DURANGO, Colo. (AP) — It didn’t matter that Richard Taggart was wearing flannel and jeans, was off the clock and was in an interview about his new job.
“I’m happy when I can make other people happy,” said Taggart, playing Santa recently at the Durango Mall with Mylee Smith and her brother, Justin. The two are the children of Howard and Sarah Smith.
He still proceeded to wave to toddlers walking by and wish shoppers a merry Christmas in a booming voice.
Spreading the Christmas cheer has become a habit for Taggart in recent weeks.
The former preacher and truck driver is one of a special, silver-haired few who will fill one of the holiday season’s most crucial roles: Santa Claus.
Though the job may entail holding a smile for hours while facing an endless stream of squirming kids, the people who hold the job locally say it’s a joy.
“We look forward to it every year,” said Ray and Nickie Miller, who are in their third year as Mr. and Mrs. Claus at the Vallecito Christmas celebration.
As one of the two Santas at the Durango Mall, Taggart spends his weekends perched in an oversized snowman-shaped chair surrounded by giant presents and cotton snow dusted with sparkles. Basking in the red glow of a Sports Authority sign, he poses for pictures, listens patiently to Christmas wish lists and reminds everyone from tiny babies to elderly women to be good in the coming year.
“I like making people happy,” said Taggart, a self-professed people person. “To have a little kid sit here and then they’re smiling, that makes my day.”
Taggart and the Millers haven’t had any formal training for the job, and Joe Ritter, another first-year Santa, said he did a few Internet searches before he put on the red suit. But a growing number of men are signing up for specialized schools where they learn the ins and outs of becoming a professional Santa.
Susen Mesco is the owner and founder of the Denver-based Professional Santa Claus School. Mesco started the school in 1983 and now does annual five-day training workshops for Santa students from around the world. The training lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day and covers 75 different topics ranging from child psychology and walking with reindeer to Santa makeup and toy shop tours.
And the training school business is competitive, with Santa schools on a constant quest to steal the best training ideas for their own, Mesco said.
Santa’s role is expanding as the industry becomes more professionalized, Mesco said.
“Santa really is an entertainer, and he is more than just a guy that sits in a chair, hands out candy canes and collects wish lists,” she said.
Many students are longtime Santas coming to hone their skills at a hobby they love, but there is also a growing contingent who are looking at a Santa gig as a much-needed, albeit brief, job opportunity in a tough economy.
Taggart, who has bounced from work to retirement and back to work, said he was fortunate that the Santa job came along after a brief stint as a Walmart greeter didn’t work out.
Naturally, as times change, the topics children bring to Santa’s lap have evolved, Mesco said. Daddy is away fighting a different war, children’s requests are a lot more electronically oriented, and the state of the economy has changed, she said.
“During the past five or six years the economy has been so bad, so when a child says ‘I want an Xbox 360,’ you see panic on mom’s face,” Mesco said. “Santa is trained to say ‘We had a big fire in the electronics department so I don’t know if we’re going to get that for everybody.'”
The economy is in the back of Ray Miller’s mind as well when he hears extravagant gift requests from children. If there is one lesson he has learned, it is that Santa doesn’t promise anything, he said.
When children ask for bigger items, Miller said he will respond with, “We’ll see what can be done.”
“You just don’t know what parents’ financial situation is,” he said.
Taggart said it’s hard when little girls ask him for clothes because he suspects they may not have enough.
The Millers said they look forward to donning their Mr. and Mrs. Claus outfits each Christmas season. This will be their third year at the Vallecito Christmas celebration, so by now many people around town will refer to the couple as Mr. and Mrs. Claus even when they aren’t dressed up, Nickie Miller said.
Ray Miller said his best memory as Santa was seeing a roomful of Bayfield seniors lined up to sit on his lap.
“Whether they’re 8 or 80, people are still enthralled with Santa,” he said.
Taggart said at one time he had eight teenage girls crowd around his chair.
And while requests for electronics are standard these days, Taggart said one little girl recently asked him for a thousand kitty cats.
“Her mother just about fainted,” he said. “So I looked at her mother and said ‘wouldn’t just one be nice?’ and she agreed with that.”
As every other part of life accelerates into the 21st century, the tradition of Mr. and Mrs. Claus is an important one to keep alive, the Millers said.
“It’s magical and it brings hope,” Nickie Miller said.
“It makes them feel like someone out there cares for them personally,” Ray Miller added.
The couple know that Santa is more than a jolly man in a red suit.
“You are dealing with people’s lives and people’s hopes and people’s faith, and that is very precious,” Nickie Miller said.
By Emery Cowan, AP Writer (© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)