“The number one thing we teach the Santas in our school is: The owners are the parents, and the pets are the children,” said Tim Connaghan, a.k.a. Santa Tim, who lives on Long Island and trains fellow Saint Nicks on tricks of the trade when not doing gigs himself.
Polls show Americans increasingly view their pets as family, and today’s Christmas cards leave little doubt about that. More than ever, they include animals. And more than ever, Santas long accustomed to soothing crying children must also know how to handle wriggling critters — at animal shelter fundraisers, at mall photo sessions, and at office parties that allow family members of all sorts, including the four-legged kind.
Not that Santas are ho-ho-ho-ing only to quadrupeds. Rick Rosenthal, owner of Northern Lights Santa Academy in Atlanta, once sat for a portrait with a hissing cockroach. Connaghan, who is known professionally as “National Santa,” recalls a shoot with five birds — two on each arm and one atop his head.
“And when I got done, I had five nice white, wet goo spots on my suit,” he said.
Santa Curtis, who sat Monday evening on a blue velvet settee at Tysons Galleria in Northern Virginia, said the most unusual animal ever to perch on his ample lap was a house-trained duck. “But every Santa’s had a python or two,” he said.
On this night, the last of the mall’s “pet pictures with Santa” events this season, he was posing only with dogs and cats, per mall rules. But no felines showed. Instead, Santa Curtis — whose agency, Cherry Hill Programs, did not want his full name divulged — welcomed a parade of pooches bedecked in Christmas sweaters, velvet collars and antler headbands.
A black Lab leaped eagerly onto the sofa and yanked the ball at the end of Santa Curtis’s cap; after the photo, the dog briefly mouthed some decorative silver berries placed around the sparkling, wintry backdrop. Later, a Yorkshire terrier with 10,000 Instagram followers arrived wearing a red dress and accompanied by a tuxedoed friend, also a Yorkie. Santa Curtis, who owns five dogs at home in Alabama, stroked them calmly.
Marina Cosmas waited in line carrying Dulce, a Chihuahua-Dachshund mix, and wearing Godiva, a Chihuahua, in a crossbody sling. She said she’d taken her 5-year-old son for photos with Santa at Tysons Corner Center, the mall across the road. The dogs, however, had long visited Santa at the Galleria.
“I bring the dogs to this Santa because he does well with animals, and the other Santa does well with children,” she said. Both photos would go on her Christmas cards, she said.
Encounters with animals — other than reindeer, of course — are now so common that Susen Mesco teaches a 45-minute workshop on the topic at her Professional Santa Claus School in Denver. Among her tips for Santas: Decide whether to appoint someone to manage the line, making sure all animals keep their paws to themselves. Let the host know which species are permitted, or you might confront a menagerie.
“At that point, you really need a Santa that loves, loves, loves pets. And that when you hand him an armadillo, he goes, ‘Oh, this is so cute!’ ” Mesco said.
Connaghan recommends placing hard-to-hold animals on a box, table or bird stand. Even then, he said, “sometimes it’s better to let the parent hold it. For example, a boa constrictor, or a parrot or something.”
Rosenthal, who began performing as Santa 50 years ago, said he opened his academy because he thought too many Santas are “just guys in red suits,” and he thinks “being a Santa is a skill, not an activity.” One must is a quality Santa suit, which can run into the thousands of dollars, he said. But gigs with pets demand a less valuable suit and immediate dry-cleaning, he said — to remove dander and fur that might affect children with allergies, and to sanitize it.
“Lap dogs will regularly urinate on you because they’re excited, not because they’re marking their territory,” Rosenthal said. “But urine is urine, and if you’re the one being urinated on, you don’t really care why.”
In Rosenthal’s experience, most professional Santas prefer not to do pet photos, in part because of the suit-cleaning costs. He has done just one this year, with “a very exclusive group of dogs that has a following,” he said. “I love animals. But I’m more interested in what I can do for bringing joy and happiness and a smile and good feeling to people.”
At Tysons Galleria, Santa Curtis wore a wool blend costume that he called his “pet night suit.” In a brief lull between photos, he said he loves the Galleria precisely because it does pet nights weekly during the holidays, more often than other places he has worked.
“That’s my favorite night,” he said. “Animals, as long as you treat them good, they’re just more predictable than children.”
Soon, the photographer was squeezing a pink penguin squeaky toy to draw the attention of Noelle, a French bulldog that wore a glittering wreath around her neck for her photo with Santa. It took a few minutes.
“There we go!” one of the three humans escorting Noelle said as the dog broke into a Joker-style grin. “That’s a smile!”
This was Noelle’s 10th annual sitting with Santa, according to her owner, Rebecca Maples, who said all the photos go into frames at her Vienna home. This year, Maples surmised, Noelle probably asked Santa for “steak or chocolate — anything she’s not supposed to eat.”
Patrick Adkins, a Colorado resident who has portrayed Santa on a seasonal basis since 2013, said he enjoys pet events so much — and sees demand increasing so much — that he’s considering advertising himself as a specialist of sorts. He said he looks the animals in the eye, and he can tell they feel loved, and that they’re thanking him.
In many ways, he said, posing with pets is little different from posing with children. He welcomes them warmly. He gives them personal space. But to dogs, he offers a tummy rub.
“Myself, I have an extreme fear of snakes and lizards and those things. But for a photo, I will do it,” Adkins said. “As long as they tell me it won’t bite, it won’t hurt you, I’ll do it. It’s like, ‘Hey, this is for these people. This is their family.’ ”