Eventually, he leaned forward, speaking softly. “Look, Mick, I know I’m not the real Santa Claus,” he confessed. “But I believe that God has given me the ability to channel the spirit of the original Saint Nicholas, so that when I put on the red suit … I … become Santa.”
There it is—that one word that makes all the difference: become. Good Santas don’t play Santa. They become Santa. Through whatever process works for them—channeling, visualizing, imagining, or believing—they leave their body, if only for a moment, and become Father Christmas.
It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. Robert De Niro didn’t play Vito Corleone or Jake LaMotta—he became them. And while I’m no award-winning actor, at my best, when I was wrestling, I didn’t play Mankind. I became him, and I’ve got a missing ear and some serious trouble descending staircases to prove it. I’d been around wrestlers when they completely lose sight of where the real person ends and the character begins, and it isn’t always pretty. But without that ability to transform, to transcend, to become, then all of it—acting, wrestling, being Santa Claus—is just a whole lot of playing, pretending, make believe. This Santa I met wasn’t crazy at all. He was just a man with a gift.
Over the next several days, I kept in regular touch with Santa in Chicago. (I learned his real name, but don’t feel right about using it.) I got tips on what Santa should smell like (peppermint, cinnamon) and what smells to avoid (onions, garlic, B.O., beef and cheese). He told me how he got his cheeks so rosy, how to prevent the sight of hairy Foley forearms, and how to deal with the inevitability of getting peed on.
Despite my preparation, I was getting nervous. It was close to my debut appearance at my favorite Christmas haunt: Santa’s Village in New Hampshire.
I felt a bit more confident after catching a glimpse of my Santa suit. One of the perks of appearing in this documentary was that I got to commission my own Santa getup, which was hand-sewn by Pierre’s of Philadelphia from a gorgeous burgundy velvet in a style I’d selected—more Victorian Santa than “Classic Santa” (fur up the front) or “Coca-Cola Santa” (buttons up the front). I knew I’d be looking pretty good from neck to toe.
The beard was another issue. My options were simple: dye my real facial hair or go with the fake stuff. Dyeing was a five-hour ordeal—a process, I’d been warned, that was not without considerable burning, itching, and aromatic displeasure. Alternately, I could throw on the fake beard and be done with it after the visit at Santa’s Village. No muss, no fuss, no odor, no itching, no burning, no bleached beard that I’d have to walk around with in public.
But the decision to dye or not to dye was symbolic of a larger question: Did I want to play Santa or did I want to become him? In the end, it was something that Chicago Santa told me that broke the stalemate: “Kids get scared when they don’t see a mouth moving.” I tried on the fake beard and said a few words. I felt like a bad ventriloquist with a huge hair-dummy, or a white version of that strange, red Looney Tunes character Gossamer who chased Bugs Bunny through a castle.
Quite simply, the fake beard made me look scary. Once upon a time in my early WWE days (Mankind, circa 1996), I would have taken a child crying at the sight of me as a tremendous compliment. But as Santa, I wanted to cause cheer, not fear, and as little bawling as possible. If the fake beard took away from the magic of the moment, it simply wasn’t an option. I sat down for the five hours of dyeing.
The physical transformation was almost shocking. But the change was more than just physical. From the instant I sat down in the chair, I felt somehow wiser, kinder, more Santa-like. Even my voice was different. Gone was the exaggerated Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle from Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. In its place was a gentler tone, as I intuitively sensed that a meeting with Santa Claus could be a traumatic event for a little one.
Every interaction had the potential for both success and failure that marked the best moments of my in-ring career, the times when I stopped playing a character and actually became that character. If a child was the slightest bit hesitant about taking a seat on my lap, I asked if they might like to stand next to Santa, or have mom or dad in the photo. I shared secrets about my favorite type of cookies (gingerbread) and gave Chicago Santa’s answer to a request for a horse (if you can feed and clean a neighbor’s horse for a year, Santa will think about it next year). I watched the eyes of a hesitant youngster fill with wonder as I referred to his grandparents as “Memmy and Brumpy,” showing the importance of a doing one’s homework. I even had a beard puller, and responded in a way I’d read about in Santa Sal Lizard’s memoir Being Santa Claus: “Ho-ho-ho, that’s what helps Santa’s beard grow.”
In the days that followed, I’ve thought often about my time as Santa Claus, and how I can keep the spirit of that day alive. I write this on the eve of another Twisted Sister holiday show, one in which I’ll be going full Santa in a benefit for Long Islanders most affected by Hurricane Sandy. For this right jolly old elf, nothing could be more dignified.
But the moment I find myself thinking about the most was my last interaction at Santa’s Village, when my family got to see me in all my Santa glory. My wife thought I looked quite handsome. My daughter, 19, curled up on my lap, a wonderful reminder of those Christmas mornings long ago. My two boys, 11 and 9, still believe in Santa, though they’re growing more skeptical. They knew dad was participating in the documentary, and my youngest had been there for the entire dyeing process. Neither child thought their father was the real Santa Claus. But I think they believe that I believe, and that feeling of belief has become infectious.