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Becoming Santa

Director: Jeff Myers
Cast: Jack Sanderson, Susan Mesco, Peter Fontana, Rachel Weinstein, Adele Saidy, Carol Myers

(US DVD: 22 Nov 2011)

Becoming Santa, a documentary about Jack Sanderson, a man in search of the Christmas spirit, is a funny, moving, and insightful story. The recent death of Sanderson’s father is the catalyst for his unusual quest. He discovers a photograph of his father dressed as Santa Claus and is intrigued by what motivated him to do so. In trying to find the answers to what draws people so vehemently into fully embracing Christmas, and more specifically, what drives some to take their love of the season and become the embodiment of it, the documentary is a thoughtful and amusing attempt to analyze an icon as beloved as Santa Claus.


Sanderson’s decision to investigate the power of Christmas and in turn, the power of Santa, first leads him to dye his hair and beard white. Immediately, he feels a difference in the way people react to him – he feels an acknowledgment and friendliness that he never did before, and so begins his transformation. \ In an effort to more fully immerse himself in the process, he buys a Santa suit and enrolls in a Santa School in Denver, Colorado.


Here is where the documentary really begins to take off. Sanderson’s time at the Santa School introduces him to Susan Mesco, the borderline insane, completely earnest instructor whose devotion is both cringe worthy and inspiring. Her list of rules (children should never be referred to as kids; three ‘Ho Ho Hos’ only) seem arbitrary and weirdly specific. However, they end up making Sanderson feel more like Santa than he expected. Throughout the process, Sanderson maintains a skeptical, logical approach, but he can’t help but be affected by the way people react to him, especially children.


As an exercise, Sanderson volunteers as a Santa on a Polar Express train ride. It’s a grueling and exhausting event, but the joy and excitement that he brings to the children serves as just one example of just how strong the lure of Santa and Christmas is. Sanderson’s other turns as Santa – leading a parade or at a tree lighting ceremony – all emphasize not only Santa’s influence, but also how well Sanderson adapts to his new role. As Mesco notes, perhaps hyperbolically, during his time at Santa School, “He could be one of the top Santas in the world, if he continues with it”. He’s clearly a natural in his interactions with children and his approach to playing Santa. 


While Becoming Santa focuses primarily on Sanderson’s journey, the documentary also incorporates interviews with other Santas. Their enthusiasm and the pure love for what they do comes across beautifully as they all speak to the importance the role of Santa plays in their lives. They are varied in appearance, race, and age, but all the different Santas display gratitude for the important role it has played in their lives. From a Civil War-themed Santa to more traditional interpretations, they all express the transformative power of Santa, not only for themselves personally, but for those they interact with.


Sanderson doesn’t limit himself to interviewing Santas and playing Santa himself, he also learns about the New York City Operation Santa Claus program and the sidewalk Santas that are Volunteers of America. Operation Santa Claus collects letters mailed to Santa and they become part of a gift giving campaign for the needy. Similarly, the sidewalk Santas collect money for charity. Run by Peter Fontana and Rachel Weinstein, respectively, both programs clearly hold a great deal of meaning to the two and their dedication is apparent. The almost unsentimental process of working these programs still create an emotional reaction, particularly as Fontana gets choked up discussing his work. 


Aside from the personal experiences of playing Santa, the documentary puts Santa into a larger cultural context. In tracing the character’s historical and international representations, Sanderson discovers the dark, often racist past that would eventually transform into our current interpretation. Much credit for the modern Santa is attributed to Coca-Cola and its Christmas imagery. In bringing together such disparate elements of the same character, Santa Claus becomes a figure that’s a little harder to pin down, despite his ubiquity and familiarity.


Sanderson’s initial reluctance to ‘the Santa Claus spirit’ eventually gives way to his being affected, in spite of himself. While he may talk about Santa in detached terms, especially at the beginning, it’s obvious that his interactions with children, as Santa, have shifted some of his perceptions. The men who attend Santa School and are proud to speak of their love for the icon, could have easily been painted as freaks and weirdos, and although some come off as eccentric, they are clearly portrayed as dedicated and enthusiastic, no matter how others perceive them.


Becoming Santa is the best kind of documentary. It takes something so seemingly mundane and an accepted part of our culture and attempts to shed light on its real impact. Even those jaded by the commercialization and overwhelming presence of Christmas will find Sanderson’s honesty and humor affecting. At one point he makes two home visits as Santa. The wonder and belief so obvious in the children he visits is especially moving and it goes to the heart of faith and innocence that drove Sanderson to explore Santa Claus in the first place. 


There are no special features included in the DVD release.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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