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Santa supplier starts a trend

By KYRA LOW, The Mirror

It’s a holiday tradition — the annual photo with Santa, a professionally made memento of the season.

In fact, the tradition started in Puget Sound.

It was in 1943 that Art French, a Seattle sports photographer with an office across from the Fredrick and Nelson’s department store, decided it was a good idea to capture the meeting of Santa Claus on film. French’s company, Arthur and Associates, claims to have launched the longest running Christmas tradition in the country.

In 1992, after the closing of Fredrick and Nelson’s, the company began sending out Santas to malls across the Puget Sound region, including the The Commons mall in Federal Way.

Not just anyone can be Santa’s photographic stand-in, though. It takes a special breed and special training.

“We run a Santa University,” said “head elf” Hillard Viydo. “We remind them of the names of the reindeer, to never promise anything but to never say no, and (to have) good listening skills. For the individual who portrays the character, it’s a real passion.”

Many of the Kris Kringle impersonators are retired teachers, like Bill Fischer and Einer Thomsen, or Santa Bill and Santa Einer as they are referred to, respectively.

Santa Bill has been working at The Commons mall for 15 seasons as Santa after a friend at Arthur and Associates referred him.

Over the years, Santa Bill has picked up a few tricks for dealing with those children who are less than enthused about their Santa encounter. A soft voice and eye contact usually works for him.

“I’m a people person, a retired teacher, so I’ve been around kids my whole life,” Santa Bill said. “I like the age group, seeing their eyes light up, watch them think and come up with what’s really important. I really enjoy seeing the happiness of the children and the parents.”

Of course there are those occasional kids who act up and pull Santa’s beard. Santa Bill, like almost all of Arthur and Associates’ Santas, doesn’t use a theatrical beard anymore.

This was not a company-ordered change. During the mid-1990s, the Santas began this change on their own, bypassing the professionally-coiffured yak hair beards that the company offered for their own natural beards.

Santa Bill starts growing his beard out in August to get the full beard by the holiday season.

Santa Einer starts growing his beard just a bit earlier, in July, and has been a Santa for 14 years, starting after his retirement from teaching.

“I’ve learned to use a nice quiet voice for the little ones that don’t want to talk to you,” Santa Einer said. “I’ll lean down and talk to them and in a couple of minutes, I’ve got them in my lap.”

A relative Santa newbie, Oscar Peterson is only in his second year at Arthur and Associates. He has been doing Santa jobs for six or seven years, starting after his wife gave him a Santa Claus suit for his birthday, Dec. 22.

“It’s delightful to talk to the little kids and parents,” Santa Oscar said. “Even some big kids come by, those in their 20s, and that’s kinda neat.”

Santa Oscar admits there are just some kids who aren’t going to like seeing Santa up close and personal.

“There are those that are crying and nothing is going to stop them so sometimes you try bringing them back several times and that usually works,” Santa Oscar said. “Usually there are problems with kids 15 months to 3 years.”

Santa Oscar’s work often follows him home though.

“I have to avoid wearing red during September through November,” Santa Oscar said, who lets his natural inch-long beard start growing out in July. “Once though, I was in a museum in Kentucky and one little kid kept coming over. I didn’t even have a full beard at the time.”

For many families, the Santa photo is a family tradition, one that doesn’t change with the age of the kids. Oftentimes when college kids come home, mom will send them to get their picture taken with Santa, Santa Bill said. Or whole families will often come on Christmas Eve — large families of 15-20 — and get one big photo taken.

And for those kids who cry, these Santas know just the trick.

Contact writer: klow@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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