Volume 17 • Issue 31 | Dec. 24 - 30, 2004

He loves being Santa Claus
Perceptive WFC St. Nick knows how to disarm kids

Chi Chi Gualt, 6, with Santa.

By Kaitlen Jay Exum

While December may be a slow month for photographers, it’s a particularly busy time for Santa Claus. So discovered Mike Relph, who, for 11 months of the year, is a photographer but, each December for the last five years, has played Santa at the Winter Garden. He began his tenure as Santa to augment his income during the holidays. But something surprised him. He loved the job.

“The people I work with at the World Financial Center are a great group—just the warmest group of people I’ve ever worked with,” he said in an interview. Plus, the “kids are great. I enjoy the challenge of creating the magic of Christmas,” he said.

And what happens if that Christmas magic is obscured by a fear of Santa? One- to three-year-olds tend to be frightened by the red suit and the beard, said Relph. But that doesn’t dissuade him in his passion for the role and he’s remarkably understanding of their predicament.

“It’s a sign of intelligence that they’re afraid—it shows that they’re paying attention to their surroundings,” he said. When faced with a crying toddler who would rather cling to mom’s neck than be handed off to Santa, Relph has a backup plan: he tells the wary child that Santa has to go feed his reindeer and beats a quick exit. The parent can then seat the child in a sleigh, conveniently provided by the WFC, while Relph sneaks around the back and stands behind the sleigh.

Parents get a picture of their kids with Santa, while the fearful tots don’t have to face the red-clad stranger. Only occasionally is Relph caught in the act, and, in one particular case, he was more impressed than dismayed. One little girl, he said, spied herself on a video monitor. She seemed delighted to see herself, then noticed Santa in the picture. She whirled around and caught Relph standing behind her; he was surprised that, at an age when most children think that peek-a-boo makes people disappear, the little girl realized that the figure in the image was standing behind her.

Most children, however, are delighted to confide their Christmas wishes in the big guy. As Santa, Relph always has the scoop on which are hot gifts; Buzz Lightyear figures from the movie Toy Story are particularly popular requests from boys this year, while girls have a longstanding penchant for all things Barbie, from the dolls to their dream houses. Some requests are more unconventional, such as cars, houses, helicopters, and rocket ships. In what Relph counts as the most unusual request of the year, one child asked for a tire.

“I try, to the best of my ability, to make it a very special experience,” said Relph, who especially loves being a Santa Claus in New York. It takes a lot to catch the attention of New Yorkers, but walking down the street in a Santa costume seems to attract lots of notice. He has been toasted by financial district employees in downtown bars, and pedestrians often shout greetings to him on the street.

“There’s always a little glint in their eyes,” when people see Santa, Relph said. As a matter of fact, it’s, “kind of like being a rock star.”

Does he plan to continue his holiday tradition of masquerading as Santa for the WFC? “I honestly enjoy it. If I hit the lottery or something . . .” he trailed off. “No, I might come back and do it for free,” he laughed.

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