Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun
Monday, Dec. 16, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Larry Hansen was Christmas shopping with his wife in 2004 when a chance encounter with a mall Santa changed his life.
“The Santa there yelled out to me and my wife, ‘Come here I want to take a picture with you.’ He said, ‘You need to be Santa Claus,’” recalls Hansen, who at the time sported a ZZ Top-style beard.
A year later, the recently retired Hansen was pushed by his wife to apply for a spot as a Santa Claus at the former Belz Factory Outlet mall.
“I didn’t want to do it. She said, ‘You need something to do.’ So to get my wife off my back, I said ‘OK, I’ll go,’” Hansen says with a laugh.
His first shift lasted eight hours, and he was hooked.
“I’ve never had so much fun in my life. I’ve been doing it ever since,” Hansen says. “It’s an absolute ball.”
Nine years later, Hansen owns four Santa suits and spends much of the six weeks leading up to Christmas in character at private events and at Tivoli Village, where he spends eight hours on Saturdays and Sundays greeting hundreds of children each day.
Being Santa has become a year-round endeavor for Hansen, who says he’s “blessed with the look” and almost always wears a red shirt and a red hat when he leaves the house.
“We were having dinner for Mother’s Day. This little boy and his mom walk in and sit in the booth next to us. He’s looking at me so I get up and say, ‘How are you doing, young man? You know who I am, don’t you?’” Hansen says. “He kind of looks at his mom and says, ‘That’s Santa Claus, Mommy.’ I told him for being such a good boy and taking his mom out to dinner, Santa and Mrs. Claus were going to buy them dessert. He was so happy.”
The Sun caught up with Hansen at Santa’s workshop at Tivoli Village to talk about his most memorable experiences, what toys are on kids' wish lists this year and the joys of being Santa Claus.
What do you enjoy about being Santa Claus?
It’s the joy, not just in the kids’ eyes, but in the parents’ eyes too. The thing I really enjoy about it is just the smile of the kids. But the ones who are a little bit afraid are also cute. I tell the parents that the crying baby photo is fine because you’ve got something to talk about when they’re 17 or 18 years old.
How do you prepare to be Santa?
I get up extra early and take a lot of pride in looking the best I can to do this job. When somebody tells me I really look like Santa Claus, that makes me feel really, really good. It takes me about an hour and a half to get ready by the time I get up, have a cup of coffee, take a shower and get my beard all done up.
I’ve had a beard for probably 40 years. I put a little bit of whitening in it. I used to put a lot on because my beard was more red than it is now. It’s basically a little jar of stuff that’s water soluble that you work in a little tiny bit on each eyebrow and on my beard.
What are kids asking for this year from Santa?
The girls like Barbies and American Girl dolls. The little boys still like the trains and dump trucks. What’s different is the modern electronics coming out. They all ask for an Xbox. The thing I have trouble with is a little boy or a little girl, 5 or 6 years old, who wants an iPad or a phone. I try to deal with it, but it’s hard because of my age. I remember when I had a dime in my pocket and if I needed to call somebody, I went to the phone on the corner.
What moments from your career as a Santa stand out?
They were both on the same day. My wife and I for many years did the Festival of Lights at the Lakes. It was our second year there and this young man, probably 10 or 12 years old, comes running across the grass yelling “Santa, Santa,” and his mom is chasing behind him with tears in her eyes. She says he’s an autistic child who hardly ever talked. He came up, gave me the biggest hug and almost knocked me off my chair.
The next one was a little boy, 5 or 6 years old. He gets on my lap and I say, “What do you want for Christmas?” He looks up and says “Santa, I would like to have a bone marrow transplant.” Still to this day I get tears. I looked at his mom, who said, “Yeah, he needs one.” I was floored. What do you do? How do you answer that? I said, “Young man, we’re going to pray for you and we’re going to do the best we can.”
What do you hope kids take away from their visit with you?
I hope kids take away a happy spirit. I hope that for just a little while, for just that day at least, they can be a happy family together.