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What makes a great Santa? A new documentary comes to New Hampshire to find out

A new documentary on HBO Max is shining a light on a festive New Hampshire tradition: Santa Camp. It’s a school for professional Santas right here in the Granite State, and at the heart of the documentary is Dan Greenleaf of Manchester. He’s a co-founder of Santa Camp and the New England Society of Santas.

Greenleaf spoke with NHPR Morning Edition host Rick Ganley about his effort to diversify the professional Santa industry and what makes a great Santa. Below is a transcript of their conversation.


Transcript: 

Rick Ganley: What makes a great Santa?

Dan Greenleaf: Heart. It's not just somebody in a suit. It's somebody who really appreciates the role that we play and that being Santa, especially for children, is more than just acting a part. We always tell our students, you know, you're not there to impersonate Santa. You're there to personify him.

Rick Ganley: The HBO documentary follows your efforts to diversify the pool of professional Santas at Santa Camp. When did that become a priority for you as a Santa camp organizer?

Dan Greenleaf: I think we've seen the requests come in through my company and people looking for Santas of color. Once in a while they're looking for people who can sign or certainly Santas who can work with children with disabilities – also, just other languages, being able to speak Spanish. So it's been something that's been in the works for a while.

Rick Ganley: Have you noticed those efforts are paying off? Are people coming to you?

Dan Greenleaf: Certainly this year, or the year with the documentary, we were able to find a Black Santa who wanted to come because he wanted to become a Santa for his own daughter, but also just his community. And then we had a trans Santa who also wanted to learn how to be Santa so they could represent for their community.

Certainly we also have seen a growing interest with Mrs. Clauses, which is relatively new. I mean, we've had Mrs. Claus for quite a while, but she hasn't played as key a role as she is now and just being put on even keel with Santa as far as her abilities and what she can do. And with the demand for Santa these past few years, I mean, I've said to folks, if you can't find a Santa, Mrs. Claus is just as good because she can do everything Santa does, and probably some other things. But she can certainly do photos. She can take orders for Christmas. She can talk with the kids about the North Pole. She knows as much about it as Santa does.

Rick Ganley: Can you talk a little bit about what it means when children see a Santa or Mrs. Claus who more resembles them and represents them?

Dan Greenleaf: They've been used to seeing white Santas – white, old men. And I think for children who are of other races or have other situations, that they are experiencing something that they haven't been able to experience before. And I think it's really special to them. And you can see it in their faces that they really appreciate that there's somebody like them that is Santa Claus.

Rick Ganley: Do you still get that same kind of feeling after all of these years of being a Santa? Do you still get that feeling of satisfaction and wonder and awe when children are so happy to see you?

Dan Greenleaf: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I find that sometimes the administrative aspects of being Santa, you get wearisome about it, but when you get out there and are actually Santa, it all goes away. And it's just every child that comes up to me and gives me that look or is excited to see me, it's just so rewarding and it just energizes me. It gives me the joy of being Santa. Even adults – you could see today, I mean, people really love to see Santa. No matter how old they are: seventies or eighties. There's something about the memory as a child of their experience with Santa. But I think there's also just Santa’s image as love, and caring, and giving and hope that really is rewarding as a Santa, and that you see from these folks all the time.

Jackie Harris is the Morning Edition Producer at NHPR. She first joined NHPR in 2021 as the Morning Edition Fellow.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.