I’ve not done my job.”

Austin’s coordinated performance includes all sorts of creative acts — from singing to performing an illusional disappearance act with his Elf on a Shelf and thoughtfully scripted commentary for his reading of “The Night Before Christmas.”

It helps that he has a perfectly round belly so he can tell kids to poke it if they ask if he’s real.

Before a Nov. 9 performance for a Mothers of Preschoolers group in Highlands Ranch, Austin laid out the contents of his bag across his bed for a final check to make sure everything was there: His naughty-and-nice list, a small “magical” chest wired with lights and lined with glitter, his favorite version of “The Night Before Christmas,” his Elf on a Shelf, and other trinkets and accessories to complete the Santa look.

“Everybody adds their own personality. You just can’t help it,” Austin said. “But the important qualities aren’t that so much as you being jovial. You have to be jovial the entire time.”

In his younger years, Austin was trim and athletic. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in aerospace engineering. He always loved kids and is involved with youth leadership at his church. He even graduated from high school in North Pole, Alaska. The shoe fit. He will see about 150 clients through November and December and charges between $225 and $300 an hour, depending on how close to Christmas it is. He visits hospitals for free and offers discounted appearances for those in need as well.

Becoming Santa Claus is not as simple as donning a red-and-white coat. It’s not destined for any man with a long white beard, blue eyes and a round stomach, and not everyone who can “ho, ho, ho” can do it correctly: Exactly three “hos” — not two or four. No pause. From the stomach.

There’s also the hat, the rosy red cheeks, the glasses, the boots (brown or black) and the gloves (black or white). Anyone can look like Santa. Developing the persona is a skill that takes years to master.

“You learn that. It’s kind of like a professional actor,” Austin said. “They’ve got to learn their craft and get to a point where they learn what it’s like and how to overcome certain obstacles.

“They want to keep that belief going as long as they possibly can.”

Training is intense

Susen Mesco has been training Santas for 37 years. She’s the president of American Events and Promotions in Denver and is de facto instructor for all things Santa.

On the first day of class, Mesco hands her aspiring Santas a piece of paper and asks them to write down the top 15 speed-dial contacts on Santa’s phone. Most come up with the typical Mrs. Claus and maybe the head elf. The first lesson Mesco teaches them is to think outside the box. How about Santa’s dentist? Or the people working in the “distribution department”? It’s an exercise to get the men who look like Santa to start thinking like Santa.

“Santa starts to see himself as this alter-ego that pulls him into a 3-D life,” Mesco said. “Pretending is exhausting. Being is not. You don’t put on your costume, you put on your outfit.”

To Mesco, a Lafayette resident, details are vital. The authenticity of the Santa depiction is what can leave a child with a lasting memory. And Mesco leaves no stone unturned.

She teaches courses in sign language and child development psychology. Santas go to the toy store to learn about the hottest toys available. Santas learn how to speak differently to a 3-year-old than to a 5-year-old, how to interact with autistic children and how to answer the impossible questions like “Santa, are you real?”

“Virtually nothing blindsides them because they’ve learned to think like Santa,” Mesco said. “It is the highlight of the child year, spending time with this magical creature. It should matter to you as much as it matters to the child.”

With a great beard . . .

Mike Cawthra’s favorite color is blue. It’s the color he wears most often in the spring and summer, and it’s the color of his 2009 Ford Mustang with the license plate that reads SLEIGH2.

Cawthra, of Lakewood, graduated from Mesco’s Santa school in 2008. A retired elementary school teacher of 31 years, Cawthra’s Santa is one that loves to tell stories.

Expressing the personality of the men performing as Santa can make a child’s experience special, Mesco said.

Of course, Cawthra’s beard is real. His makeup has touches of glitter in it. Even his fake eyelashes are white. It’s a detail Mesco proudly claims as part of her “spare-no-detail” mentality.

Cawthra is Santa during the Christmas season. The rest of the 10 months, he’s just Mike — Mike who wears blue and drives a blue Mustang and happens to have a long white beard and white hair.

“God gave me white hair and I use my powers for good,” Cawthra said. “It’s incredibly rewarding, but it’s not who I am 365 days a year. It’s fun, but it’s not all of life.”

Though he’s not “Santa” all year, Cawthra still bears the responsibility of being Santa to any child who asks. That’s why he always carries with him special-made coins that say “Santa caught me being good” to reinforce his character, even if he’s wearing blue instead of red.

“Every once in a while, in the summer, when somebody says something to ‘Santa,’ you’ve got to be able to come up with an answer,” Cawthra said. “If you do something rude or crude, people will say ‘That’s not very Santa-like.’ ”

Retaining the Santa character is often more work than the performance itself.

Santas have to stay in shape, lest their legs become too weak for children to sit on (in one recent 2 1/2-hour photo session, Cawthra saw 150 children) or Santa catches the flu from a child (Mesco said most Santas go through five pairs of gloves a day).

There’s the Society of Santas and the International Brotherhood of Real-Bearded Santas — social Santa meet-up groups for Santas to trade notes and join in fellowship. Some men choose to be Santa all the time. One man, Cawthra recalled, changed his legal name to Santa Claus.

Once the Christmas season is over, Santa Mike will go back to Mike Cawthra. Some Santas, like Austin, will work well until New Year’s for the Russian Orthodox Christmas — which requires a completely different look.

For most it will spell the end of another year of photo shoots, performances and readings of “The Night Before Christmas.”

“Dec. 25, it’s a little bit of a letdown, because you’ve been going and going, and you’ve been getting all of this positive energy, and then it’s over,” Cawthra said. “I’m back to being just me. It takes a little while to readjust. It’s very rewarding, and the reward isn’t all money, either. It’s all of the emotions you get from people — and the smiles.”

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