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'Being Santa Claus' opens the book on Old Saint Nick

10:35 AM, Dec 5, 2012   |    comments
Sal Lizard has been Santa most of his life. Not "playing" Santa, but being Santa. He's now written the book 'Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas.'(Photo: Doug Kapustin for USA TODAY)
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WASHINGTON -- The forecast is for snow. Santa could not be happier.

"I love it," he says as he heads down 15th Street the day after the presidential election. "Snow is my friend." He is on foot, no reindeer in sight, and in full gear.

A brisk wind is blowing, but that doesn't stop two women from bolting out of a Starbucks to tell Santa they've been good. They then give him a kiss, perhaps an extra incentive for him to drop by on Christmas Eve.

A block down, David Olive of McLean, Va., stops Santa to thank him for the recent Obama win. "It was an early Christmas gift, Santa," says Olive, a federal employee who then slaps Santa's back in gratitude. "Thanks!"

Random car horns begin to blow and a truck driver stops for a red light, rolls down his window and yells: "I want a Rolls-Royce, Santa!" Santa promises nothing, but gives the driver a thumbs-up of hope.

Virtually every person Santa meets smiles. In these dwindling weeks before Christmas it appears most everyone, even if they don't believe, pretends they do.

"I think I get said 'hello' to more than most people," Santa admits without any hint of understanding why that might be so.

Santa, also known as Sal Lizard, has seen all these antics before. And more. He is now sharing his tales in a new book, Being Santa Claus: What I Learned About the True Meaning of Christmas (Gotham), which has brought him to the nation's capital on a promotional stop.

The thing is, Lizard actually looks like Santa Claus. The beard is real. The belly of jelly is real although he won't divulge his waist size. The blue eyes and the pink face are all real, too. Which at first was a problem.

Lizard (pronounced like the reptile), 57, had little desire to be Santa more than 20 years ago back in Charleston, S.C., despite the fact that not a day would go by that someone didn't remark how much he looked like Old Saint Nick.

"I thought it was a curse back then," he says of his premature white beard.

But one thing led to another, a red suit was donned, a radio station called and Lizard began showing up at public events in parking lots and the living rooms of private homes. He often arrived in his bright red Chevy station wagon with SANTA plates and mistletoe hanging from the rear-view mirror.

He has also worked as Santa in shopping malls and department stores, a journey now told in a warm and whimsical way. "Yes, someone actually said I should write a book," he says. "And so I did."

It's written with Jonathan Lane, who admits working with Santa was a bit intimidating but not for the reasons you might think.

"His memory is just remarkable," says Lane, who worked for two years culling Santa tales from 50 hours of recordings.

"It's what it is supposed to be," Lane says. "A feel-good book, a little taste of Christmas."

Lane also found out quickly that Lizard is serious about his ho-ho-ho gig.

His No. 1 rule? "I always ask myself: What Would Santa Do. WWSD," Lizard says. "Santa never walks away from anyone, for instance. And Santa can't say no. It's one of the occupational hazards."

He also gave up both smoking and drinking, not wanting children to see Santa doing either. Santa needs to project the right image at all times. (He's still both amused and amazed, though, that any number of people, including the guys down at the gas station back home, often ask, "Want a nip, Santa?")

"Children have a hard enough time trying to figure out what's right or what's wrong," he says. "Being Santa is about trust. Children want to believe and once you give them something reasonable to believe in they'll go with it."

He also knows people don't necessarily want to see much of him before Thanksgiving.

"It's a little early, Santa!" one passerby yells as he nears the White House.

"I've got to be somewhere," he responds.

"What about the North Pole?" comes a curt reply.

Santa chuckles. He takes it all in stride, having experienced most everything over the years, from being wet on by anxious toddlers to being harassed by teenage boys whom he then sets straight if they stick around long enough to hear him out.

"But for the few people who get upset I'm around now, more people appreciate that I'm out here," he says. "Santa can't please everyone."

Not that he doesn't try.

David Barnum and his 22-month-old son, Sherman, are obviously delighted when they come upon Santa. From Overland Park, Kan., they are in town on business/vacation. Sherman is left speechless by the sight of Santa, but that doesn't stop him from taking a candy cane from Santa's gloved hand when offered.

As did a dozen toddlers from US Kids/Child Development Center who are so excited to come upon Santa they hop up and down in unison. He answers all their questions, including the whereabouts of his reindeer.

"They're playing reindeer games!" he's quick to reply.

After a rousing version of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town with the pre-schoolers, Santa immediately finds himself circled by tourists in front of the White House. The newly re-elected president was en route home from Chicago, but Santa was here.

"I haven't talked to him in 50 years," says Denise Oxford of Anderson, S.C., in town to celebrate her 60th birthday. "The chance to hug his neck again is a real treat."

Janet Molinari, a middle-aged tourist from Santa Rosa, Calif., steps right up like any child and asks Santa for a iPad.

"I never makes promises," he says. "It's a rule."

"I give people permission to be children again," he says later on, peering over the wire glasses that sit on the end of his nose.

And that includes the maitre'd at lunch who appears delighted to seat the old guy at the table of his choice, passing fellow diners who smile and wave at Santa.

Over a lunch of salmon and tea drunk with a straw so as not to stain his beard, Santa talks about his alter ego, but not before he high-fives a little boy who walks up to the table.

"I'm building my own dual personality," he admits. "But if I'm going to morph into anyone, Santa is not such a bad thing to be."

About to be a grandfather, Lizard has a wife back in Georgia where he still works as a sometime substitute teacher and is trying to break into commercials and acting. He admits this time of year he sees very little of Mrs Claus "who understands." He's often booked for holiday events a year in advance. This year is even worse with his book tour.

And yes, being Santa can be lucrative.

"You can make good money," he says. "But it's not about the money."

Any trends out there, he's asked? So far this year Santa has noticed that even more kids want electronics. "There's been a slowdown in live animals, for some reason."

But what's not changing are the habits of the children who climb onto his lap year after year.

"For the girls it's always all about my accessories. My belt. My boots. That's what they're interested in."

And the boys? " It's all about my beard," he says. "Yes, they pull it."

"A lot of children think I'm the real deal," says Santa. "It's up to you to decide."

USA Today

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