"One little girl, who’s 2-year-old brother was howling at the time, simply asked me to take her brother back with me to the North Pole."
Most of the year, kids know him as Jungle Jim, a high-energy children’s entertainer who delights children with balloons, magic and silliness. But the last few weeks of the year, Jim Manning becomes Santa Claus.
“Santa Jim,” as he’s called, first donned the Big Red Suit when he was in college. Seeing the reaction of the children when he walked in the room, he was inspired; it was a natural fit. Jim, who helps light up the tree on the Boston Common, takes the role quite seriously. He’s attended three different Santa schools over the years, has taken courses in stand-up comedy, improvisation, professional speaking, voice training and magic. He’s studied many of the popular movie Santas, but says the majority of the training comes from visiting with thousands of children every year.
What exactly does a professional Santa do?
The difference between a professional Santa Claus and someone just putting on the suit (never call it a costume!), is the experience. My job is to give everyone a great interaction with Santa Claus, from the shy 3-year-old to the excited kindergartners to the too-cool-for-school tween who secretly really wants to see St. Nick but doesn’t want to lose his or her street cred with their friends.
Another reason people go with a professional Santa is great pictures. Photos are so important this day and age. When I first started playing Santa Claus, most film was print (gasp!), but now it’s not uncommon for multiple cameras taking scores of the same photo. Helping families to get that great shot is a critical part of the work.
Is there a particular event that you look forward to every year?
A highlight of my Santa season is the tree lighting on the Boston Common. Thousands of people participate in a tradition dating back nearly 50 years. It's a real honor to be a part of such a special occasion. Funny story, the first year I participated, Mayor Menino and I were waiting backstage. I asked him if he’d been a good little boy, and he quipped “it’s been a long time since anyone called me a little boy, Santa.”
What’s a typical work day or week like during the Christmas season?
I make between 50-60 appearances during the month of December. Some days I only have one or two visits, other days, like Christmas Eve, I may make as many as ten stops. My day starts early and ends late. Mrs. Claus often packs me a cooler of food, and it’s not uncommon for me to be away from home for 2 or 3 days at a time.
Do you find children are more excited about meeting Santa, or magic shows?
Definitely Santa Claus! It depends on the age, but the majority of children are more pumped up to see St. Nick. Magic is amazing, but Santa is a toy maker and bringer of great cheer. Even Jungle Jim can’t compete with Santa Claus!
What do you love most about being Santa?
I would say though that the best part is when a child meets me for the first time, at an age where they understand who I am. The excitement, the nervousness, the gleeful anticipation of getting to meet the jolly old elf is just a delight. There is a light in their eyes and such positive energy that I am often overwhelmed to be a part of that moment.
What are some of the funniest request you’ve heard from a child?
There have been so many! Here’s a few of my favorite things children have said to me over the years:
.One little girl, who’s 2-year-old brother was howling at the time, simply asked me to take her brother back with me to the North Pole. I asked a little girl what her name was. She said, "Red." Then she said, "Yellow." Turns out her name was Samantha. Harper - 4: "That's my baby brother, Sebastian. He doesn't like most people. He probably won't like you. See, he's getting ready to cry." The little boy who when I asked if he was excited for Christmas, told me "Just 27 more days Santa Claus. Can you feel it?!"
My favorite request of all time was a 5-year old boy named Vincent. I will never forget Vincent. When we visited, and he was asked what he wanted for Christmas, he handed me a sealed envelope. I tried to get him to mention one or two toys in particular, but Vincent was adamant that he knew I would bring him every single thing on his list.
Curiosity got the better of me, so after he left, I opened the envelope, and there, carefully taped to his detailed selection of toys, was a $5 bill. He tried to bribe Santa Claus. Vincent, you will always have a place in my heart.
How do you handle crying kids or children who don’t believe?
Crying children are generally uncomfortable and/or anxious. While I do my best to help calm them down, I strongly encourage parents that if their child is really upset, to be sensitive to their feelings and not force them to sit on Santa's lap or even take a photo. You want positive interactions with Santa Claus, and lay the foundation for positive experiences in future years.
There comes a time in every child's life where they start to question the existence of Santa. I try to stay on a child’s level and not convince them with words but more by my actions. I want children to understand is Santa Claus represents the good in this world and that in their own way they can be Santa, too.
What are some of the most memorable moments from your years as Mr. Claus?
The poignant moments stand out the most. Every year a few children ask me to bring back a deceased pet or loved one from heaven, and those conversations, while not easy, are important to handle well. I am often with families who are grieving, or experiencing their first Christmas without Grandma or Grandpa, and knowing I am part of some happiness during that difficult time makes me appreciative of my role.