The first rule of Santa’s water-ski club is: You do not talk about Santa’s water-ski club — at least not while using your real name. That’s according to “Papa Noel,” the man who currently organizes the annual parade of water-skiing Christmas characters that’s been a D.C. tradition for 30 years.
“We are very strict about anonymity,” says Papa Noel, a 40-something urban planner who lives in Alexandria. “We want the show to be about the community, not individual egos. It’s not about being a pro skier and saying, ‘I was an elf on a hydrofoil, look at me.’ ”
In addition to the high-flying elves, the 30-minute show — which returns at 1 p.m. Saturday — also includes toy soldiers doing backflips on kneeboards and costumed characters showboating on Jet Skis. The big finale? Waterskiing Santa flanked by up to nine water-skiing reindeer.
The event began in 1986, when an Alexandria-based office supplies salesman who now refers to himself as “Santa Emeritus” was brainstorming with his friends at a holiday party. “We decided it would be funny if one of us water-skied down the Potomac in a Santa suit,” he recalls, “and I drew the short straw.”
So, on Christmas Eve that year, he rented a plush Santa outfit, layered it on top of a wet suit, and jumped into the half-frozen Potomac.
“The costume soaked up about 35 pounds of water. I was barely able to get up on my skis,” he says. “After that, I bought a cheap, lightweight Santa suit, because they all look equally good from the shore.”
In 2011, Santa Emeritus passed his Santa suit to another water-skier and handed over the event’s organizing duties to Papa Noel.
Papa Noel begins putting the show together in July, reaching out to the 50 or so boat drivers, skiers and other volunteers who make the show happen. One of the most important behind-the-scenes jobs, he says, goes to the “dressers” who help skiers don their costumes over life jackets, dry suits and thermal underwear.
The bulky getups, combined with the fact that skiers are constantly crossing the wake made by returning boats, can result in epic wipeouts.
“People love it when we fall,” Santa Emeritus says. “It’s like when you watch NASCAR for the crashes.”
There are no formal practices in the weeks before the show, “because water-skiing in the freezing-cold water is insane,” Papa Noel says. Instead, the performers work on their tricks in the summer, on the lakes around Fredericksburg, Va. It was on one of those lakes that Papa Noel was recruited, back in 2006.
“Someone looked at me and said, ‘You look like a reindeer,’ ” he recalls. “I think he meant I looked like someone who could take a beating.”
The reindeer have a particularly tough job because, for the show’s finale, they water-ski beside Santa. Since the boat driver’s priority is getting Santa up on his skis, the reindeer can have a rough ride and sometimes get left behind entirely. “When Santa’s ready to go, you go no matter what,” Papa Noel says.
Papa Noel spent a few years as a reindeer and then graduated to being a Jet Skiing Jack Frost, with the job of rescuing felled water-skiers. These days, he runs the show from the dock, calling out orders on his two-way radio while someone else drives his boat.
Putting on the show is a lot of work during a busy time of year, but the volunteers of Santa’s water-ski club say this silly spectacle is worth the effort. That’s why, as the mythical Santa takes to the skies on Christmas Eve, the man who calls himself Papa Noel will be re-winterizing his boat in his backyard.
“I’m out there in the dark, in the cold, with a flashlight, trying to flush my hoses, while my wife is inside washing all the reindeer costumes,” he says. “You have to wash them right away before the Potomac stink sets in.”
Alexandria waterfront, from Founders Park to Waterfront Park; Sat., 1 p.m., free. (Pre-show activities start at 12:45 p.m.)