By Susannah Sudborough
BU News Service
How does Santa begin a long day of children sitting on his lap? Not with a cup of coffee. He’s powered by a mug of hot chocolate, of course.
Along with this festive breakfast, 55-year-old “Saint” Nick Gillotte takes vitamins including biotin to keep his beard in good condition, and then showers before blow-drying his bleached and very-real snow-white beard. Then comes the volumizer, color and shine sprays to make his beard look picture perfect.
“Most of us [Santas] have more hair care products for our beards than our wives,” Gillotte said jokingly. “We drive our wives nuts.”
Though Gillotte has a round nose and cheeks, he still uses foundation and blush to make sure his skin is flawless and his cheeks are as rosy as the legends describe.
But of course, his look is not complete without the iconic red suit.
Though Gillotte said he has nine suits, including his first suit which he bought at 19 years old, he usually goes for what Santas call the “Coca-Cola look.” Like the brand’s iconic Santa, instead of a fluffy white trim down the middle, which he said is considered more traditional, he usually sports one with black buttons down the front and two golden tassels running down each side of his chest.
This is his signature get-up, chosen because he believes it looks the best in pictures.
Gillotte finishes off the outfit with his favorite snowflake-shaped belt buckle and soft golden oval-shaped glasses. Sometimes he even wears peppermint cologne.
“Santas tend to be peacocks,” Gillotte said through a chuckle. “They like to show off.”
Underneath, he wears a “chill vest,” which is equipped with cooling gel pads to keep him cool throughout the day inside the heated malls and stores. It also adds a little extra padding for Santa’s belly.
To say Gillotte is a convincing Santa Claus would be an understatement. His blindingly white beard is surprisingly soft to the touch, and his velvet red suit is devoid of any wrinkles.
Seeing him suited up evokes a strange feeling of familiarity, and breaks down the normal barriers a stereotypically cold New Englander might have. Even adults light up the moment they see him, cheerily calling out “Hi Santa!” and waving as they encourage their children to go greet the disarmingly smiley man who looks like he just popped out of an illustrated version of “The Night Before Christmas.”
In fact, that’s not far from the truth. The Danbury, Connecticut, native’s Santa accolades include a past modeling gig for a specially-commissioned, hand-painted, leather-bound, gold-inlaid book version of the classic poem, which sells for $168.
He also serves as the president of the New England Society of Santas, has starred in a commercial for Christmas decoration company Balsam Hill, runs a children’s educational Santa YouTube channel and for the first time this year, went on tour with JC Penney across New England to take pictures at their portraits studios.
Indeed, Gillotte is no run-of-the-mill mall Santa. After 36 years playing the character, he knows all the tips and tricks for getting children comfortable and taking the best pictures to make sure kids, parents and store owners leave satisfied.
Gillotte’s transformation into Santa began in his late teens when he was working for his brother’s balloon delivery business, for which he would regularly dress up in costumes and play with kids. Seeing his skill with children, one of his clients asked him to don the red suit for a local tree lighting.
“From there it just snowballed,” Gillotte said, winking at the pun he just made. “But I really started looking to do it more and more because, from the first time I did it, I really thought it was me. It was my personality.”
Michele Dalbis-Robledo, a long-time friend of Gillotte’s, agreed completely.
“When I found out he was a Santa I thought it was a perfect fit,” Dalbis-Robledo said. “Santa is not a disguise for him.”
Over the years, Gillotte has put more and more work into being Santa, working seven days a week from Nov. 1 to the new year. About a decade ago, he began bleaching his naturally dark brown hair white all year round, after finding it too much of a hassle to do so for only part of the year. He knows all the ins and outs of being a Santa, from practicing smiling so his cheeks don’t get sore, to “ho-ho-hoing” sparingly so as not to scare children.
Gillotte is an exceptional Santa, but it doesn’t come from some uncommon charm. His magic is surprisingly methodical.
He spends much of his spare time researching new children’s toys, movies and shows to make sure he knows all the characters the kids might want to talk about. He said it is very important for Santas to be able to connect with the kids quickly, as they usually have 90 seconds or less with them.
“I only have a split second usually to determine what’s going to be my lead-in question format,” Gillotte said. “I try not to have a cookie cutter for everything.”
For instance, if he’s encountering a shy girl, Gillotte said he might ask what her favorite princess is, and if she isn’t interested in princesses, ask if she’s interested in Legos.
If worst comes to worst, he said, he can ask what their favorite character is, and then ask what they like about that character so that he is prepared to talk about it the next time a child brings it up.
“I start there, and when they realize that I can have a conversation with them or things that they know, then they open up,” Gillotte said.
At a JC Penney photo studio in Nashua, New Hampshire on Nov. 26, Gillotte showed his skill with children when dealing with a particularly frightened young toddler. While her parents and grandparents encouraged her to approach him, he insisted to that she didn’t have to come up to him if she didn’t want to. Instead, he asked her questions she could answer in a soft and sweet voice and was slowly able to get close enough to her to get a good picture without her crying.
“It’s magical. He knows just what to say to them,” said Cathy Rehaag, Gillotte’s longtime friend. “He really listens to them and makes them believe they’re the most important person at that time.”
On the same day, Gillotte was able to manage a cute picture with a 9-month-old named Elijah by making faces and soft noises at him just before the picture was taken. His gentleness both physically and emotionally with children was unmistakable.
“You know you’ve made the shot when mom and grandma start crying,” Gillotte said jokingly.
But Gillotte’s challenges as Santa go beyond simply getting good pictures. He said that as a Santa, he often deals with children going through a difficult time. Children sometimes ask for dead parents or grandparents to be made alive again for Christmas, or ask to be healed when they know they’re dying, he said.
“We have to try and help them understand that that’s not the kind of magic we have,” Gillotte said. “We have to do our best to help them through that moment.”
On top of the practical and emotional layers of being Santa, Gillotte said he is always asked to help sell products in whatever venue he is working. He said he tries to help both his clients and shoppers as best he can without making interactions feel like an advertisement.
It is because of the wide range of skills and expertise that Gillotte has acquired over his decades playing Santa that he can command a base rate of $150 for his first half-hour, and up to $1,200 for an entire day. This is quite a bit more than the $30 an average Santa makes per hour, according to Money magazine. Gillotte declined to disclose how much he makes as a Santa per year so as not to give an inaccurate picture of how much money most Santas make.
When Gillotte isn’t spreading holiday cheer, he earns a living as an electrician and ski instructor. Married for 32 years to his high school sweetheart, Gillotte said his wife is supportive of his career as a Santa but wants no part of it.
His daughter Samantha, the youngest of his four children, said the family respects how much care he puts into his job as a Santa.
“We all know how good he is at it, and we’ve been seeing him do it for so long it’d be weird not to see him do it,” she said. “It’s a big part of who he is. It doesn’t take over, but it’s a good fit for him.”
Having been part of the theater scene in high school, 21-year-old Samantha said she sees it as simply another type of performance career.
“There’s that saying that ‘if you find a job you love, you never work a day in your life.’” she explained. It’s that sort of thing.”
Though crying children, intentional prematurely aging and spending the holidays in crowded malls and stores full of stressed Christmas shoppers might not be most people’s cup of hot chocolate, Gillotte said he does it all for the one magical moment that’s created when he connects with a child.
“The moment we’re creating isn’t just for now, it’s forever,” he said.
Gillotte said that often when he smiles at people, he can see it bringing back positive memories of meeting Santa.
“It’s so cool to have the ability to have that interaction,” he said. “As brief as it might be, it makes me smile for memories. It is pretty priceless.”
After Gillotte finished with the crying toddler in JC Penney, her great-grandmother came over to speak to him. She sat on his lap.
“This is just like my childhood,” she said, smiling sweetly.
Gillotte smiled back kindly and chatted with her for a minute or two. As she got up to leave, he offered a goodbye in character.
“It’s nice to see you again.”