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’.
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.
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.
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.