This adorable baby is cooperating nicely with Santa Phil. Others do NOT.
The life of a mall Santa is steeped in hopes and dreams, magic and wonder. But the jolly sorts who are drawn to this vocation soon learn that the job involves other things. Unspeakable things. Things like snot, spit, diaper leakages — and worse.
In the line of duty, one beloved longtime Santa in Oregon’s Portland area has contracted pink eye. He’s survived encounters with terrified (read: urinating) pets. Above all, he’s learned that frightened children warrant the most trepidation.
“We used to have a stage, with a couple of steps to get up onto the stage,” recalled 71-year-old Phil Morgan, known year-round by locals as “Santa Phil.” “We had some kids who were so scared — they’d hit the first step, hit the second step, then, bam! Lose the contents of their stomachs.”
Other kids are screamers — and their shrieks of terror don’t match their stature. They could be rehearsing for the shower scene in “Psycho.” The key screamer demographic: 2.5- to 4.5-year-olds.
“Sometimes they really freak out,” Santa Phil said. “They get within sight of me and MELT DOWN. It’s overwhelming to them. There’s this big guy, the suit, the lights, all the people — they just lose it.”
Mall Santas also must field impossible requests with kindness and tact.
“One little girl came up to me and said she wanted me to arrange for her to do a violin recital in Carnegie Hall,” Santa Phil recalled. “I said very carefully, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ She said, ‘If you can’t arrange it, then I’d like a pet octopus.’”
For parents, a visit to the mall Santa is a moment for a cute photo op. But for some kids, it can be a moment of pure terror.
Santa all year long
Mind you, Santa Phil is a serious pro. He landed his first Santa gig back in 1958 when he was a high school senior working in the stock room at a JC Penney store.
“Santa didn’t show and they said, ‘You! Get in the suit!’” he said. “That was the beginning of my career!”
He balks at the notion that he “plays” Santa. In short, Santa Phil is Santa. He grooms his flowing, natural white beard all year long, and, as he puts it, he kind of has “that shape.” Even in the middle of summer, his presence tends to spark squeals and excited whispers — especially if he wears a red shirt.
“In restaurants, little kids start freaking out with their parents because St. Nick is sitting at next table!” he said.
He estimates he’s served as Santa on a professional basis for about 35 of the past 54 years. For a number of those years, he dazzled kids and adults at a fanciful Santaland created inside a Meier & Frank store in downtown Portland. The store became a Macy’s in 2006.
For the first time last year, Santa Phil’s employer — Portland Santa — brought the magic outside. Portland Santa crafted a custom-built house where fans could visit with Santa Phil and his fun-loving colleague, Santa Tom, in Portland’s Pioneer Courtyard Square. Santa Phil will be based there once again this month.
“I call this my December vacation from real life,” said Santa Phil, who spends the rest of the year working as a teacher and therapist for adults.
Portland Santaland on Facebook
Santa Phil and his jolly colleague — Santa Tom, pictured here — will be greeting children and adults in downtown Portland this year. They say they totally understand if kids act a bit startled.
‘I will do my best’
As you might expect, the bulk of Santa Phil’s December encounters are heartfelt and hilarious. He gets requests for everything from Xboxes to American Girl dolls to elaborate family portraits featuring Chihuahuas, ferrets or pet turtles. On multiple occasions, he’s been asked to present an engagement ring to an unwitting bride-to-be.
Many visitors love him so much they’ve become regulars. In fact, some female pals in their 60s, 70s and 80s have established a full-fledged Santa Phil tradition.
“Every year, they go out to dinner, get a little tipsy, then come to take pictures with Santa,” Santa Phil said. “They tell me what kind of Mercedes they want — stuff like that!”
The most energizing thing about the job is that children believe in him. As a consequence, they often open up to him.
“I’ve had kids ask me for things for their parents because their parents are stressed out because their parents don’t have any money,” Santa Phil said.
Brian Ach / AP
See the many ways St. Nick spreads holiday cheer around the world.
One time, two adorable girls clambered up onto Santa Phil’s lap as their dad handed him a cell phone.
“He told me, ‘Mom’s on the other end,’” Santa Phil recalled. “’She can’t be here because she’s at home dying of cancer.’”
Another time, years ago, a homeless woman approached him and asked to sit on his lap.
“She didn’t smell very pleasant but she had this great, toothless smile,” Santa Phil said. “She said, ‘Santa, can you get me a safe place to stay?’ ... I said, ‘I will do my best.’ I had to let it go at that.”
Over the decades, Santa Phil has learned how to listen and how to adapt. He knows the importance of rolling with any encounter — no matter how preposterous, how gut-wrenching or, if nervous tummies are involved, how gut-spilling.
“My philosophy of life is that I came into this world to find joy for myself and to help people find joy for themselves,” Santa Phil said. “This is my chosen way of doing it.”
Want to meet Santa Phil and his colleague, Santa Tom? You can visit them from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through Dec. 23 and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Dec. 24 in Pioneer Courtyard Square in downtown Portland, Ore. For details, go to PortlandSanta.com.
Have an amazing photo of your child reacting to Santa? Submit it here and we may feature it later this month on TODAY.com!
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