What It's Like To Be...

A Professional Santa Claus

December 20, 2023 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 8
What It's Like To Be...
A Professional Santa Claus
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Refurbishing old sleighs, reviewing advance dossiers on kids, and going to “Santa School" with Larry Jefferson, a professional Santa Claus based in Dallas. How does he handle situations when kids ask for something Santa could never grant? And what would a kid have to do to get coal?

Music credit:
"Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License

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Dan Heath:
Hey, folks. So this is a special Christmas edition of What It's Like to Be. I wanted to give a quick warning to parents in case there are any kids in the backseat listening. In this episode, we discuss the existence of Santa Claus, wink, wink. Larry Jefferson is a professional Santa Claus. And just like the real Santa Claus, he flies all over the place in December, including to the Mall of America in Minnesota, that's the biggest mall in the country. An old Gap store there has been converted into Santa's workshop. Larry has his own private dressing room where he transforms into Santa Larry.

Larry Jefferson:
I normally yell out, "Alexa, play Christmas music." And then, my Alexa starts playing Christmas music. And I'll start listening at Christmas music and getting a little bit more jolly. And I start putting on my Santa suit, and it takes me less than 30 minutes. Add a little touch of makeup here and there, and make sure the beard is combed and the hair is combed, and everything is lined up from the hat to the belt to the boot buckles.

Dan Heath:
He'll spend hours talking with kids and posing for pictures. You can probably see his smiling white bearded face in thousands of Instagram and Facebook posts. Now, is that a grind for you, or do you enjoy every minute of it?

Larry Jefferson:
Oh, no, it's not a grind for me, because I have my inserts in my boots.

Dan Heath:
There you go.

Larry Jefferson:
That helps Santa out.

Dan Heath:
Tricks of the trade.

Larry Jefferson:
Yes. I tell people to have inserts, and if you have bad knees, make sure you rub some type of ointment on it and march on.

Dan Heath:
I'm Dan Heath, and this is What It's Like to Be. In every episode we profile someone from a different profession: a mystery novelist, a criminal defense attorney, a couple's therapist. Today we meet Larry Jefferson, or Santa Larry as he's called, a professional Santa Claus based in Dallas. We'll find out what he learned at Santa school. And yes, Santa School is a real thing. We'll learn what toy kids ask for the most, and the answer is a little disturbing. Also, the time he told a kid to his face, he was going to get coal for Christmas. Stay with us.

So, walk me through a meeting with Santa. A kid walks in, sees Santa, what happens next?

Larry Jefferson:
Well, it depends on how old the child is. If they're an infant, it's a piece of cake. They walk in, most time they're sleeping, and we hold them and prop them up and smile and say, "Cheese," take a couple of pictures here and there, and then let the families get involved and take some good pictures.

If it's a toddler between ages of say, 18 months old to about three years old, they're pretty okay, but we've just got to be very gingerly with them and talk softly to them. We don't want to use our outside voices. And we have to let them warm up to us with the parents help. Some parents just want to walk up to you and say, "Here. Take my baby. I don't care if it's crying or not." And those pictures are like, "Oh, my gosh." Those are some of the most memorable pictures that we want to show little Johnny or Bobby or Mary Lou as they get older.

And then, kids that are beyond four and on up, they're pretty, "Hi, Santa. How are you?" And we chitchat for a moment, talk about what they want for Christmas. And then, I'll say, "Now let's look at Miss Rachel or Miss Brandy," or whoever the photographer is, "or Miss Maddie, and let's take a picture and smile." And they'll say, "Okay, 1, 2, 3. Say candy." We'll say, "Candy." "1, 2, 3, say cheese." We'll say, "Cheese." "1, 2, 3, say snickerdoodle," things to get the children to laugh and smile and get that magical picture for the parents.

Dan Heath:
And so, when they come in, do you do the old Santa thing? "Little Johnny, what do you want for Christmas?"

Larry Jefferson:
Every Santa's a little bit different. My game plan is that when children come in, I want them to hear me singing, "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh, what fun is to ride with Johnny in my sleigh, hey." And then parents say, "Johnny, he just said your name." And I sing, "We wish you a Merry Christmas. We wish Sarah a Merry Christmas. Hi Sarah, come on in. Welcome to my workshop." And they're like, "Oh, my gosh. Hi, Santa." Some kids are so excited, oh, my gosh. They'd be jumping up and down. Oh, it's hilarious. But it's the funnest job ever.

Dan Heath:
What are the most frequent things that kids ask for?

Larry Jefferson:
IPhones, iPhones, iPhones.

Dan Heath:
Oh, no. Don't say that.

Larry Jefferson:
A phone. I kid you not. A child, four years old. I said, "What do you want for Christmas? "Santa, I want an iPad. Santa, I want an iPhone." And I want to say, "Do you have a job? You're like five, six, seven, and you want an iPhone?" But some parents give me heads up with the notes they send in and they'll say, "No phones, Santa, until they're 15." And then, when the child asked me if they can get a phone, I was like, "Well, I have to talk to your parents. But according to your parents, you shouldn't have a phone until you're 15."

Dan Heath:
Wait. So you actually get a dossier in advance on the kids?

Larry Jefferson:
Yes, of course. I've got to be magical. And when they're signing up for appointments, they put in there the children's name, how they're doing, if they're doing good, things about sports, things that they need to work on. And they tell us what the Elf on the Shelf name is. And I would say to the child, "Now, according to your Elf on the Shelf, Jack, Jack says," and these kids' eyes just light up like, "Oh, my gosh."

Dan Heath:
"How'd you know Jack?"

Larry Jefferson:
"What's about to come out of his mouth?" Yes.

Dan Heath:
Yeah. Wait. So are you saying that parents will put you up to... They'll try to work through you on some discipline thing they're working on with their kids?

Larry Jefferson:
Of course. It's hilarious. Yes. Here's an example. Just the other night, 12:30, my phone rings. I'm thinking, "Oh, my gosh. It may be an emergency." I was in deep sleep. I answered the phone. I says, "Hello?" And they said, "Is this Santa Larry?" And I'll say "Yes, it is." And then, "So my son wants to talk to you because he will not go to sleep." And the man puts his son on the phone. "Hi, Santa. I want da, da, da, da, da." And I had to go into my Santa mode and I said, "Okay, great. Just make sure you continue being good and don't be sassing with your daddy or your mommy," and blah, blah, blah. And it was just like, "Oh, my gosh. They call me at 12:30 AM?"

Dan Heath:
Wait. How do they have your cell phone number?

Larry Jefferson:
Well, it's on my website.

Dan Heath:
Okay.

Larry Jefferson:
But I've got to figure out how to just put an answering machine on it.

Dan Heath:
Yeah. I don't know, Santa, I think you might need an alternate phone number for the public.

Larry Jefferson:
Oh, absolutely. But I like to be accessible to people.

Dan Heath:
So what's an example of something that a parent might say about their kid and kind of prompt you, "Talk to Johnny about such and such"?

Larry Jefferson:
Being fussy and argumentative with their parent. One lady said, "He's being sassy." I was like, "Sassy? What is sassy?" And won't listen and make good choices, and make sure they clean up their room and do good in school. It's all the things that I normally tell children, because I normally say to the children, "Make sure you listen to your parents, help around the house, clean up your room, do good in school, do your homework if you have homework. And listen to your parents. And sometimes, at a point in time in life, I want you to go up to your mom and dad and say, 'Mom, is there anything I can do to help?' So let's practice that right now."

And I will have this child, the child says, "For real?" I say, "Yeah." I'm going to count to three, and you and I both are going to say, 'Hey, mom. What can I do to help?' On 1, 2, 3, 'Hey, mom. What can I do to help?' Oh, that's great. Now let's do it with dad. 1, 2, 3, 'Hey, dad. What can I do to help?'" And that just melts these parents' hearts. They're like, "Oh, I've got a lot of things for you to do. Wow."

Dan Heath:
I'm starting to get the feeling that these visits are really more ultimately for the parents than the kids.

Larry Jefferson:
Oh, no. They're for the children. They're for the children. But parents stick their little fingers in that little session, which is good. That's that's perfectly fine with me.

Dan Heath:
So are there ever kids who seem skeptical about Santa? Are any of them kind of testing you or asking about logistics?

Larry Jefferson:
Of course. One child wants to know if my beard was real, and before I could say anything, he had pulled it. And I was like, "Ouch, that hurt. Now do you realize that my beard is real?" "Yes, Santa." I says, "Here, pinch my hand." He'll pinch my hand. I was like, "Ouch. Now let me pinch you." "No, no, no, no, Santa." And I said, "No, you've got to come here so I can pinch you and see if you're real."

Dan Heath:
So do kids sometimes ask for toys that you've never heard of? Is it hard to keep tabs on what kids want?

Larry Jefferson:
You know what? No. If a child says, "Santa, I want this and that." And I'll say, "Uh-huh. Mm-hmm. Okay. I'll see what I can do." even if I have never heard of it. You've just got to fake it sometimes.

Dan Heath:
Yeah. Uh-huh.

Larry Jefferson:
"Oh, really? Uh-huh. Okay. I'll see what I can do." I'll look at the parents and I'll say, "I'll see what I can do." Because we never promise kids that we can do anything because we can't.

Dan Heath:
What are the most unusual things you've ever heard a kid ask for?

Larry Jefferson:
Well, here recently I had a child ask for their parent to come home. And I'm not a psychologist or a counselor. I'm just Santa Claus. And so, I had to say, "Well, where's your father?" And the child says, "My dad's in jail." And I said, "Well, I'll talk to your mother about it." You know what I mean? That was last week. The week before I had someone say that their parent had died three weeks ago.

Dan Heath:
Oh.

Larry Jefferson:
And I just said, "Well, you're still going to have a good Christmas. You're still going to have a good Christmas." That was here in Dallas, at the North Pole in Dallas. And I said, "But you still can have a good Christmas, and I will still bring you presents and make sure that you have a good Christmas. Okay?" "Yes. Thank you so much, Santa. I love you." Oh my gosh, it melts my heart.

Dan Heath:
How do you handle that? That is so raw to hear something like that from a kid.

Larry Jefferson:
I'm a retired Army Captain. My last five years I was working in the Chaplain Corps with Chaplain Assistance and things of that nature. And I'm a faith believer, so I just use my spiritual core, as I call it, to help guide me on things to say to children when it comes to that nature. Because you want them to be hopeful and optimistic, but you also know you're not going to be able to give them what they're asking for.

Dan Heath:
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

Larry Jefferson:
And once before, I had a child to come up to me to tell them that their daddy was unemployed and he needed a job and they may not have a Christmas. Well, guess what I was doing at that time? I was working for the Employment Commission, the employment office where we get jobs and meet with employers and jobs. So I talked to the mother and says, "Hey, listen. Call this number right here. It could help you if you're looking for work, and we could also help your husband find work as well." And she said, "How did you know that?" I said, "Your children told me that."

Dan Heath:
Wow.

Larry Jefferson:
And so, she was emotional. And I was like, "Whoa." Sometimes they get emotional, I'll get emotional, my photographer will get emotional. We're all in the room crying. I was like, "Okay."

Dan Heath:
Have you ever had a moment with a kid where you just were at a loss of what to say?

Larry Jefferson:
I would probably say yes, especially when children want to start questioning as to who I am. Like one child said, "Santa, I thought Santa Claus was white, but you're brown." I says, "Well, I'm very magical. I could be white, I could be brown, I could be Hispanic, I could be Asian. Santa's very multicultural." And they're like, "Oh, okay." And so, you have to think fast on your feet when you're talking to these children. You know what I mean?

Dan Heath:
So I just want to say for our listeners, it might not be readily apparent that you are black. How do you think that has affected your experience as Santa?

Larry Jefferson:
Well, I've been black all my life. And I'm multicultural. I'm part Choctaw, part Caucasian. So I'm just a human being who wants to help spread joy, hope, happiness, and love to all mankind. But children very seldomly will come and approach me on things of that nature. But most times, children just see what? Santa Claus, a Santa in a red and white suit with a white beard.

Dan Heath:
How do black kids react when they see you?

Larry Jefferson:
Oh, my gosh. Some of the African-American children, when they see me, they just jump up and down. One child says, "Mama, Santa Claus looks like me. He looks like you too, mama. Look." I can hear these conversations right in front of me as if I'm not there. It was hilarious. But it's a good thing, because all children need to see a Santa Claus that looks like them.

Dan Heath:
That must make you feel good to hear those reactions.

Larry Jefferson:
Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely. I will never forget when I started out being Santa Claus in 1999 for my brother's three boys, Chris, Kammy, and Kobe. And I showed up at their house on December 15th. I'll never forget it, 1999. But my brother forgot I was coming. I purchased a Santa suit from Walmart for $29.99. And I called him and said I was coming up to the house on this date, "Mark it on your calendar." My brother Charles forgot. I show up at their house, the kids open the door, Santa Claus is standing right there with a, I had a green pillowcase as my sack, as my Christmas bag. And I was just doing something just to have fun. And they were screaming and yelling, and my sister-in-Law says, "Boys, what is going on?" They said, "Mom. Santa Claus is at the door." She said, "Well, let him in. Let him in." So I was only there for 15 minutes passing out a couple of toys, some candy, and some money, and telling them I'll be back.

After I left, my sister-in-Law called me and was like, "Larry, that was so good." I said, "What was good about it?" She said, "I asked the boys if they knew who it was. They kept saying, 'Yes, mommy. It was Santa Claus. It was Santa Claus. It was Santa Claus. And he's coming back to bring us more.'" And I was like, "Well, if I can fool Chris, Kamy, and Kobe, I can do this for other people." And I just started doing it for the Stew Pot, for some homeless shelters, for my Reserve Unit, and soldiers.

Dan Heath:
So how did you make the transition from being an amateur Santa, doing it for family and friends, to being a professional Santa?

Larry Jefferson:
Well, I was still in the Reserves, and I had just finished up with my tour in Afghanistan, Kuwait, and all those other places. And I was like, "What am I going to do when I get out of here? I'm going to go back to my government job, but you know what? I'm going to grow my beard and become a full-time Santa." So I told Mrs. Claus, she was like, "What? You're going to grow your beard?" I was like, "Yes."

Dan Heath:
I love that your beard was the focus of that comment.

Larry Jefferson:
No, yeah.

Dan Heath:
You just told her you want to become a professional Santa and she's like, "But the beard, I don't know."

Larry Jefferson:
Yeah, she didn't like the beard. And so, I grew my beard and I started preparing to be a full-time Santa Claus. And I went to a Santa Claus convention. First, I went to a Santa Claus workshop, a school, that my friend Gordon Bailey was hosting.

Dan Heath:
Wait. There's a Santa school?

Larry Jefferson:
Yeah, we have Santa schools and workshops. Yes. Wait till you hear about the Santa Convention.

Dan Heath:
Oh, do tell.

Larry Jefferson:
Yeah. So I did the workshop and school and they told me all about Santa Claus and the history of Santa Claus, and they showed me about how to go out and present myself and try to get contracts. So we talked about contracts, insurance, background, and all this whole arrangement of things that as an entertainer, because you're entertaining people, need to know.

Dan Heath:
What about the kind of performance side of things? Are you workshopping and role-playing in the school?

Larry Jefferson:
Yes. Uh-huh. We'll sing some jingles and then we'll ask a couple of questions and let people be a child and then the other person is Santa Claus. So you're going to tell Santa Claus what you want for Christmas, and then Santa, you have to respond. And we do different role-plays of that nature to help people to get to relax into being that character. And we do balloons, blow-up and designs and ties. What else do we do? We talk about bleaching and dyeing our hair so that your beard is white and your hair is white.

Dan Heath:
Do you bleach your beard?

Larry Jefferson:
Yes, I do bleach my beard. Because if you're going to be in the game, you've got to be all in.

Dan Heath:
Hey, everybody. It's Dan here with a quick personal interjection. So a couple months ago when the show launched, I really didn't know what to expect with all this. I remember I'd had some conversations with people who asked me what the value proposition for the show was going to be. And I have to admit, I didn't have a very good answer. It's a show at its core about curiosity, just basic, unfounded curiosity about people and the work that they do.

And then, when it launched, something happened that kind of blew my mind. A lot of you came to listen and you sent me notes. I got a note one time from Ian in England, who said he'd listened to my conversation with the stadium beer vendor while walking his dog, Lulu. So thanks, Ian, and thanks to the thousands of you who came and joined part of this tribe of curiosity. I so appreciate your time and your investment in this project. And I welcome your thoughts anytime. You can get me directly at dan@whatit'slike.com. Merry Christmas, everybody. And back to the show.

So what was your first paid engagement as Santa?

Larry Jefferson:
Oh, Mall of America. When I signed the contract with Mall of America in 2016, they hired me only for four days. But prior to that, I was still getting paid at Santa Claus with my nylon beard and hair, because I was still wearing my little cheap Santa suit. I'd get a suit from Party City, put it on, and people would call me just for fun and kicks. They wanted Santa Claus to be at their events or their house party, and they would call and say, "Larry, can you be Santa Claus?" So I said, "Absolutely." And my friends would pay me or donate money to me or whatever.

And then, at the Santa Claus convention, it was called Discovery of Santa, in July of 2016. It's where I met Santa Sid Fletcher, and he was one of the Mall of Santas. He came up to me while I was there and he was like, "Hey, look. I've been observing you and watching you. You carry yourself pretty good. And we're trying to hire additional Santas. Call this number right here and speak with them." And I said to Santa, I'll never forget. I said, "Well, if I call that number, they're going to hire me." He was like, "You think so?" I said, "Yeah. I'm an actor." And he's like, "Okay, whatever."

Dan Heath:
Wait. So Mall of America was one of your first paid gigs?

Larry Jefferson:
My first paid professional gigs with the real beard.

Dan Heath:
Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Larry Jefferson:
And I've been there ever since. I've been there since 2016.

Dan Heath:
I know listeners are going to be curious, what does a professional Santa get paid? Is it by the hour? Is it by the job? How does it work?

Larry Jefferson:
Well, most time they get paid in cookies and candy canes. That's all I'm going to say.

Dan Heath:
Very in character.

Larry Jefferson:
That's all I'm going to say.

Dan Heath:
All right, all right, lips are zipped.

Larry Jefferson:
However, it's a business, and we do get paid for being Santa Claus. Most Santas do, and there's a lot of Santas who just donate their time. But it is a business.

Dan Heath:
When you get together with other Santas, what do you talk about? What does Santa shop talk look like?

Larry Jefferson:
We talk about cars. Who's got the latest sleigh? Because I will fly to Michigan, get my rental truck, and load up several sleighs and bring them back to Texas, refurbish them and sell them and I'll give them away to various Santas. So we talk about that.

Dan Heath:
Wait. I can't tell if you're serious or not.

Larry Jefferson:
Yeah, I'm being serious.

Dan Heath:
What do you mean? You fix up sleighs?

Larry Jefferson:
Yes. Oh, my gosh. You can travel to places that have, to various states, like Michigan has a lot of sleighs. Pennsylvania has a lot of sleighs. So I've painted, oh my gosh, probably 15 or 20 of them, and I've sold them over here to my decorator stores who need sleighs. They always say, "Hey, do you have any sleighs, Santa Larry?" I say, "I sure do. I'll have some in a couple weeks." So I've got one in my yard right now. It's a gigantic sleigh that was built a couple weeks ago and they just delivered it to my front yard Sunday night.

Dan Heath:
I'm just awestruck that when Santas are together, they actually talk about something that we might hope they talk about like sleighs and not insurance.

Larry Jefferson:
Oh, oh, absolutely. But we talk about everything Christmasy, "Who made your Santa suit? Who did this for you? Who helps you to sing? Do you have a vocal coach?"

Dan Heath:
How did people find out about you?

Larry Jefferson:
Well, you know what? When I became Santa Claus at Mall of America in Minnesota in December, 2016, I only had a contract for four days. It was not controversial, but it was the fact that people had never seen an African-American Santa Claus that looked like me or an African-American Santa Claus, per se. And there was some haters who were sitting behind their computer or laptop saying, "You know what? Blah, blah, blah about Santa Claus. We don't need a black Santa Claus. We don't need this or that." But those people weren't the people who were coming out to see me. The people who were coming out to see me were people who wanted their child to see Santa Claus. And I had more love than I did hate that was coming out during that time period.

But people find me on internet. They can Google Santa Larry. And some people have typed in African-American Santa Claus, but most of them know me by Santa Larry, and all my information pops up.

Dan Heath:
It's obvious you love Christmas. Is that something that's rooted in childhood memories?

Larry Jefferson:
Oh, but of course. I come from a large family of 11 children. I'm number nine. And we always had fantastic Christmas memories. We were sort of poor, but I didn't know we were poor because we always had food, we always had clothing, you know what I mean? Even though my mother put five patches on my pants one time, they were still ironed and I went to school with them patches on my pants. But Thanksgiving is over, first thing we do while Thanksgiving dinner is over and people are cleaning up the kitchen, we children would go in and pull out the Christmas tree and start putting the Christmas tree up, and start wrapping the lights around the Christmas tree and tossing those silver icicles all over that little country Christmas tree.

And I will never forget. My father came home and he was down on his back. I was 11 years old, and he signaled for my mom to come out. And he said to her, he says, "Go get Larry. I can't walk. I'm down on my back," et cetera. He was a World War II veteran and a Korean veteran. So I come out the house, see what he needed, and he says, "I've got to tell you something." I says, "What's that, dad?" He says, "I'm Santa Claus and your mama's Mrs. Claus." And I was like, "What?" And he said, "Yeah, but it is time for you to know. You're 11 years old and I need for you to do something." I said, "What's that?" He said, "I need for you to be Santa Claus."

And I started laughing. I was a giggle box. And I started laughing at my dad, and my mother said, "Larry, he's being serious." I said, "Okay, okay, okay. What do I need to do?" And they says, "When all these kids go to sleep tonight, you're going to come in and you're going to get these toys off the back of this pickup truck and this camper, and you're get them toys out of that barn and you're going to put them up under the Christmas tree." I was like, "Okay." "And you can't tell nobody." I said, "Okay."

So everybody had gone to sleep, and my mother wakes me up, and I sneak out and start bringing all these presents, putting them up under the tree, and my brother's bike and my other brother's car that had wheels, you would pedal it. You can sit in and you can pedal it. It was a little gold car. I'll never forget it. And it was just different things, and my sister's Easy Bake Oven. And I was putting all these presents under the tree. And after I got through doing that, my mother said, she says, "Larry, you're going to make a great Santa Claus one day." So my sweet mother spoke those good words over me, and I thought that was... I get emotional thinking about it because... Sorry about that. I'll get emotional thinking about it because she loved Christmas, and they made sure that we had everything that we needed as growing up as children.

Dan Heath:
That's a beautiful story.

Larry Jefferson:
Yeah.

Dan Heath:
You had no idea that that was maybe opening a door for something you'd rediscover in your future.

Larry Jefferson:
And that's so true. So in '99, after I did my brother's house, a couple days later, I'd drive home to Arkansas and I surprised my mother as Santa Claus. And she was laughing up a storm and she said, "You're the first Santa Claus I ever saw. Sit down over here, Santa Claus." And my niece had the camera, we were taking pictures. And I said to my mother, so my mom is sitting on my lap. I said, "My dear, do you realize that it's me, Larry?" She says, "Yes, it's you. But right now, you're Santa Claus and I need a picture with Santa Claus." And so, that was just some of the joys and fun I've had being Santa Claus.

Dan Heath:
So Larry, we always end our episodes with a quick lightning round of questions, so here it goes. What's a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know? And what does it mean?

Larry Jefferson:
Ho, ho, ho. And it means ho, ho, ho.

Dan Heath:
I think that people outside the profession may be familiar with that one. There's no backstage lingo that one Santa says to another?

Larry Jefferson:
No, no.

Dan Heath:
What's a tool specific to your profession that you really like using?

Larry Jefferson:
Singing. I love singing. "We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year." I use that when the kids were coming to see me. I'll use different songs and they just smile and it's like, "Oh, wow, Santa Claus."

Dan Heath:
That's so good. What's a phrase or sentence that would strike fear in the heart of a professional Santa?

Larry Jefferson:
"I'm going to give you coal." Because Santa Claus doesn't like giving coal to children.

Dan Heath:
Now, have you ever had to say that to a child?

Larry Jefferson:
Yes, to a child that was-

Dan Heath:
Oh.

Larry Jefferson:
Yes, to a child that was completely out of control and was running around saying, "You're not real. You're not real." And the moment I says, "You know what?" And the parents had already said, "If you keep saying that, Santa's going to give you coal for Christmas and not bring you anything." That was my cue. So I says, "You know what? You're going to get coal. And at this moment, I'm taking off the nice list. You're on the naughty list. And you may not get anything." From that moment, that child was nice as he could be.

Dan Heath:
Oh, wow. So it worked?

Larry Jefferson:
Yeah. But I'm always queuing and keen on things that parents say. And I will never forget that. He was just like, oh man. He piped down and came in and apologized. But it's all good.

Dan Heath:
Santa Larry, thank you so much for being with us. This has been super fun. Is there anything you want to say to the people listening?

Larry Jefferson:
Yes. Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let Earth receive her king. Enjoy Christmas holidays. It's for family, faith, love, joy, happiness. Remember, Christmas is once a year, but you can carry it in your heart throughout the year like I do.

Dan Heath:
Larry Jefferson is a professional Santa Claus based in Dallas. It was so fun talking to Santa Larry. It struck me afterwards that his story teaches us something about the nature of expertise. Anybody can put on a Santa suit and say, "Ho, ho, ho," and provide a pretty good experience. Maybe some of you listening have been Santa before.
So what is it that distinguishes a pro like Larry from an amateur? And I think it basically boils down to two things. First, you get better at managing exceptions, the difficult cases, the kid who pulls your beard, the kid who asks you to bring his dad home from jail. And you can't possibly get those things right the first time out. But after years of practice, you get quicker, you get more responsive to what that child needs in that moment.

And on the other side of the equation, you also get better at finding ways to heighten the joy for everyone. So it's not just, "What do you want for Christmas, Johnny?" It's starting to sing carols to kids when they walk in and working their names into the lyrics. And you figure out that when you're taking pictures with little ones, snickerdoodle is the optimal word to coax a smile from them. That's professionalism. Managing exceptions with grace and pushing to higher and higher levels of performance. And folks, that's what it's like to be a professional Santa.

I'm Dan Heath. This episode was produced by Matt Purdy. If you want to fill our stockings, will you leave us a review? To all of you listening, happy holidays, and you won't believe the lineup we've got for you in the new year. Take care.

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