Santa 101 no ho-ho-hum course

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Santa 101 no ho-ho-hum course

You better watch out/you better not cry/better not pout/I'm telling you why/Santa Claus is coming to town," sings a group of 25 young men and women in a small room on the second floor of a youth center in northern Seoul. The chorus eventually ends the Korean version of the time-honored Christmas favorite with a burst of gusto.

"Enthusiasm, enthusiasm! That's what makes all the difference in the world," bellows Park Kyung-dug as he watches them from the side. Mr. Park is the sole proprietor of the Santa Academy, a firm he founded three Decembers ago to provide Santas for visits to private homes and functions.

The group of Santa trainees is broken up into smaller groups, and one by one each participant plays the role of Santa Claus. Mr. Park, who also works as an account executive for an event-organizing firm, holds a chart on his lap and begins to score each candidate.

One Santa hopeful, Kim Song-hyun, gets off to a promising start by greeting a group of fellow trainees, who are squatting on the floor playing the role of children, with a hearty "Merry Christmas!" He smiles and asks the mock-children what they would like to do with "Grandpa Santa," but after they request a certain Christmas carol, the prospects of Mr. Kim qualifying to be a Santa quickly dim as his voice cracks when attempting to hit the high notes of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer."

What are the qualities Mr. Park looks for in his Santas? "Enthusiasm and wit are crucial because they usually work with children," Mr. Park explains. At the end of the three-hour training and evaluation session, which included tips on sing-alongs, storytelling, and bending balloons into animal shapes, Mr. Park calls out 15 names. The rest are asked to leave. Not everyone gets to be Santa.

Standing up, the remaining nine men and six women are told to sing three Christmas carols in succession. "The only difference between you and the people who just left the room is that you guys were a lot more enthusiastic," Mr. Park says. "Now let me see some more of that."

The group responds by swaying side to side, clapping, hooting, jumping up and down and running short of breath as they sing the carols in a quick tempo. With the group all hyped up, Mr. Park proceeds to offer more practical tips such as how to give out presents and how to ad-lib during storytelling time for children.

Among those paying full attention is a 20-year-old student, Park Hye-sun. "This is the perfect temporary job for me because I really enjoy dancing and singing," she says, adding that she would prefer for the company to send her out to children's events.

Although Santa Academy's clients tend to prefer male St. Nicks, women are not discouraged from applying for the jobs. The company makes no pretense that their Santas are real; everyone knows that they are just ordinary people in red Santa suits who are hired to hand out presents and provide entertainment. "Our Santas don't have beards and they don't stuff a pillow in their suit to look the part of the plump old Santa," Mr. Park said. "And the women usually wear red skirts."

Come to think of it, who says that Santa Claus has to be hirsute and heavy-set anyway? After all, the popular image of the jolly old man in a red suit with white trim can be traced to the 1920s, when such renderings of Santa became widespread in the United States due to Coca-Cola advertisements.

The myth of Santa Claus, in fact, dates to the early part of the 4th century and the ancient town of Myra in present-day Turkey. Legend has it that a Bishop Nicholas helped people in need by secretly giving them money and gifts. Eventually, people found out who was helping them and began calling him Saint Nicholas. The story spread throughout the world, resulting in varying names for the generous man. While Americans settled on the name "Santa Claus," in Britain he is called "Father Christmas" and in the Netherlands he is called "Sinterklaas."

The Santa Academy hires about 20-30 Santas each season - mostly people in their 20s - from a pool of more than 100 applicants. The demand for Santas is generally concentrated in the week leading up to Christmas.

Families are the company's main clients. "We make about 100 Santa visits to private homes each season," Mr. Park says. "We also cater to corporate events." A home visit costs 50,000 won ($38) for up to three children, with an extra charge of 10,000 won for each additional kid. To have Santas drop by on the 24th or 25th, the basic charge rises to 60,000 won.

Meanwhile, over in downtown Seoul and in sub-zero temperatures, an imported Santa could be seen helping distribute free lunches to the needy and elderly at a mobile soup kitchen in Jongmyo Park. Decked out in the standard Santa Claus costume, with the long white beard and a pair of round-rimmed glasses, Carsten Mogenson, 48, came to Seoul last week for a three-day tour organized by the Scandinavian Tourist Board. Mr. Mogenson, from Denmark, is well qualified: He has been working as a professional Santa for some 15 years.

A member of the Santa Claus Foundation of Greenland, an association of 150 professional Santas, Mr. Mogenson said his early training included learning how to properly say "Ho,ho, ho." He normally works as a radio journalist, but becomes another person when he dons the suit, he says: "When I get into the suit, I am Santa Claus." So devoted is he to the transformation that for the 40 days a year he works as Saint Nick he gives up smoking and drinking.

"A Santa Claus has to be confident and always smiling," he explains. "People must see in Santa's eyes that he likes being Santa Claus." Looking at his twinkling gray eyes, for just a moment, I get the feeling that I am actually sitting next to Santa.

Santa Academy can be contacted at 02-516-4214~5. English-speaking Santas are available.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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