Santa at the Mall

They err who think Santa Claus enters through the chimney. He enters through the heart.                                                         Charles Willis Howard  1896 – 1966

Every year, as November draws to a close, I ask my husband to tell me the story of his brief, but eventful career as a Father Christmas.

In 1970, Dan was hired by Kris Kringle and Associates to be the Sears Roebuck Santa Claus in Oak Brook, Illinois. Dan was eighteen, working the night shift at MacNeal Memorial Hospital in Berwyn and saving for a trip to Europe. Every afternoon he would hitch-hike to Sears, make his way to Santa’s Grotto and climb into his red suit. Kris Kringle and Associates paid their Santas an hourly rate of $2.50. The minimum wage at the time was $1.60. Today, a trip to see Father Christmas at a department store or the local garden centre can cost you between £15 and £50. In 1970, the visit and the candy canes were free.

Fifty two years ago, the gift most requested by girls was a ‘Dawn’ doll. Boys wanted a ‘GI Joe’. Popular children’s names that year were Todd and Heather and the Christmas hit was I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by the Jackson 5.

Some of the nurses who worked with Dan on the psychiatry unit at MacNeal would bring their small children to visit Santa. On spotting them in the crowd Dan would call out, in his rich, deep voice: Well, well, well, if it isn’t Billy and Bobby Duryea. The fact that Santa knew their names would leave the little tots open-mouthed, wide-eyed and speechless. Dan learnt how to treat the older kids too, the ones who no longer entirely believed in Father Christmas, the ones who pulled his beard to see if it was real and studied him carefully for clues. Whenever he identified potential non-believers, he would snap the clasp on his grandmother’s French prayer book and begin leafing through its pages. He was searching, he told the children, for their names, in order to verify whether or not they were entitled to a gift. When the overly-inquisitive tried to sneak a peek at the pages, he would explain to them, with a steady but kindly gaze, that the words were written in Santa-Claus language.

Kris Kringle and Associates was founded by Earl Tegge, who had spent 25 years of his life as a professional clown in a travelling circus. I was tired of taking my children to see drunken Santa Clauses in dirty wardrobes with twisted whiskers he said in an article published in The Chicago Daily Herald in 1969. Santa Claus is a cross between a saint and a father confessor and I don’t think we can burst that bubble because businesses don’t want to take the time to properly screen, train and outfit the right person to play Santa Claus, Tegge explained.

Although the ideal Father Christmas is thick of beard and wide of girth, Tegge believed that personality was what counted most. Santa Clauses needed to like children and to be kind and patient with them. Another important skill was to know how to manage some of the more heartbreaking requests, such as Please Santa, will you bring my daddy home from Vietnam for Christmas?.

Kris Kringle and Associates is no more, but Earl’s son continues his father’s legacy, travelling across America with the Timothy Tegge Show, a unique combination of traditional vaudeville, magic and comedy.

An earlier version, titled ‘Kris Kringle Associates’ was published on December 6th, 2020