My father’s suit didn’t fit. Which is how we ended up in front of an overwhelming wall rack of red coats in a warehouse-size store, uncertain where to begin. Back then, in November of 2018, the Party at Display and Costume store on Roosevelt Way resembled a storage unit for the North Pole—candy cane decor gave way to row after fluorescent-lit row of ornaments, trees, string lights, anything that screamed Christmas. Santa was an aisle unto himself, filled with beards and beard dye, boots and shoe covers, all manner of floppy red and white caps.
A tall clerk in a full-on elf costume approached and offered to guide us. But first, she peppered my father with an intensive set of questions. What kind of Santa was he planning to be? Would he sit with kids on his lap, or walk around at an event or party? How much would he be working this season?
Growing up, my zeal for Christmas always balanced my father’s humbug tendencies. But here I was, at 24, in the unlikely position of helping my father become Santa Claus. And we were learning, there was way more to this role than a red suit.
Dan Kerege, My dad, grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, with an accountant father and a mother who taught tap dance. His parents eventually separated, after some strained years. By then, my dad had learned to spend many nights at the houses of his friends in the neighborhood. He was the oldest of three, his two younger brothers much closer to each other. Holidays in this home were uncomfortable at best.
Later, he ended up in Seattle and spent the bulk of his career on the waterfront, mostly in maritime dispatch. My dad directed crews and equipment for different jobs, then supervised longshore labor taking in and letting go mooring lines from the docks. He was just as pragmatic in his personal life. If I came to him with a problem, he could work out three potential solutions in the span of our conversation. His emotions, however, he reserved.
My dad and I remained close even after my parents divorced and my mother moved my sister and me back to Wisconsin to take care of her ailing parents. We talked on the phone and coordinated visits. Between his work schedule and the custody agreement, my father was guaranteed five days with me around the holidays, but not necessarily for Christmas. “I was not the jolliest of people around Christmas time,” he’ll admit to me now. “It brought back a lot of bad memories.”
After college, I returned to Seattle and stayed with my dad for the first few months. We spent more time together than we had in over a decade. He had been retired for a few years; boredom was creeping in. So was his beard. Working at Foss Maritime, my dad had to keep his facial hair neatly trimmed. In retirement, he decided to grow it out.
He stood in the bathroom one day and pulled a comb through the snowy beard that already reached down to his neck. He made a wisecrack about using it to get some seasonal work, as a way to keep busy—“I’ve already got the belly for it.”
My dad was joking, but I thought, Why not? Indeed.com had two listings for Santa Claus gigs. The first was for a department store Santa, which honestly prompted flashbacks of A Christmas Story: long lines, angry parents, pushy elves, and a Santa just waiting for his shift to be over. The other was for Argosy Cruises. For a guy who had spent most of his career in the maritime industry, a party boat sailing Seattle’s waters seemed like a perfect fit. My dad applied online; the next day we drove down to the Argosy offices on Pier 55. After one interview—and a lot of paperwork—he was in.
By Donning That Red Suit, my dad joined a fraternity of sorts with a long commercial history—and some unlikely roots in Seattle. In 1943, a grumbly Post-Intelligencer photographer, ironically nicknamed “Happy,” looked out the window of his office at Sixth and Pine to see children lining up to meet Santa in the window of the Frederick and Nelson department store, today the downtown Nordstrom. This particular year, the department store team thought to move their Santa meet-and-greet to the display windows to capitalize on the free advertising. That photographer, whose real name was Arthur French, now had a front-row view and a subsequent flash of inspiration. Instead of just a fleeting brush with Santa, what if those children and their families could take home a photo of the experience?
The following year, French set up shop. He charged a dollar per photo and brought in $10,000 in just over a month, or three times what he normally made in one year at the newspaper. He kept building up his business, Arthur and Associates Holiday Photography, until his death in 1962. His widow, Cherie, sold it to Ken and Hazel Viydo, the couple who developed French’s film.
Since then, society’s belief that a man in a red suit brings presents each December has remained relatively consistent. In a study published in the journal Cognitive Development in 2016, researchers found that visits to a live stand-in help set Santa Claus apart in a kid’s imagination from similar legends like the tooth fairy or Easter bunny. In recent years, some big American malls incorporated a more inclusive version of the man in red. The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in South Los Angeles has promoted its diversified Santa program for over a decade, and the Mall of America hired its first Black Santa back in 2016.
The more Santas a child sees, according to the study, the more likely they are to believe that a Santa stand-in is the real thing. A 2013 Pew research study found that one in five adults said they had a child in their household that believed in Santa Claus.
“When people ask me, Is Santa real? My answer is this is as real as it gets,” says Hillard Viydo. Ken and Hazel’s son now owns Arthur and Associates Holiday Photography, which operates contracts from Seattle up to the Canadian border. While it’s hard to say unequivocally, Seattle considers the company the originator of the tradition—and the business—of Santa photos.
Back at Display and Costume, the elf sales associate schooled my father and me in the different types of Santas. Apparently fabric choices are key. Lighter, more plush suits might give off a brighter, more animated look. But that plushness has a tendency to shed, a downside for a Santa that repeatedly slides kids on and off his lap. A darker burgundy conveys a more Victorian look, but that brighter red is Coca-Cola classic.
Santa has looked much the same since 1931, when the soft drink company commissioned the illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create a Santa Claus advertisement. Sundblom drew inspiration from Clement Clark Moore’s poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” now commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Sundblom’s Santa Claus was a warm, happy character. That wasn’t always the case.
Over the years, his look varied depending on his surroundings—Santa might wear a jacket made out of American flags during wartime or fur coats in Northern Europe. However, Sundblom’s version—fur-lined red coat and pants, black boots, the floppy red hat with the white fur puff—quickly became the culturally recognizable Santa Claus uniform. It has remained canon for the last 90 years, and many professional Santas will refer to this look when putting together their suit. Within that image, though, dwell a thousand different details. And many of those details concern beards. Nicholas, a tall, slender bishop from Greece, wore long Catholic robes in various shades of red, green, and gold.
According to Hillard Viydo, back in the 1960s a theatrically (read: fake) bearded Santa was the norm. A shift came in the ’90s—his clients started looking for naturally bearded Santas. Viydo doesn’t necessarily think a theatrical beard breaks the spell, “given that this is a mythical character.” Still, he says, “a high percentage of our guys are now naturally bearded.”
Norpac, the Pacific Northwest branch of an international organization that fosters brotherhood and maintains standards in the Santa world, has strict guidelines on designer (again: fake) beards. President and cofounder Ron Kearns, who goes by Santa Ron in casual conversation, is far less of an absolutist when it comes to Santa’s attire.
“Once you put the red suit on, it doesn’t matter what the suit looks like,” he tells me over FaceTime one day. It’s summer, and he sports a Santa-themed Hawaiian shirt; his eyes have a natural twinkle. “If you have a beard and a hat and you put that red suit on, to kids that’s Santa.”
In December of 2018, my father began his training by shadowing Michael Callahan, or Santa Mike, an Argosy staple Santa for the last 11 years. He wore a dark zip-up sweatshirt, avoided anything red, and followed Santa Mike around the boat, trying to stay as incognito as a Kris Kringle lookalike at a holiday party possibly can. After that night of observation, my father was on his own.
In training, Callahan warned above all to always stay in character. That includes the conversations you have with people around the boats; as Santa you always have to know where the kids are. Beyond that, according to Callahan, the key is just to be jolly.
“Jolly” was never a word I’d use to describe my dad, especially around the holidays. But one night that first year, he came home downright giddy. He bounded in the door of our ranch house in Edmonds eager to tell me all the stories from his stint on the boat. How one little boy had been his shadow all night, how he tried a new variation in the “Ho, ho, ho” contest, which challenges kids to imitate Santa’s signature chuckle. Christmas lists kids had feverishly scribbled on paper scraps spilled out of his pockets. “You wouldn’t believe what one of the parents said to me!” He worked his way through every detail of the last four hours.
“It changed me a little bit,” my dad says of that first season as Santa. When year two came around, he was ready. He had acquired a new garment bag to carry his ensemble, extra pairs of white gloves, even his own stash of jingle bells. After 55 years of employment, he told me one day that this was the best job he had ever had.
This winter would have been my dad’s third year being Santa. In early August, Argosy announced the company would halt operations, including the Christmas ships, through spring 2021. Party at Display and Costume, where my dad learned about Santa-friendly fabrics, is closing its Roosevelt location. Many malls and retailers have yet to renew their Santa contracts. Jamming together in a crowded space, to await the moment when your kid leans into an unfamiliar face, runs counter to most public health practices in this era of Covid-19. My father, a guy with health concerns typical of a man over 60, will probably also stay out of the business this December.
Though it hits differently this year, there is always a grief that sets in at the end of a season, says Hillard Viydo, a guy who knows more than most how the legend of Santa Claus can endure, even through transformative times. The night before Christmas is the biggest party, but it’s also the last, he says. “The worst day in a Santa’s life…is Christmas Eve.”