“If your son is apprehensive, keep him facing me when we take the picture,” Dana Friedman tells the mother as she places her 2-year-old in her lap. The crying begins on contact. “Its good!” Friedman explodes, his Santa voice at full tenor, as he returns the child to his mother. “Take a picture of you two! He pretends to walk away, but actually sneaks around the bench to stand behind them. It works almost instantly – the child calms down, Santa Claus smiles. Moment captured, everyone is happy.
Friedman has worked as a Santa for rent for more than 20 years, making the holiday circuit at events in all five boroughs, and he often requests a small square footage behind any folding chair, sleigh, or quasi-throne his hosts have installed. for him for this reason: the North Pole photobomb. It’s a rainy December morning and we’re standing in what used to be a Justice Girls in the Bay Terrace mall, but is now a wallpaper-covered pop-up photo studio with stacks of goodies and a miscellaneous. a hodgepodge of repurposed sets from Friedman’s own home and the mall itself. The photo bench is from the sidewalk outside and a CS because “Santa Claus” hanging on the wall is the only relic of the store’s fashion past – Friedman tells me he repainted the letters from the old Justice Girls sign. People come to take pictures with Friedman, who in turn encourages them to make donations, which he will take to local charities and hospitals. (The fact that it’s all for charity is why the mall owner lets Friedman use the space for free.) I’m here as an observer, witnessing a day in the life of a father Indie Christmas in peak season, but almost everyone I meet assumes I’m part of the operation as well, probably because I’ve mindlessly worn a bright green jacket that makes me look like an elf. After answering several questions about where to put the toys and whether homemade crochet gifts are acceptable, I immediately regret the decision. But Friedman shows no signs of fatigue as he deftly snaps a few last photos with the waiting guests and calls security to come lock down (“Hey, it’s Santa Claus,” he says on the phone) . A mother tells her child to say goodbye to Santa Claus as they walk through the door. No time to linger: Santa Claus has another concert.
Photo: Clio Chang
Friedman, a 63-year-old civil litigation lawyer, is a portly man with a bushy white beard that he begins to grow every summer because it takes him six months to achieve Santa Claus realism. He’s a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in Borough Park. He is Jewish so had little to do with Santa Claus until his secretary suggested, in the months after 9/11, that dressing up as Santa could be a way to give back. families of first responders. A natural performer, Friedman found he enjoyed the role and even went to a Santa class to learn the basics. Now he juggles over 100 bookings a season alongside his actual job – I watch him as he takes several work calls during the day (“Hey, I do Santa stuff, I t’ call later”). Friedman is now part of what he calls an “entire fraternity” of Santas for hire, including his friend Stanley Taub, another Jewish Santa Claus in California, who he says has “immaculate suits.” (He tells me there are “more Jewish Santas than you think.”)
With the drinks I picked up for us at Bay Terrace in hand – a large Panera iced tea for Santa, a coffee for me – we head to Friedman’s bright green Jeep Wrangler and the next gig at the Douglaston. Club, a private club. yacht and tennis club across Little Neck Bay a few miles away. Friedman tells me that when he works on an event like this, the only day he gets paid, he makes about $250 to $350 an hour. He says he spends most of the money he earns on toys to give away, but also on gear — his Santa costumes are custom-made and run for $5,000.
Photo: Clio Chang
Susan, the Douglaston Club’s Santa Claus host for the day, welcomes us to the imposing Greek Revival mansion (the whole thing is reminiscent of the country club) and leads us upstairs where a crowd of children are already queuing . When Friedman enters the room, parents in plaid shirts and children in Burberry skirts stop and turn in awe. They quickly swarmed him and he’s back in his element, taking pictures and telling the kids how much they’ve grown since he saw them last year. (He later tells me that the wooden staff he’s carrying isn’t just compelling for Santa cosplay — it also helps with “crowd control.”) The kids ask him for presents, while a group of women wearing Santa Claus hats comes to take a selfie with him. Within an hour, the job was done and Susan handed Friedman a check in a plain white envelope. As we walk back to the car, he tells me that he tries to get customers to put his checks in a Christmas card because he “doesn’t want the kids to see Santa getting paid.” (While I respect Friedman’s commitment to preserving fantasy, I should note here that I only believed in reindeer as a child.)
We have an hour between now and Friedman’s scheduled 4 p.m. appearance at the Bayside Historical Society. Friedman often has to have lunch on the go on tight days like today, but we have time to stop at Avo Taco, a fast-casual restaurant that takes us back to the Bay Terrace mall. However, he doesn’t have time to change into “civilian” as he calls his non-Santa clothes, so people at the restaurant stop to take pictures with him, which he clearly enjoys. I’m starting to wonder if Friedman ever gets lost in the role. “They don’t really see Santa as a person,” he says, biting into the chimichurri steak taco our server recommended.
Photo: Clio Chang
As I watch Friedman warmly received wherever we go – passers-by smile at him or say “Hi, Santa!” when they see him walking towards his car – it becomes clear to me that people seem to inherently trust someone dressed as Santa Claus. The reactions seem almost automatic, pre-verbal. This is precisely what allowed Friedman to have such access to the city. He says he’s hung out with all kinds of celebrities at hospitals and charity events — Michael Bloomberg, Cyndi Lauper, Rob Thomas, Jason Mraz — and no one ever batted an eyelid. (He has a 2020 Bloomberg pin hanging in his car.) He’s rung the bell on the New York Stock Exchange, been on a float in the city’s Halloween parade, and worked with the Rangers, Nets and Knicks (he had to turn down the Yankees this year due to a scheduling conflict). “My ultimate goal is to be in the Macy’s Day Parade, but they’ve been hiring the same guy for years,” Friedman said, genuinely desperate. (Details about the man behind Macy’s Santa, which I later discovered while trying to research him, are incredibly hard to find online.)
At the Bayside Historical Society, the security guard waves us in without asking questions. Friedman puts an Altoid in his mouth because “Santa doesn’t smell” and we’re dragged through the side door of the castle-like building in Fort Totten’s grounds by Barbara, our new Santa’s helper. More kids are lining up for more photos, more dads are making the same jokes (“Have you been naughty or nice?”) and, like clockwork, we’re off again when the hour is up.
Photo: Clio Chang
It’s almost 6 p.m., the sky is dark and the rain is pouring as we head to the last stop of the day: the Eagle Warehouse, a co-op in Brooklyn where Friedman lived in the 90s and where he first put on a Santa Claus costume. As we pull up on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, he puts on the Bob Rivers twisted christmas. He tells me he’s thought about taking a break from being Santa Claus, but he’s afraid that if he takes a year off people will forget about him and his bookings will dry up. Even for just a year, I ask her? “Even for a year,” he says.
When we stop at the Co-op, which is across from Grimaldi’s, we are greeted by Phil, our latest Santa Claus driver and an old friend of Friedman’s. We waited, listening to the children come out of another room where a magician was performing. “Kids will shit their pants when they see you.” said Phil. With a burst of energy, the kids arrive, Friedman’s voice rings out, and for the fourth time that day, they totally made it.