Now that Santa is finished trudging through chimneys and dropping off toys for good girls and boys, he's settling in for a long-overdue evening of separating winter whites from his rosy reds. "You caught me doing my laundry," the right jolly old elf says with a chuckle.
Santa suits are a common sight in the wash bin of Thomas McAndrews, who has been bringing the magic of Santa to children for more than eighteen years. The imp impersonator, a retired IRS investigator who happens to be naturally bearded and biologically jelly-bellied, is known as "Santa Tom" among his pixie helpers at Cherry Creek Shopping Center. But being Santa isn't always a barrel of laughs. McAndrews juggles his mall shift with appearances at hospitals and charity events, often bouncing boys and girls on his knee for twelve hours at a time. "It can be physically exhausting," he admits. "I get my flu shot early and take my zinc and vitamins every day -- and I'll still get a cold handling all those kids. But I truly love the job I do and just want to add some joy to children's lives."
As others did for him when he was young. McAndrews grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, crammed into his grandparents' modest house along with eight other kids. "My father passed away when I was eight years old," he says with a New York accent that comes and goes. "If it hadn't been for organizations like the Knights of Columbus, we would not have had a Christmas most of those years."
Most of the kids who visit him at Cherry Creek know little of such need, and they can be a bit demanding after waiting in line for more than an hour to get some face time with the big guy. But Santa Tom is seasoned in the stress of the season, and he handles each child with the patience of a saint, working the room like magic -- sometimes even pulling a coin from a child's ear. "You gotta do your homework, because kids today are pretty perceptive. They ask me about Mrs. Claus, what kind of cookies I like, and specific details about the reindeer. I explain that all the reindeer are female and that's why they never lose their antlers. And you know, the big guy never has to stop and ask for directions because the female reindeer always know where he is going."
What about Rudolph?
"Well, I think Rudolph might be in drag," he says, quick with a retort.
McAndrews has also had to get used to the changes in technology, particularly in telecommunications. "It used to be, 'Did you get my letter?' or 'Did you get my telephone call?'" he says. "Now it's, 'Santa, did you get my e-mail?'"
To keep up, he launched a Web site, www.realbeardsanta.com, which posts Santa Tom's schedule and offers "Elfin Mail," an interactive tool that sends copies of children's Christmas-wish letters to their parents. "The magic of Santa still exists," he says.
But right now, it's on hiatus for another season, and McAndrews's life is all about washing the Santa suit and resting from another bustling season of lending an ear (and lap) to thousands of children whispering their dreams. "I am in the business of accepting wishes and will do this until I can't do it anymore -- or at least until it stops being fun," he says.
So what's the secret to being a successful Santa and keeping it interesting for nearly two decades?
"Santa always has two clean pairs of pants with him," McAndrews says. "And I must say, over the last couple of years, I've noticed that the diaper industry has gotten a lot better."
It all comes out in the wash.