ST. PAUL — Nobody noticed when Santa slipped into the Best Buy store.
He was using his secret identity as Joe Courtemanche, the way Batman sometimes becomes Bruce Wayne. It worked perfectly, until his mother shouted to the entire store: “Hey, kids, you know who this is? It’s Santa!”
The children came running. Santa was busted. “I had to sing Christmas carols for 10 minutes,” groaned Courtemanche, one of St. Paul’s most popular professional Santas.
It was a real-world hassle inflicted on a real-life Santa — but not the only one. Behind the beard and the ho-ho-ho, working Santas must deal with an increasing barrage of difficulties including unwanted attention, beard maintenance, insurance costs, background checks, family fights and even racial slurs.
It’s getting tougher to be jolly.
Starts with the beard
The process of becoming a Santa starts, of course, with the beard.
Courtemanche is a real-beard snob — with nothing jolly to say about fake-bearded Santas. “I call them designer Santas,” he said.
But growing a Santa-quality beard isn’t easy.
“I stopped shaving in 1997,” said Courtemanche, who appears at Minnesota Vikings games and dozens of corporate events every season.
Even though he hasn’t seen his chin in 22 years, his beard isn’t that long — about a foot, he said.
It must be fluffy and white, so Courtemanche bleaches his beard at least three times every season. It’s a stinky process, requiring him to breathe through a tube to avoid the fumes.
“Then the hair gets brittle, and it breaks off,” he said.
The advantage of fake beards is the ability to take them off. Real-bearded Santas have to look like Santa all year long.
“Kids will recognize you,” he said. When it happens, he tries to ignore them. “I do not want to be the creepy 60-year-old talking to kids when adults are not around.”
‘Good Santas do social media’
Usually, Santas are screened for criminal background checks. Courtemanche also recommends insurance.
“A wise Santa has to have it,” he said.
A lawsuit could materialize if, for example, a child fell out of Santa’s lap. “Or if you step on Mrs. Johnson’s toy poodle because you didn’t see it,” he said.
For him, background checks are provided by North Star Santas, a club which currently has 31 Santas on its website.
Santas can no longer rely on just word-of-mouth for their business.
“Good Santas do social media,” said Courtemanche. In his 19 years as a Santa, he said, faithful customers watch his postings, and follow him to his appearances.
Santas must deal with religion — which can be tricky.
Some Christians are hostile, he said, because they see Santa as the essence of materialism and greed — everything that is wrong with Christmas.
Courtemanche said the North Star Santas try to be Bible-friendly. “A lot of them are pastors or men of deep faith. It’s almost a ministry to them,” he said. “I am there as representative of Christ. More people ask me to read the Gospel than the Grinch.”
Keeping the peace
Increasingly, Santas must have other talents besides talking to kids. They are often asked to sing, play the guitar or talk to children in foreign languages.
Courtemanche speaks Arabic and German, and smatterings of Russian, French and Italian. “When I do that, the kids smile: ‘Holy moly! Santa speaks my language?’ ’’
Reggie Wright, also a member of North Star Santas, is surprised when arguments and even fights break out. It can happen when ex-husbands, stepmoms and unpopular in-laws try to reunite for the holidays.
“Santa brings joy and peace,” said Wright. “Sometimes that means keeping the peace.”
He had to interrupt a party to take aside a woman and her ex-husband and tell them to stop arguing. “There was almost a fight,” he said.
Earlier this month, he had an ugly encounter. A man at a private party was startled to see a black Santa, recalled Wright.
“He said he was not going to have his picture taken with no (N-word) Santa. It was not to my face, but loud enough so I could hear it,” said Wright.
Wright said he kept the event going.
“If I reacted to that, it would completely tarnish the event,” he said. “I sing songs and crack jokes. I try to lighten the mood.”