CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — Being Santa has a lot of perks: the laughter, the smiles on children’s faces as they make their requests, the way nursing home residents’ eyes twinkle when they see the man in the red suit.
But John Christensen, who has portrayed Santa throughout Casper for more than two decades, will tell you that there are some challenging moments as well.
Once, a young child sitting on his lap told him that he had bad breath. Even though he brushed off the comment — he explained that he’d been eating reindeer food — he learned an important lesson.
“So when you’re Santa, you have to make sure you brush your teeth before you do this,” he said, laughing.
Last Saturday, Christensen sat in his red suit and detachable beard and handed out candy canes at Santa’s Workshop in downtown Market Square. Children inched their way toward his seat to make their Christmas gift requests. He’ll return the next two Saturdays for Santa’s Workshop. The event organized by the Downtown Casper Business Association includes free photos with Santa, kids’ activities and trees to donate to children in need.
Christensen first appeared as Santa when a friend at Wyoming Machinery, where he worked before retiring, couldn’t make a Santa appearance and lent Christensen his suit. After that event, he was hooked.
“I just fell in love with doing it,” Christensen said. “It’s just it’s so magical for both children, and even adults and senior citizens really enjoy it.”
Since then, he’s portrayed Santa for nonprofits, churches, private parties and other holiday events around town. When Christensen isn’t working as Santa during the holiday season, he teaches woodworking classes at Casper College and delivers food as a volunteer with Meals on Wheels.
Being Santa brings Christensen into the lives of hundreds of people every holiday season. He’s posed with a friend’s newborn in the hospital. He’s worn the suit while visiting his mother-in-law at her nursing home, bringing grins to the other residents by handing them candy canes.
“Their eyes always would light up,” Christensen said. “Everybody loves to see Santa Claus.”
Christensen particularly enjoys talking with 3- and 4-year-olds because they have the most amusing requests, he said.
Some are concerned about their standing on the naughty-or-nice list. One worried boy recently kept asking if he’d been nice, because his sister said Santa wouldn’t bring him any presents.
He always makes sure that the child he’s talking to has his complete attention, even if others are trying to distract him.
Kids always ask for toys and video games. Many ask for art supplies or science kits. He’s even been asked for a little brother or sister, to which he often responds with his fallback answer: “That’s a tall order, I’ll see what I can do.”
“You never promise anything,” he said. “That’s one of Santa’s rules.”
Sometimes the children have questions for Santa. A girl about age 5 talked with him about setting out cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. After she walked out the door with her family, she ran back in to ask him what kind of cookies he likes.
“I’ve never had that one before,” he said. “I thought that was really sweet.”
Sometimes they want to know where his reindeer are, and he tells them they’re on the roof. A girl asked him to tell Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hello for her.
“You have to kind of think on your feet because the kids are pretty quick,” Christensen said.
Older children can be more challenging. One older girl once told him that he isn’t the real Santa Claus — he was just a fat, old man in a red suit.
He paused a moment and looked at her, he recalled.
“I’m a jolly, old man in a red suit,” he responded.
Some kids are thrilled to see Santa, others terrified. If they don’t want to sit on his lap, he invites them to sit or stand by him. It’s OK for the parents to join them too, he added.
He keeps pictures along with letters kids bring him. One card in his collection from two sisters features a crayon drawing of themselves with Santa.
His favorite Santa appearance is an annual party for foster children hosted by the Department of Family Services. He’s portrayed Santa there for at least a decade. Rose Fry with the Department of Family Services called him “the best Santa ever.”
He spends about two hours in the toasty costume giving the kids his undivided attention, she said. Even the teens will surround him for photos.
“He listens to every single one of them,” she added. “He knows his stuff.”
Very few of the kids at that event ask him for more than one thing, Christensen said. Their requests often are clothes or something for other family members, he said. Some of them ask for a house, or for their parents to get along, he said.
“The one thing that you really have to remember as being Santa, is that some of those kids might wait for an hour to talk to you. So you need to be just as enthusiastic and excited at the last one as you are the first because they’ve waited a long time,” he said. “And then you really need to concentrate on just the child that’s in your lap and really pay attention to them, because this is a special moment for them.”
It’s a special moment for him too.
“Their eyes light up, and it is just amazing,” he said.
Christensen listens to Christmas music before every appearance as Santa to “get psyched up.”
“You want to be jolly. These kids have waited a long time, so you want to be in a good mood and real upbeat,” he said.
People are even happy to see Santa at a stop sign in the car on the way to an event.
“If you wave, they get a big smile on their face, and I’ve never had anybody not wave back,” he said. “It is a fun time of year.”