Four years ago, I got my first assignment from Slate: writing a review of The Wrestler. I loved the movie, but I was far less enthusiastic about what Sports Illustrated’s Adam Duerson wrote after spotting me at an advance media screening of the Mickey Rourke film. “Finding dignity in retirement can be tricky, even for the greats,” Duerson wrote, describing me as “one decidedly homeless-looking fellow.” He went on to note that I was carrying a duffel bag that “contained a Santa Claus suit that [Foley] was going to wear at a Twisted Sister concert later that night. He’s not broke, he explained, but he’s still making appearances on the road at least 10 days a month.”
Much like another beloved Christmas icon, the Grinch, I puzzled and puzzled until my puzzler was sore. That was it: the Santa outfit—that’s why he thought I was having trouble finding dignity in retirement. Never mind that I’d had the Santa gig in my book (a free gig, mind you) for almost a year, ever since personal friend Dee Snider (Twisted Sister’s front man) asked me to do it. I’d get over the part where SI’s readers might jump to the false conclusion that I was a down-on-my-luck loser. The part that nagged me is that anyone would see a gig as Santa Claus to be anything but dignified.
I’m a Christmas fanatic. There’s a year-round Christmas room in my house, populated with decorations I’ve picked up in my yearly excursions to Santa’s Village in Jefferson, N.H. I’ve long jumped at the chance to play St. Mick at book readings, charitable gatherings, and, yes, the occasional Twisted Sister show. I’ve even done some appearances in full Santa garb at various WWE shows. There’s nothing I love more than putting on the red suit and spreading Yuletide cheer.
But St. Mick is not St. Nick. There was no chance anyone would confuse me for the main man, the big cheese, the head honcho. I’ve always wondered whether I could pull it off, whether loving Santa Claus is enough to turn you into Santa Claus. Not long ago, I got the chance to find out. And I have the white beard to prove it.
The single biggest misconception in the Santa world is that anyone can do it. Give some guy a cheap red suit and fake beard, and he’ll be your St. Nick. It’s a delusion perpetuated in even the best holiday movies by some talented would-be Santas. Artie Lange, as the department store Santa in Elf, is a fraud so obvious that the scent of beef and cheese leads Will Ferrell’s Buddy to ascertain correctly that he’s sitting on “a throne of lies.”
While I love certain elements of Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa, it’s asking an awful lot of any audience to suspend disbelief to the point where Thornton, who bears absolutely no resemblance to any Santa Claus in the history of Santa Claus, would be a sought-after commodity in the Santa community. (Plus, even in a dark comedy, can any true Santa-lover be asked to overlook Thornton’s weakness for “the three Bs”?)
Even my favorite all-time Christmas program is guilty of spreading the falsity that anyone can be Santa. The 1960 Twilight Zone episode “The Night of the Meek” is just wonderful. The show, in which Art Carney plays a bedraggled department store Santa who finds a magic bag of presents, is a largely overlooked wonder of the season that has this particular wrestler fighting back tears in front of the Foley kids every December. But Carney himself looks just awful; he’s almost literally dragged out of the gutter to play Santa at a decidedly upscale establishment, where he sports a threadbare red suit and the type of flimsy cotton beard usually associated with elementary-school craft projects. No wonder the Sports Illustrated writer saw my red Santa suit as a sign that I’d fallen on hard times. Playing Santa hasn’t often been depicted as something one aspires to. Rather, playing Santa was something that one ended up resorting to.
That’s not how it works for dedicated, real-life Santas. I got to see that up close thanks to Tommy Avallone, the director of an upcoming documentary called I Am Santa Claus. The five men who Avallone followed for the film insist on having “Santa” incorporated into their names, i.e. Santa Dan, Santa Tim, or Santa Rick. One of them has legally changed his name to Santa Claus—he has the license, passport, everything. Most of them had actually attended some type of “Santa school,” learning the finer points of ho-ho-hos, sleigh-bell jingling, and all that other Santa stuff.
As part of the film, Avallone wanted me to attend Santa school as well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the class schedule work with my book tour, leaving the director to opt for the next best thing: connecting me with a 15-year veteran of the Santa scene, a man who apparently thought he was the “real” Santa. “I asked him if I could speak to Santa,” Avallone told me. “He said something about Santa being busy with the elves, and then came back a minute later, obviously the same guy, just using a different voice.”
This Santa stuff was starting to weird me out a little bit: Who are these people? But mostly, I was intimidated and afraid, unsure if I was worthy to put on the red suit. I thought back to my few full-Santa appearances for WWE, which upon reflection seemed inauthentic and awful—a collection of over-the-top ho-ho-hos delivered by a man hiding behind a mountain of fake Santa Claus facial hair and wigs. Maybe trying to play the real Santa was asking just a little bit too much of me.
Grudgingly, I accepted the home visit. I pulled up to the bright, red house with the yard full of colorful decorations. I walked up the steps to Santa’s home, an hour north of Chicago, and waited to see who was on the other side of the door.
“Hello Santa,” I said. The man who stood before me was considerably bigger than my 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, with snowy, shoulder-length hair and a long, flowing, decidedly non-fake beard to match. I had a seat on a couch and was instantly presented with a cup of hot cocoa in an oversize red mug. At first, I played along for Avallone’s camera, acting as if I thought the man of the house was the actual Santa. But within 10 minutes, perhaps owing to a combination of sensory overload, unforeseen concussion consequences, and the disarmingly kind, mighty convincing Santa sitting before me, I found myself maybe, just maybe believing as well. I believed that he believed, and that feeling of belief became infectious.
Eventually, he leaned forward, speaking softly. “Look, Mick, I know I’m not the real Santa Claus,” he confessed. “But I believe that God has given me the ability to channel the spirit of the original Saint Nicholas, so that when I put on the red suit … I … become Santa.”
There it is—that one word that makes all the difference: become. Good Santas don’t play Santa. They become Santa. Through whatever process works for them—channeling, visualizing, imagining, or believing—they leave their body, if only for a moment, and become Father Christmas.
It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. Robert De Niro didn’t play Vito Corleone or Jake LaMotta—he became them. And while I’m no award-winning actor, at my best, when I was wrestling, I didn’t play Mankind. I became him, and I’ve got a missing ear and some serious trouble descending staircases to prove it. I’d been around wrestlers when they completely lose sight of where the real person ends and the character begins, and it isn’t always pretty. But without that ability to transform, to transcend, to become, then all of it—acting, wrestling, being Santa Claus—is just a whole lot of playing, pretending, make believe. This Santa I met wasn’t crazy at all. He was just a man with a gift.
Over the next several days, I kept in regular touch with Santa in Chicago. (I learned his real name, but don’t feel right about using it.) I got tips on what Santa should smell like (peppermint, cinnamon) and what smells to avoid (onions, garlic, B.O., beef and cheese). He told me how he got his cheeks so rosy, how to prevent the sight of hairy Foley forearms, and how to deal with the inevitability of getting peed on.
Despite my preparation, I was getting nervous. It was close to my debut appearance at my favorite Christmas haunt: Santa’s Village in New Hampshire.
I felt a bit more confident after catching a glimpse of my Santa suit. One of the perks of appearing in this documentary was that I got to commission my own Santa getup, which was hand-sewn by Pierre’s of Philadelphia from a gorgeous burgundy velvet in a style I’d selected—more Victorian Santa than “Classic Santa” (fur up the front) or “Coca-Cola Santa” (buttons up the front). I knew I’d be looking pretty good from neck to toe.
The beard was another issue. My options were simple: dye my real facial hair or go with the fake stuff. Dyeing was a five-hour ordeal—a process, I’d been warned, that was not without considerable burning, itching, and aromatic displeasure. Alternately, I could throw on the fake beard and be done with it after the visit at Santa’s Village. No muss, no fuss, no odor, no itching, no burning, no bleached beard that I’d have to walk around with in public.
But the decision to dye or not to dye was symbolic of a larger question: Did I want to play Santa or did I want to become him? In the end, it was something that Chicago Santa told me that broke the stalemate: “Kids get scared when they don’t see a mouth moving.” I tried on the fake beard and said a few words. I felt like a bad ventriloquist with a huge hair-dummy, or a white version of that strange, red Looney Tunes character Gossamer who chased Bugs Bunny through a castle.
Quite simply, the fake beard made me look scary. Once upon a time in my early WWE days (Mankind, circa 1996), I would have taken a child crying at the sight of me as a tremendous compliment. But as Santa, I wanted to cause cheer, not fear, and as little bawling as possible. If the fake beard took away from the magic of the moment, it simply wasn’t an option. I sat down for the five hours of dyeing.
The physical transformation was almost shocking. But the change was more than just physical. From the instant I sat down in the chair, I felt somehow wiser, kinder, more Santa-like. Even my voice was different. Gone was the exaggerated Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle from Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. In its place was a gentler tone, as I intuitively sensed that a meeting with Santa Claus could be a traumatic event for a little one.
Every interaction had the potential for both success and failure that marked the best moments of my in-ring career, the times when I stopped playing a character and actually became that character. If a child was the slightest bit hesitant about taking a seat on my lap, I asked if they might like to stand next to Santa, or have mom or dad in the photo. I shared secrets about my favorite type of cookies (gingerbread) and gave Chicago Santa’s answer to a request for a horse (if you can feed and clean a neighbor’s horse for a year, Santa will think about it next year). I watched the eyes of a hesitant youngster fill with wonder as I referred to his grandparents as “Memmy and Brumpy,” showing the importance of a doing one’s homework. I even had a beard puller, and responded in a way I’d read about in Santa Sal Lizard’s memoir Being Santa Claus: “Ho-ho-ho, that’s what helps Santa’s beard grow.”
In the days that followed, I’ve thought often about my time as Santa Claus, and how I can keep the spirit of that day alive. I write this on the eve of another Twisted Sister holiday show, one in which I’ll be going full Santa in a benefit for Long Islanders most affected by Hurricane Sandy. For this right jolly old elf, nothing could be more dignified.
But the moment I find myself thinking about the most was my last interaction at Santa’s Village, when my family got to see me in all my Santa glory. My wife thought I looked quite handsome. My daughter, 19, curled up on my lap, a wonderful reminder of those Christmas mornings long ago. My two boys, 11 and 9, still believe in Santa, though they’re growing more skeptical. They knew dad was participating in the documentary, and my youngest had been there for the entire dyeing process. Neither child thought their father was the real Santa Claus. But I think they believe that I believe, and that feeling of belief has become infectious.