Snuggle up with some holiday cheer as OnMilwaukee shares stories of everything merry and bright in the spirit of the season.
This is a story about Santa.
Not the Santa, but a Santa.
This is not the Santa who lives in the North Pole and ate the cookies you left out when you were a kid.
No, this is a different Santa. A real Santa.
This Santa spends 10-and-a-half months out of the year living in Appleton where he helps run a hardware store, and the rest sleeping at a hotel a short drive from Mayfair Mall where he spends 12 hours a day figuring out how to tell your kids they can't have a giraffe this year.
This Santa's name is Jeff Pockat and he was nice enough to sit down for an interview in his cluttered basement break room to talk about the life of a mall Santa. He takes a seat and hands me his card and a copy of Gaelic harp Christmas CD "Christ in Christmas."
Jeff has a real, full beard and big rosy cheeks and in his red velvet pants and button-up white shirt he looks as if he's just crawled off a holiday Coca-Cola can. In fact, He looks so similar to the iconic Santa that if his "elf" hadn't just tucked a cigarette behind his ear and run off to the food court to buy him a roast beef sandwich he could have fooled me.
Jeff Pockat: Sorry about the mess. We pretty much live down here for a month-and-a-half.
OnMilwaukee.com: How long have you been doing this for?
JP: This is my fifth season doing this as a mall Santa. I did it years ago up in Wausau. I did a couple of seasons as a real bearded Santa up there for the downtown businessman and that was fun and then I got away from it. Some people were bugging me about doing it again.
OMC: How long have you had a beard?
JP: I shaved for two weeks in '81 and decided I didn't like shaving. So I just let it grow right back and it's been ever since. I used to keep mine trimmed rather close, but now the past few years I've been letting it get real long. It gets about an inch longer every year I think.
Of course if I let it go it's just sort of a muddy gray, so I have to bleach it.
OMC: How did you get into it the first time?
JP: I come from Appleton. Santa Russ up there was the first person to say something to me. He said, "You need to do this." That was about 10 years ago or so. I thought about it but I never pursued it. A guy that comes into the store that I work at was the one that pushed me and my wife's best friend Vicky. Those were the two people who pushed me into really doing it, and plus I like the thought, too.
So the first year I did it I had gotten a hold of the Santa at Fox River Mall, and he gave me the number of his agent. Well, I talked to John Arthur and then my brother got extremely sick with cancer and I just kind of put everything on the back burner. My brother ended up dying in October of that year. Right after the funeral I got contacted by Cherry Hill Photo ... they needed a Santa out in Eastern Pennsylvania so they flew me out there and put me up.
I did my first season out there in eastern Pennsylvania. There were certain things I didn't like about the way Cherry Hill did things so when I got back right at the first of the year I started my dialogue again with John Arthur as my agent. He got me trained in Minneapolis at a Santa School Tim Conway from California put on.
JP: They have a whole book. Tim wrote a book called "Behind The Red Suit." It goes through the history of Santa Claus, how Santa evolved into the Santa we know today. Then it goes into the business of being Santa Claus, mall Santa, etiquette, do's and don'ts.
OMC: What are the most important do's and don'ts for a mall Santa?
JP: Never promise a child anything. Never promise them. Another one of the big do's is do make sure both of your hands are showing in a photo, because there have been lawsuits that have come about from greedy people you know.
OMC: What's the craziest thing a kid ever asked you for?
JP: Oh gosh. Exotic animals. I get a giraffe or an elephant every once in a while.
OMC: How do you handle that one?
JP: Well for one thing I say, "First I have to ask your folks in order to bring anything in that has to be fed." I get people that want a reindeer, kids that want to come visit the North Pole.
OMC: Do you know how many people you'll see this year about?
JP: Literally thousands. It's hard to count.
OMC: What's your day like?
JP: I usually get here a little after 9 a.m. Sometimes it takes a while to find parking. I like to park under a sheltered area. As many hours as I put in I get pretty tired and that's all I need to do is mess around with scraping a car off, or cleaning the snow off, or having it sit out there in a stiff wind.
OMC: You don't drive in from Appleton every day do you?
JP: No, I stay in a hotel over in Brookfield. They furnish a room for me.
OMC: What do you do when you aren't Santa?
JP: I do a couple different things. I help manage the tool department in a hardware store up in the Fox River Valley and I play the Gaelic harp.
OMC: Does your family come down here for Christmas?
JP: They come down here. I did get to go home, for the first time in five years, for Thanksgiving. We had Santa Russ over from Fox River Mall for Thanksgiving dinner. That was kind of fun. It was a thrill for the grandkids because they know I play Santa, but all of a sudden we had the real Santa there, too.
OMC: They have to make it worth your while to live in a hotel for a month and play Santa 12 hours a day.
JP: Oh yeah. There's a nice salary involved. I won't get specific on it but there's a nice salary involved.
OMC: What's your favorite part about the job?
JP: The kids. The pet nights are fun, too, but mainly the kids.
OMC: Do you ever get adults who want their picture taken with Santa?
JP: Oh sure. I've had babies that are 2 weeks old all the way up to a lady in Pennsylvania who was 107.