What do they really think of parents? Have they done the dirt on Mrs Claus? And are they tax compliant? We tempt some Santa truths out of them with the lure of our carrots.
“I was going through a phase where I was searching for truth in my life, and I had my doubts about the lies you tell kids”
Degnan Geraghty is an actor by trade, but after accepting a role in Penny Dreadful that demanded he keep his beard, he was asked if he’d like to be Santa Claus for the holiday season.
It makes sense. In addition to his impressive beard, which comes complete with whiskers above the lip, Degnan has a twinkle in his eye that seems totally fitting for Santa. His soft, measured voice adds to the magic.
But even though Degnan is a natural fit for the role, the job didn’t always sit well with him.
“I was going through a phase where I was searching for truth in my life, and I had my doubts about the lies you tell kids. I wondered if I should be involved in perpetuating this lie.”
That doubt came from his own pain at discovering Santa wasn’t real. When he was 11, Degnan went up to the dark attic in his family home to fetch something, despite the protests of his sisters. Up there, he found a terrible secret; Santa’s presents, all waiting to be put out on Christmas Eve.
“I believed in Santa when no one else in my class did. When I think about it now, I was so stupid! But after finding out, I realized the magic was gone, there was none of that excitement.”
Degnan’s unease led to him stepping away from Santa for a couple of years. He kept the beard for acting gigs, but it was only when DIT film students asked him to play Santa for a charity fundraiser on the campus that he put back on the red and white suit.
“It was completely different to what I’ve done before, because it was with adults. And what struck me at the time was the effect Santa Claus had on grown men and women. I couldn’t get over it.What I noticed was that when you start talking to these adults, they reverted back to children. There were was a place in their hearts where Santa still lived, and it was coming out. I was getting something from these guys and girls that I hadn’t experienced before, that you don’t get with ordinary kids. And I realized it was ok. It’s something in our childhoods, a part of growing up.”
As his acting career continues to grow, Degnan finds himself with less and less time to play Santa, but he always manages to fit in a charity event or fundraiser every year. Having made his peace with Santa, Degnan can see both the joy and the important lessons that St. Nick has to offer children.
“I love it, because it brings out the child in me. I love kids anyway, and I love to give them that little bit of special magic. And if I portray that, I think it’s great, because we have to nurture kids and give them little surprises.
“But you also realize it’s a learning experience. You reinforce to kids that not everything that you hear is true. It’s true at the time, but then you have to go out and develop for yourself. The pain that you feel when you discover that Santa isn’t real is a learning curve.”
But though Degnan has embraced the role, there are times when even Father Christmas needs his downtime.
“I was in a restaurant a year ago, having a meal with my wife, and there was some children sitting across from us in the aisle. I was drinking a pint of Guinness, and I overheard this girl saying ‘Mammy, Santa drinks Guinness!’ I thought ‘Oh my god is this going to follow me all my life?’
Degnan Geraghty is represented by Alex Cusack Management. You can find out more at alexcusackmanagement.com
“You feel a little bit stupid and ridiculous the first time you do it”
By its nature, Santa Claus is a gig that typically attracts older gentlemen. And yet 32-year-old whippersnapper Stephen Bradley already has a year under his belt working in various grottos, aided by his experiences as a comedian and improv teacher.
He applied for the job on a lark, thinking it would be fun. When he mentions a training night that the budding Santas did together, one can’t help but imagine a load of big bearded men doing the icebreaker exercises you see at the start of acting classes.
“I wish, it was more like people running through worse case scenarios; ‘What do you do if they say you’re not real? What do you do if little Johnny asks for a baby sister for Christmas? What if Little Jenny comes in and says “Santa I want my dad back?’ A lot of that!”
But despite being coached for the tough questions, Stephen still had first timer nerves. “You feel a little bit stupid and ridiculous the first time you do it. After the first couple of kids walk out you turn around to the elves and ask them ‘Hey am I doing this right?’ But by the fifth kid, you realise it’s grand, you’ve just got to be nice.”
Be nice, and also not try to scare the bejeezus out of small kids. Stephen says that children are often rattled by meeting Santa Claus in the flesh. “I think the ones who are scared believe the most. It must be some sort of blow to their reality to actually meet Santa Claus.”
In addition to coaxing terrified kids, it can get very intense at peak hours. Stephen can meet up to 300 children in a six-hour shift, and tells stories of sweat dripping down his beard as he talks to kids in his heavy costume. It’s why Stephen relishes the chance to do walkabouts around the shopping center as Santa Claus.
“Man it is a hell of a feeling. You’re a celebrity. You’re walking around and everyone’s thinking ‘Oh my god, it’s him!’ Even teenagers, who are kind of dicks” he laughs. “It’s the great leveller, everyone can appreciate it.”
“I love playing around with people; insisting they give high fives, going up to kids saying ‘Oh I remember I used to deliver presents to your parents!’ The kids’ minds are blown and the parents think it’s hilarious.”
It’s times like these that Stephen, with his background in improv, is in his element. “It is like a conveyor belt sometimes, so you’ve got to make it interesting and fun for yourself.” And even though the job can be demanding, he takes times to remember the little moments.
“There’s some kids that are really in love with you, it’s so cute. They’ll just hug you and say ‘Oh my god I have so much to tell you!’ I remember one kid gave me a drawing he did of him and Santa, and it said ‘Merry Christmas Santa, we love you. If you weren’t alive, we wouldn’t get any presents,’ which I love! If I was dead, Christmas would be ruined!”
“It seems that not even Santa Claus is exempt from the tax man”
Since the late 80’s, Brendan has dabbled in all kinds of jobs, from print to security, but it’s his time spent moonlighting as Santa that he enjoys the most. It’s also a very lucrative nixer, and for that reason, he’s asked that the article does not use his real name. It seems that not even Santa Claus is exempt from the tax man.
But just because Brendan is taking pains to dodge the revenue, that doesn’t mean he’s doing the job for purely financial gains. Simply put, he loves playing Santa.
“I get great pleasure out of it. I obviously find it rewarding for money, but if someone asked me to do it for nothing and I had the time for it, I would. I’ve always liked children and animals, they’re my big thing.”
Why does he feel so strongly about children?
“I suppose protective is a good word. Kids are innocence. There’s enough abuse of children going around in the world. I always say the welfare of a child is paramount. You know, some kids might see Spider-Man or Superman as a hero, but Santa would be a hero around Christmas for kids.”
Every year, Brendan visits Our Ladies’ Children’s Hospital to see the children. “It can be very sad. You go around the wards and you see kids that won’t be alive in February, never mind this time next year. You just sit on the bed and talk with them. I’m at a certain age, I’m going to die at some stage, but a child is a child, they never got a chance at life. I love when the hospital asks me to do it, but it can be very harrowing at times.”
That doesn’t mean that the job always weighs so heavily on Brendan. Over the years, he’s racked up his fair share of mad stories, not to mention a surprising amount of opportunities for Santa to do the dirt on Mrs. Claus.
“One time I was doing a baby shower in Stepaside. When I arrived, the woman told me to go straight up the stairs to the bathroom to get changed, so she was the only person who saw what I actually looked like. After I went down stairs and gave out presents, I get my few bob and go back up to get changed. Then there’s a knock on the door; ‘Santa? I want to come in and see you.’
“I say ‘No, no, Santa’s going home now.’ And once I’ve changed, I open the door and there’s a woman in her bra and panties. As I said, she didn’t know what I looked like. Coulda looked like Donald Trump for all she knew! And that’s not the first time.”
Brendan is at a loss for why St. Nick is so irresistible. “Women just want to jump off Santa Claus I suppose!” Still, he insists on not mixing business with pleasure; it’s bad for his reputation and he doesn’t want to be known as a bad Santa.
As the Christmas season approaches, Brendan finds himself getting excited in a way that few adults do. “You look forward to putting a smile on a kid’s face. And you learn something new about yourself from doing it.”
And what has he learned?
“I’ve learned that I’m very good at it!” he laughs. “For me it’s a calling, without a shadow of a doubt.”
“These are the sort of parents that when the child asks can I have a top of the range computer or gaming system, you get awfully tempted to say “I’ll definitely bring that to you!”
Eight years ago, Niall Sheridan’s daughter was so sure that he should play Santa that she made him his own suit.
“She encouraged me because I’m the sort of person who, for the most part, is on the jollier side of life. I live in sheltered accommodation, which one or two of the more cynical characters around here refer to as God’s waiting room, so you can do without that kind of negativity!”
That’s Niall in a nutshell; jovial, optimistic, quick-witted. All qualities that serve him well when playing Father Christmas.
Santa isn’t just a job for Niall; it’s also a responsibility. “When you put on that suit, you are something completely different to the person within, and what do you represent? You represent the spirit of Christmas. And therefore, you have no raison d’être other than to be that spirit. You have to leave yourself behind, and remember that when you go through the door, you are the man.”
One thing Niall will never be though is a disciplinarian. A lot of parents expect Santa to give naughty children a stern talk, but Niall has no time for scolding kids. His attitude is less ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, more ‘Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2.’
“The behaviour modificators are the ones I detest. I remember one mother giving me six pages of behaviour modifications for the family home, which I completely, utterly and totally ignored. I’m not there to modify children’s behaviours, I’m there to talk with them, make them happy and move on. These are the sort of parents that when the child asks can I have a top of the range computer or gaming system, you get awfully tempted to say “I’ll definitely bring that to you!”
“Kids always ask me about the naughty and nice list. I’m at a point now where I say “Look, I’m going to tell you a secret. There is no naughty list, it doesn’t exist. There are bad parents, there are bad teachers, but I have never met a bad child.”
Niall’s compassion for children stems from his own childhood experiences. He was badly bullied as a child, which led to him leaving school early, and ever since then, he’s been sensitive to the needs of children. During his time as chairperson for a school board in England, he describes himself as “shit-hot on issues of bullying.”
“Kids want to feel the same as you or I. They want to be validated. They want to feel treated as they should be treated. When I get certain kids in the grotto, they won’t verbalize everything, but you can get a vibe. You realise that this is someone who has issues of some sort. So you try and get a conversation going, and ask them how they are.”
“The fact that you’re an adult treating them on the same level allows them to relax for a few minutes. They start to become children again, and talk about Christmas. As far as I’m concerned, if you relieve some of the pressure on kids for a few minutes, that’s a good day.”
But even Santa Claus has his limits. By the time December 25th comes around, Niall is thoroughly “de-christmassed.”
“I don’t have an ounce of it left in me by Christmas Day. It can be quite overwhelming. So I’m delighted to be able to go to my daughter’s and be treated and get back into my own spirit.”
During the rest of the year, Niall does a lot of volunteer work. This past October, he qualified as an emergency medical technician for St. John’s Ambulance, and he’s flirting with the idea of doing emergency disaster response work abroad. Does he see Santa as an extension of his community service?
“To a certain degree, yes. What’s that line from an old song… ‘If I help somebody as I pass along, then my living shall not be in vain.’ That’s kind of my motto. People are under all kinds of social pressures around Christmas. And I suppose because my face matches Santa Claus himself, I put a little more effort into helping people.”
Words: Jack O’Higgins
Photos: Killian Broderick