Santas debate whether it's naughty for them to be obese

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009; A01

In this season of ever-present Christmas cookies, an unlikely figure is leading the offensive against America's obesity epidemic. The beard on his double chin is as white as snow, and when he laughs, his little round belly shakes like a bowlful of jelly -- and that, as Ernest Berger sees it, is the problem.

Yes, Northern Virginia, Berger is a Santa Claus. But as president of the volunteer group Santa America, Berger has been nudging some of his more corpulent colleagues toward a different model of Santa. He wants his fellow members of the Claus family to give themselves the gift of less girth, calling it "a matter of self-preservation" that will also help children to whom Santa Claus is a roly-poly role model.

"I'm pushing to reduce the size of Santa by 25 percent," Berger says from his home in Daphne, Ala. "We're gently and relentlessly focused on getting these men to be positive about fitness and wellness and reducing their weight."

This battle of the bulge has been raging quietly within the Santa community, which is made up of an estimated 4,000 professional Santas who congregate at annual conventions, chat year-round on Claus-centric online message boards, spend thousands on customized outfits and perform everywhere from shopping malls and military bases to homes and hospices.

In some Santa circles -- typically, the ones with the largest circumferences -- the idea that Santa Claus should consider swapping sugar cookies for carrot sticks has been about as popular as vegan eggnog.

"Some of the obese men are saying, 'Don't go there; why not just go get a pizza?'" Berger says. "They feel it's not something Santa America should be emphasizing."

A half-dozen super-heavyweight Santas contacted for this story declined to comment. "In many ways, it's the third rail in the world of Santa," Berger says.

Nicholas Trolli, president of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, says there was no shortage of blowback when he pushed for a slimmer Santa a while back. Some Santa lovers "told me to shut up; like, who am I to decide what Santa's weight should be?" says Trolli, who is clinically obese at 5-foot-10, 270 pounds and has members who easily top 400 on the scale. Trolli says weight loss is no longer an active initiative for his group, though he says he still thinks Santa could stand to come down a few sizes.

Berger estimates that one-third of professional Santas in the United States are obese, roughly mirroring the prevalence of obesity among American adults. Another third of Santas are overweight, says Berger, who includes himself in that category. The rest of the Santas are fit, but you might not know it, since many wear padding under their big, red suits to create the illusion of a massive midsection. Berger wants to see Santa lose that fake fat, too, and get back to where he might actually fit in a chimney again.

Declaring a fatwa on excessive Santa fat is daring to tinker with a cherished cultural icon that dates to the Great Depression, when Santa was drawn as a jolly fat man for a famous Coca-Cola advertising campaign, his paunch intended to symbolize better, more prosperous times. Although Santa had been presented in varying sizes before then, Coke's ads made him permanently porcine, at least in American culture. (He was, and still is, more svelte in other parts of the world -- plus Los Angeles, where a Hunky Santa, a chiseled, shirtless Claus alternative "reflecting L.A.'s healthy lifestyle," has a mall gig.)

But as the obesity epidemic has swollen, some public health experts have cast an increasingly critical eye on Santa's sprawl. Two years ago, acting Surgeon General Steven K. Galson said Santa's corpulence was setting a bad example. His remarks prompted howls of protest, with more than a few people accusing Galson of being politically correct in trying to make Santa physiologically correct.

An opposing expert opinion comes from Andrea Vazzana, a psychologist who specializes in weight management at New York University's Child Study Center. She says a svelte Santa "would be great for Santa, but I don't think children would benefit. The children who are believers in Santa, in that age range, they don't have a whole lot of say in what they eat."

One recent morning at Tysons Corner Center, little girls in red dresses and little boys in scratchy holiday sweaters were being paraded onto a set ringed with 22 Christmas trees and hoisted onto Santa's ample lap for the ceremonial sharing of the wish list.

Dana and Tammy Sanford stood near the cash register, admiring a new photo of their month-old daughter, Molly, who looked like a tiny speck in the enormous arms of the mall's plus-sized Santa. It looked . . . right.

"It fits with history and tradition," Dana Sanford said. "When I grew up, Santa was always a big, round guy. I would be completely comfortable with Santa staying as he is."

As would most parents, apparently. "The kids don't care. You don't hear them running to Mommy, saying, 'Santa is too skinny,' " says Gary Casey, founder of the Santa booking agency Parents "expect you to be fat. But that also means Santa has diabetes, he has bad arteries and high blood pressure and high cholesterol -- and, in my case, he has heart failure. I had a stroke and ended up with the inability to talk and the inability to think."

Casey, healthy again, is back to working as a Santa, albeit one who has downsized from 357 pounds to 300, with 50 more to go.

Berger sees progress: He thinks the Santa Claus in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade looked 30 pounds lighter this year.

Macy's spokeswoman Elina Kazan declined to discuss Santa's specs, saying: "Santa's weight is a personal matter, one that is shared only between Mrs. Claus and St. Nick himself."

Theresa Saidy, whose company, Adele's of Hollywood, is a leading maker of Santa costumes, says she's noticed "a little trend where some of the Santas are slimming down." But most stay constant, including her biggest clients -- literally. "I just shipped a suit to a guy with a 78 waist and 81 chest. It took us forever to make it."

Two people who won't be promoting diet change Santa can believe in are the president and first lady. In a TV interview, Oprah Winfrey asked the Obamas whether they were expecting Santa to swing by the White House on Christmas Eve. Yes, absolutely, they said.

The president: We'll set up some cookies and milk.

Winfrey: Oh. Not apples and vegetables from your garden?

The first lady: Maybe we'll put some apple slices. But Santa generally likes cookies and milk.

The president: Yeah, I mean, Santa -- Santa eats what he wants.

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