Now Or Never

Becoming Santa: from retiree to red suit

What does it take to graduate from Santa School? Retiree Jeff Badyk recently landed his first gig as an in-store Santa.
Whispering Christmas wishes in Santa's ear. (Caroline Wagner/CBC)

When Jeff Badyk of Chestermere, Alberta started to turn grey in his late 40s, he noticed that people started calling him Santa. 

Random strangers would stop him on the street and ask him if he would play Jolly Old Saint Nick at their staff Christmas parties. 

After he retired from his job in the oil and gas industry, Badyk let his hair and beard grow longer. But he didn't realize just how much he resembled Mr. Claus until one fateful summer afternoon.

"My son and I were out picking Saskatoon berries. These two trucks slowed down. The windows opened up and they were filled with kids," he recalled.

"The guy yelled out 'look kids, I found Santa!', so I went up to the window and asked the kids if they were being nice and kind. It was so much fun."

Signing up for 'Santa School' 

After that, Badyk did what he felt like he had to do. He enrolled in Calgary's Santa School, run by Jennifer Andrews. 

Andrews has been training Santas from around the world for the past decade.

"Santa can't be everywhere all of the time. So he's asked me to train his best regional representatives," said Andrews. 

Santa School enlists acting coaches, drama teachers, improv instructors and make up artists. Badyk learned how to talk to kids, how to communicate with frightened children, even how to deal with parents.

Santa Jeff is one of many representatives that Santa relies on around the world. (Caroline Wagner/CBC)
Badyk said that he initially felt silly because other classmates showed up for their first day in Santa suits while he was only wearing a red shirt and black slacks. Nonetheless, Badyk threw himself in to his Santa studies. 

He also got himself a proper Santa suit from a costume store in Toronto.

And to practice, he showed up at his local autobody shop. He wore his suit to witness their expression, wanting to know whether he was convincing or not. He was.

Most mall Santas are booked two to three years in advance. So for his first year, Santa Jeff took on some smaller, local events.

His first big break was at a Canadian Tire in Strathmore Alberta earlier this December. 

Santa has just arrived and is ready to meet the boys and girls. (Caroline Wagner/CBC)
"There were seven Christmas trees, a bunch of minions, dolls, a couch and some pillows. It was really well set up."

Badyk says that his favourite thing about being a mall Santa is when he sees how strongly the kids believe in him.

Sizing up Santa. (Caroline Wagner/CBC)
"One little guy came up and jumped up on my lap and just stared at me. He was around three," he recalled. "I gave him a candy cane and he just sat there and looked at me. The innocence and the happiness that he had - he didn't ask for anything. He just wanted to be by Santa."

"It's a treat doing this," he said, adding, "Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!"

Santa Jeff with Keith, age 9. (Caroline Wagner/CBC)