The legendary Santa at Phipps Plaza will visit with about 15,000 wide-eyed tots this holiday season. Overzealous parents angling for appointments have been known to crash the santaatphipps.com website as they plunk down $15 deposits for the appointment-only Saint Nick. All available visits usually sell out even before trick-or-treaters hit the streets each fall. Santa’s head helper at Phipps since 2006 is Johnny Hammond, sixty-nine, of Covington, a retired Lucent Technologies technician and a veteran Southlake Mall Santa. Before climbing into his coveted chair this holiday season, Hammond talked to us about his “blessing” (he declines to characterize what he does as a job) while nursing a sore throat.
Photograph by Scott Britt
How do you get into this business? Well, I played Santa one year here at my church in Covington when they couldn’t find anyone. I did it with the false beard and everything. But later on, I started growing a little bit of a salt-and-pepper chin beard. I’m not trying to brag here, but people used to call me Kenny Rogers. Personally, I didn’t see any resemblance. My daughter Andrea suggested that I let my hair and my beard grow out and become Santa. I thought, “I’ll give it a try. I can always cut it off.” And here we are. It’s a fun thing to do. It’s not really a job at all. I’m so blessed to have that chair. That chair has a lot of prestige that goes with it.
You were friends with the late James Ray Bryan who had the Phipps Santa position for more than twenty years. What’s the best piece of advice Santa Ray ever dispensed? Be patient with the children and really listen to them because they’ve been waiting a while to see you. Just be yourself, talk to them the way you would anyone else.
How long is an average day for you? I get up at 6 a.m. and go into town to get made up real pretty at the beauty shop in Covington. Then I go over to the Park & Ride to meet the folks I travel into the city with. Then it’s down to the dressing room at Phipps, and I’m on the set at 10:30 a.m. I’m always a little bit nervous at the start of the season. But you just have to walk out with a big smile on your face and be Santa. I’m on set until 8 p.m. I usually get home by 10 p.m. and try to unwind a little bit and watch a little TV.
You’re one of the most sought-after Santas in the city. Do you ever feel the pressure? The only real pressure for me is staying well. I don’t have a replacement that I know of. I take a lot of vitamins and get the flu shot every year.
What are the kids asking Santa for these days when they crawl onto your lap? High-end tech things usually. They love the video games, cell phones, iPads, iPods. Most kids want a flatscreen TV in their room too. I take my cues from the parents to see if they’re nodding their heads or not. When children ask for a TV for their room, I explain to them that if they lock themselves in their room, they’re missing out on family time when you could be together, maybe have dinner together, and maybe watch a little TV together as a family. Well, if they get all their homework done, that is. The key is this: Never make any promises. Never use the word “I” either. I always use the third person and say, “Well, Santa will take a look at this list and he’ll have to wait and see how well you do in school and how well you mind your folks.” Parents usually give me a good idea of what’s going on. They’ll let Santa know if someone’s been talking too much in school. Hopefully, I can give them some encouragement to do better. Most of them say, “Yes sir, yes sir!” but a few of them say “Huh?” That always tickles me. Sometimes Santa has to play psychologist, too. Santa Ray always told the children, “Brush your teeth and say your prayers before you go to bed.” I’ve adopted that too because it’s something I believe as well.
What’s the most poignant gift request you’ve ever received from a child sitting in Santa’s lap? I was at Southlake one year and this little girl came up trailed by her little five-year-old brother. And she said . . . excuse me for choking up a little here . . . She said, “Santa, I don’t really want anything this year. I just want my brother to live so we can have another Christmas together.” Her brother had terminal cancer, you see. That one caught me up short, I can tell you. I just told her, “God may have a plan for your brother. We just have to trust and believe what he tells us.” This job isn’t all fun and games, no sir. Sometimes you hear things that just tear up your heart.
When I was a kid, when Santa went on break, his elves put out a sign that said Santa was feeding his reindeer. What does your sign say? I don’t really have a sign. I won’t lie to a child either. I’m not really fond of that feeding the reindeer tale either. I tell the children that Santa doesn’t bring his reindeer down to Atlanta because we have mild winters down here in the South, and it’s not good for them. They wouldn’t survive in this heat.
Around the holidays, most of us are watching how many Christmas cookies and treats we consume, but being jolly is in your job description. Is eating what you want one of the perks of being Santa? It can be, but I try to stay healthy. I don’t partake of the spirits as they say, and I quit smoking in 1980. Santa always has to think about his hygiene because you’re right in the kids’ faces. You’ve got to keep that breath fresh. I go through a lot of peppermints in that chair. I probably need to look around and find the sugarless kind, too.
Is the Santa suit Scotchgarded? Well, yes. But I’ve been blessed. Knock on wood, I’ve never had a child soil me. Sometimes, the babies have come in wet, and the parents end up apologizing. I always tell them: “Don’t apologize. That’s just part of being Santa.” I had one spit up on me last year. The poor parents were dancing around, all embarrassed too. I told them not to worry about it. The law of averages states that out of the thousands of babies that come to see you each year, one of them will probably spit up on you. It’s just part of being a baby.
Your holiday schedule keeps you busy seven days a week from November 1 to December 24. When do you get your Christmas shopping done? My wife Linda does all that. She takes care of all the children and grandchildren for us.
And when does Santa shop for Linda? Well, I don’t. I tried that for years but she always took back whatever I bought. Like a lot of husbands, I’ve learned over the years that it’s much easier just to give her the money and let her buy what she likes!
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW THAT RAN IN OUR DECEMBER 2011 ISSUE