I have, for some time now, been mildly obsessed by Christ­mas. By this I don’t mean that I walk around for twelve months of the year hum­ming Christ­mas car­ols, or wear­ing rein­deer socks (though I must admit to own­ing a pair or two). It’s more to do with the fact that for an event that involves so much global eco­nomic and organ­i­sa­tional activ­ity, I sim­ply can’t under­stand while nobody has attempted to study it in such terms. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of schol­ar­ship in rela­tion to Christ­mas exists in say social his­tory (Pim­lott, 1978), cul­tural stud­ies (Belk, 1987) and even, occa­sion­ally, soci­ol­ogy (Eden­sor and Milling­ton, 2009). In what we might broadly term the field of work and organ­i­sa­tion stud­ies, how­ever, the silence has been over­whelm­ing. Of course there may be plenty of good rea­sons for this, but I don’t want to go into those right now. What I want to do is tell you a lit­tle about some work I have been doing in order to try and rec­tify this omission.

So what exactly is this? Well, I’ve been inter­view­ing men who dress up as Santa Claus. Okay, I know how this sounds, but hear me out. My ulti­mate ambi­tion is to con­duct the kind of com­pre­hen­sive study of Christ­mas that I have alluded to above. That is, a study that will explore every aspect of the socio-economic and organ­i­sa­tional phe­nom­e­non that is Christ­mas; rang­ing from the organ­i­sa­tion of global sup­ply chains that bring Christ­mas from the fac­to­ries of the East to the shop­ping malls of the West and beyond, to the sophis­ti­cated, but highly gen­dered rit­u­als and prac­tices that make Christ­mas, and its myr­iad of vari­a­tions, a real­ity in the homes of peo­ple around the globe. Nonethe­less, part of this ambi­tion is also to under­stand how the cul­tural edi­fice of Christ­mas is pro­duced and repro­duced not just through the mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, the Hol­ly­wood block­busters and the lifestyle media, but also through the every­day labour of those who annu­ally bring Christ­mas to life for hun­dreds of thou­sands of chil­dren (and their con­sum­ing par­ents and guardians). Which brings me, of course, to Santa Claus.

Every year the image of Santa Claus, or as we still fre­quently call him in the UK, Father Christ­mas, is one that adorns bill­boards, mag­a­zines, TV shows and their asso­ci­ated com­mer­cials on an annual basis. Rep­re­sent­ing per­haps the ulti­mate sim­u­lacra – a copy with no orig­i­nal — Santa is both the embod­i­ment of a rich mythol­ogy and an empty sig­ni­fier, one able to sell any­thing from fizzy drinks to cut-price fur­ni­ture. Yet there is some­thing even more unique about this char­ac­ter. For around two months he is not sim­ply an adver­tis­ing or mar­ket­ing image, but a man of flesh and blood who is spo­ken to, laughed with, believed in and trusted. Funded by a small grant from the British Acad­emy I set out to try and under­stand what kind of peo­ple under­take this role, why they do it, and just what it exactly means to ‘be Santa’.

santa-ad-with-white-rock-and-whiskey

While he is a dif­fi­cult man to track down, I was lucky to get myself invited to the annual ‘Santa School’ of a Lon­don based PR agency that claims to be the biggest and best provider of Santa Claus per­form­ers in the UK. Here, both estab­lished and aspir­ing San­tas were tutored in every­thing from the names of their rein­deer, though how to deal with dif­fi­cult chil­dren, to the lat­est toys on the high street. From here I was able to arrange a num­ber of inter­views, as well as take advan­tage of a unique snow­balling process (no pun intended) that led to fur­ther oppor­tu­ni­ties, not the least of which being a visit to the World Santa Claus Con­gress at Bakkan Amuse­ment Park, Copen­hagen. So what did all this tell me?

Well, first and fore­most, it quickly became clear that when it comes to per­form­ing Santa Claus there is a no lack of a hier­ar­chy. These were men who did not view them­selves as gar­den cen­tre fly-be-nights, but rather as semi-professional Santa per­form­ers. The major­ity of them had cred­i­ble the­atri­cal train­ing and worked for agen­cies that ensured them the most exclu­sive gigs, rang­ing from top Lon­don depart­ment stores to exclu­sive cor­po­rate par­ties. These were the nation’s Santa elite.

Santa school

Yet this was not, for the most part, a role per­formed solely for money. Rather it was the sense of recog­ni­tion they felt, not for their per­for­mance skills per se, but for their authen­tic embod­i­ment of the ideals and val­ues of Santa Claus. This was a theme stressed again and again by the per­form­ers I inter­viewed, in that one could not sim­ply act as Santa. For the dura­tion of the per­for­mance – and often beyond — one had to ‘be Santa’. As such, great empha­sis was placed on ensur­ing that in any pro­fes­sional encounter, the child was always put first, often above the wishes of the par­ents or guardians. It was also equally impor­tant that they would ‘know’ all that a child might know about Santa — such as where he lives, what his rein­deer are called and even the var­i­ous ori­gin sto­ries cre­ated for him by the world’s story tellers — that they would pay upmost atten­tion to their appear­ance and man­ner­isms and, above all else, they would always remain in char­ac­ter, what­ever the provocations.

Now, such provo­ca­tions took many forms. Some­times these involved the tales of chil­dren suf­fer­ing from bereave­ment or fam­ily breakup ask­ing Santa to ‘put things right’ for Christ­mas. This required intense acts of emo­tional labour on the part of the per­form­ers who had to be seen as appro­pri­ately reas­sur­ing and jolly, while hold­ing back tears. At other times, how­ever, such emo­tional man­age­ment was required to con­tain fear and anger rather than grief. Many reported a decline in tra­di­tional grotto set­tings for their work and an increas­ing require­ment that they walk around stores and shop­ping cen­tres, an activ­ity that often left them vul­ner­a­ble to abuse, both ver­bal and phys­i­cal. One per­former even recounted his expe­ri­ence of an attempted mug­ging; a sit­u­a­tion he man­aged to dif­fuse by explain­ing to his would be assailant that every­body knows that Santa is like the Queen and that ‘he doesn’t carry money’.

Indeed, despite the obvi­ous plea­sure and sense of esteem these men acquired from the role (Han­cock, 2013) this was, to all intents and pur­poses, an inter­ac­tive ser­vice role that brought with it all its asso­ci­ated dis­com­forts and chal­lenges. Along­side such tales of abuse, there were famil­iar sto­ries of long hours, poor facil­i­ties and work inten­si­fi­ca­tion prac­tices that resulted, as one per­former recounted, in hav­ing elves whose pri­mary respon­si­bil­ity seemed to be telling him, every few min­utes, to go faster in get­ting the chil­dren through the grotto. As in so many other magic fac­to­ries then, the cre­ation of the Christ­mas illu­sion is not itself an act of magic, but one that relies on the skills, effort and occa­sion­ally exploita­tion of those who work on its front line.

Hear Philip Han­cock talk about his work with Santa Claus per­form­ers on BBC Radio 4’s Think­ing Aloud on 25 Decem­ber 2013 at 4pm.

Ref­er­ences

Belk R (1987) A Child’s Christ­mas in Amer­ica: Santa Claus as Deity, Con­sump­tion as Reli­gion. Jour­nal of Amer­i­can Cul­ture 10(1): 87–100.

Eden­sor, T. and Milling­ton, S. (2009) ‘Illu­mi­na­tions, Class Iden­ti­ties and the Con­tested Land­scapes of Christ­mas’. Soci­ol­ogy 43(1): 103 – 121.

Han­cock, P. (2013) ‘”Being Santa Claus”: The Pur­suit of Recog­ni­tion in Inter­ac­tive Ser­vice Work’  Work, Employ­ment and Soci­ety.27(6): 1004 – 1020.

Pim­lott, J. A. R (1978) The Englishman’s Christ­mas: A Social His­tory. Has­socks: Har­vester Press.

Thomp­son, W.E. and Hickey, J.V. (1989)Myth, Iden­tity, and Social Inter­ac­tion: Encoun­ter­ing Santa Claus at the Mall’. Qual­i­ta­tive Soci­ol­ogy 12(4): 371–389.