On a frigid December night, Michael Cawthra prepared to embody the spirit of Christmas as he slipped into his plush, red coat with the white, furry trim and the matching red cap.
The 66-year-old retired elementary school teacher became a professional Santa Claus in 2008, when friends and relatives noted his graying hair and full beard gave off an unmistakable yuletide vibe. So Cawthra, who never once visited Santa as a kid, sought instruction that helped meld his natural appearance with his pleasant, soothing voice into a harbinger of good cheer.
And he’s good at it. Though he considers his appearances a hobby, they usually bring in enough money to send him and his wife, Margaret, on a nice summer vacation.
But on this evening, because the coronavirus changed everything, he didn’t need to bother with the bottom half of his suit, opting instead for the comfort of red track-suit pants and white athletic socks. He made sure his green screen was in place behind him and the lighting in the spare bedroom of his Lakewood house cast the proper glow.
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He attached a page of notes to the front of his computer to remind him of details submitted by the parents of the child he’d soon meet, little things like a pet’s name, recent accomplishments in school — “a little inside information,” Cawthra calls it — that an all-knowing Santa could drop into their chat to reinforce a sense of wonderment.
With his makeup carefully applied, his beard groomed and everything in place, he clicked the blue button on his screen to welcome another child into a 10-minute, personalized Zoom conversation.
This is Santa in 2020, when for many of the ho-ho-pros, a monitor has replaced the mall when it comes to making that list and checking it twice.
“We did have to totally adjust,” Cawthra says. “When you’re live, you can be large and demonstrative and wave your arms and sing and dance. When you’re doing a Zoom meeting, you can wave your hands, but for the most part, you’re stationary, locked into the screen. You have to use more facial expressions.”
Fortunately, his mentor — renowned Santa booker and instructor Susen Mesco — did what so many business owners have had to do: She adapted quickly to the harsh realities of the pandemic. Though she had never attended a Zoom meeting before March, she reimagined kids’ annual wish-sharing visit to incorporate the technology that has kept us connected in these days of social distancing.
“I decided in March that this thing wasn’t going to go away,” Mesco says from the kitchen of her home in Lafayette, world headquarters for her Santa Visits USA. “I put the word out to 2,300 Santas and picked 150 of the nation’s top performers. By April, we were doing two- to three-hour Zoom trainings on subjects from how to use a green screen to makeup to how to take all that ho-ho-ho, singing and being big on stage, and transferring that to a small screen.”
In a sense, Cawthra was her blank slate. Every year but one of the past 12 — he battled leukemia in 2012 — Mesco’s instruction instilled in him both the spirit of Santa Claus as well as the skills to make the magic real, even if Cawthra himself never bounced on the old man’s knee.
“I can’t help but wonder if that didn’t help me,” he figures, “because I didn’t have to undo a lot of preconceived notions. I just listened to Susen. She’s seen more Santas than I have.”
The “go-to girl” in the Santa industry
Not that she’s counting, but Mesco has more than 5,500 Santa friends on Facebook, one of the perks of being Santa’s agent and instructor for as long as she has. They come from all over the world — China, Israel, Africa, Italy, to name a few countries of origin — in a variety of colors, nationalities and even religions.
“In the Santa industry,” she says, “I’m kind of the go-to girl for how to do this.”
Not surprisingly, this was not her original career path.
She grew up in Chicago, the product of Catholic schools, where there were so many Susans in her class that in 3rd grade she adopted a different spelling. Every Christmas, her parents would take her to the Marshall Fields department store to visit Santa.
She still has the photos.
“It was always so delightful,” Mesco says, noting that Santa never seemed a frightening figure. “I don’t have the crier picture. I don’t believe in the crying picture. There’s no reason to traumatize children.”
As she grew up, she didn’t spend much time thinking about Santa. At St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, she studied to be a secondary school French teacher. Then, she explains, the women’s liberation movement collided with her traditional upbringing and, after earning a degree in international business and living for a short while in Europe, she became a commodities broker.
It didn’t take long before she checked out of that scene, figuring the people were just too neurotic. She left the big city and the disco balls of Michigan Avenue nightclubs — she recalls herself as a “do-the-Hustle queen” — for Grand Junction.
What drew her west? “A cowboy,” she laughs.
It was the early 1980s, and the oil shale boom offered lots of jobs and good money. Mesco prospered by selling cable TV subscriptions to “guys living in a house with blow-up mattresses and big-screen TVs — that’s all they had.” Her father, a financial planner, counseled her to buy into a franchise that shot souvenir photos, capitalizing on events like visiting Denver Broncos appearances and Halloween parties.
A couple of local malls noticed her and liked what she did. They asked if she’d do Santa Claus visits. It couldn’t be that hard, she figured — just hire a couple of guys with pillows stuffed under their coat and snap some pictures. A year later, under the banner of her company American Events and Promotions, she’d done so well that, at age 28, she had 14 Colorado malls under contract.
The cowboy thing? That didn’t work out.
“I went from cowboys to Santas,” she says. “I had this all planned out, where I’d be a mommy and a school teacher. And I ended up being an entrepreneur.”
As a corollary to the work booking Santas, she also launched what now ranks as the second-oldest Santa Claus School in North America (Charles Howard’s operation, in its 84th year in Midland, Michigan, is the oldest).
She worked the malls for several years before adding corporate parties to her repertoire. Right now, in any year but this one, she’d be handling Santa visits for Larimer Square, Union Station, the Denver Zoo, Hudson Gardens — the list goes on. She’d add to the roughly 1,300 corporate and private events she has produced, fill the Bass Pro Shops contract in Colorado, provide 1,500 Santas for Walmarts and send out jolly old fellows to Hallmark stores. And a lot more.
“Through the graces and blessings of God, it kind of spiraled and morphed, and I just kept creating products that would work,” she says. “If you really pay attention and do well and keep up with it, keep reinvesting that money, you get where you’re supposed to be, I guess.”
Well, almost. Mesco, who sometimes dons a costume to play Mrs. Claus and other characters, was scheduled to be inducted this year with the rest of the 2019 class into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in — where else? — Santa Claus, Indiana. Then the coronavirus added the induction ceremony to its list of spoiled events.
For 38 years, her business has boomed, with last year’s Santa payroll approaching $1 million.
“But this year,” she sighs, “was just … a kick.”
Reimagining the video Santa
The coronavirus made in-person Santa visits a challenge on several levels.
First, the obvious: Santa’s appearance brings people together, and with COVID-19 on the rampage, that seems like a risky idea. Then, the also-pretty-obvious: Many professional Santas fall into the high-risk category for the virus.
Mesco observes that this year’s Santas seem to be in three camps: those who booked appearances despite the virus; those who just sat out the season; and those who decided to embrace technology despite a tough learning curve.
“It’s kind of a struggle,” she says, noting that her Santas aren’t exactly digital natives. “These are guys who have flip phones, OK?”
When it comes to providing the best Santa experience, social distancing might work from a safety perspective, but doesn’t provide that optimal experience. Clear partitions present the same conundrum, and also add the expense of the partitions and the means to lug them from location to location.
That left video — which may lack the intimacy of in-person but, Mesco believes, hasn’t tapped into its full potential. Santas have been using video for a few years now, but she’d never been a big fan. The technology seemed to outrun Santas’ efforts to adapt to it.
“Back in 2014, when video chatting started,” she recalls, “I looked at Santas and said, ‘You suck. I can see your T-shirt, you have bags under your eyes, you’re not sitting up straight. And I don’t want to see your ceiling fan and your cat walking by behind you.’”
So she set out to improve on the concept. Mesco put together a production team that created online education for Santas — a crash course that helped them become familiar with the technology, basics like lighting and how to use a green screen to create a computer-generated North Pole background (in some cases, with promotional logos).
She notes the lessons also taught aspiring Santas how to do makeup for high-definition video “so they didn’t look like a glowing ball of Jesus.” The online instruction proved popular enough that she’ll keep it as a sideline.
She also invested in a new website, and the broadband and round-the-clock technical service people to handle it, where she could offer a variety of content — a selection of videos spanning 20 hours and including activities that could augment existing features like Letters From Santa and My Santa Reports, an eight-week good behavior program that lets kids earn a “nice” certificate. But it’s the videos where her selection of 150 Santas and thousands of Santa/hours in the studio paid off.
She had the site up and running by Nov. 1, and decided to offer the content for free this year. The 10-minute individualized virtual visits cost $34.99, but parents can watch their kids’ reaction to the free videos and book the Santa who’d be the best fit — “not a spin-of-the-wheel, Bob’s-available-at-3:30 Santa.”
“We’re still building this website,” she says. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to retire. It’ll be three years before I make any money back at all.”
Mesco notes that Santas who have chosen not to do in-person events have taken a hit, too. A skilled Santa can earn $225 an hour at live events. Online chats might earn them $15 each, or roughly $60 an hour if they’re booked solid — which, she says, most are not.
“It’s a brand new beast,” Mesco says, “and we’re thrilled we started in March. We’re living and learning. Hopefully, if I’m still able to be in business, this will be beneficial for the world and we’ll have it all mastered.
“This year has been grueling, but joyful.”
“You have to be ready for anything”
Michael Cawthra had never done a Zoom call before this year. He’d dabbled with Skype to talk with long-distance relatives, but the new app presented some technical nuances that took him a while to master.
“Like, there’s a little video to carry the transition from one part of the show to another,” he explains. “We’d say, ‘Now, Mrs. Claus has a message,” then have to push four buttons in a row, and do that smoothly so we don’t disclose too much behind the scenes. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
Still, Cawthra estimates that, despite some cheat sheets like the corny jokes and the inside info for one-on-one video chats, his performance is “95% off the cuff.” But that improvisation is informed by his years at Santa school.
Other than his leukemia year, this was the first year he didn’t go to Mesco’s school in person, because of COVID. But he still benefited from the online instruction.
“Every year I get reminded of something,” Cawthra says. “You think you know everything, but it’s very intense, and you have to really be thinking all the time. You can get a child who’ll say something to you totally out of left field, and you can’t’ go, ‘Uh…uh…’ You have to be ready for anything. Susen teaches us how to be prepared for any kind of surprise.”
(Mesco won’t divulge trade secrets, other than to emphasize, with tongue in cheek, that she spends a lot of time mulling Santa concepts. “I think about this all year long, in every way shape and form,”she says. “The way Plato and Socrates brought things up.”)
Sometimes, composure can be a challenge. Cawthra recalls the time he was talking with a father and his four children. Starting with the youngest, he asked each child what they wanted for Christmas. When he got to the oldest, a girl of about 12, she told him: “I just want my family to be happy.” Their mother had died recently.
“Talk about breaking your heart,” he says. “At that moment, if I could’ve just touched her on the head and made her happy, that’s what I would have done. Those are the ones that make you stop and say, ‘Santa needs to take a minute.’ It still gets to me, when you have a 12-year-old trying to assume the mantle of an adult.”
From his experience so far, Cawthra says kids now seem even more tech savvy than ever, and find nothing unusual about video chatting with Santa. It’s what they’ve been doing with friends, relatives and even school since the pandemic struck. When kids ask him whether he’s at the North Pole, Cawthra-as-Santa tells them, “Look out the window!” And they see the image, projected on the green screen behind him, that makes this reality.
“They buy into it really easily,” he says. “I think they enjoy in their minds getting a glimpse of what Santa looks like at home. It’s real, it’s what they want. They want Santa.”
In a holiday season that has stressed both institutions and individuals, the woman who has shaped thousands of Santas figures everyone has had to adapt and adjust to make it through.
“ We have a motto at the Santa school: ‘Let’s make the world a better place,’” she says. “People are really digging down, whether it’s making masks for the fire department or making pecan pie for neighbors. They’re finding the best of who they are.”