On any given night in December, you’ll likely find 43-year-old Chad Canfield in a velvet red suit, long white beard and black shiny boots.
But once he’s in the suit, he’s no longer Chad Canfield. He’s Santa Claus.
“It’s more than a costume. It’s not just like putting on an outfit,” he said, explaining that Santa is not just a role he plays, but a complete transformation.
“You don’t play Santa,” he said. “You become Santa.”
Canfield’s seasonal Santa gig started in 2011 when his employer — Avadyne Health — was having a holiday party.
“They needed a Santa and asked me because, well, I’m a little chubby,” Canfield — a patient service representative from Cedar Rapids — said, rubbing his belly with a chuckle.
Although he didn’t end up wearing the suit at that particular party due to being snowed out, Canfield said later “Santa asked me to help him out and put on the costume because he can’t be everywhere at once.”
At first, Canfield was going to parties of family friends and posing for portraits in Alisabeth Von Presley’s Cedar Rapids studio. Now he has acquired multiple sets of Santa suits, beards and even a custom-made belt by Rise Above Leathers in Cedar Rapids and is doing gigs even for strangers, he said.
“I started out doing Santa to make extra money for our family to pay for Christmas,” he said. “It’s still nice and really does pay for Christmas, but the reason I do it has definitely changed. ... It’s not the paycheck, it’s the memories.”
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Today the whole family gets involved. His wife, Kristina, dresses as Mrs. Claus while his two children, Zada, 10, and Zoe, 14, dress as elves. It’s brought the family closer, he said.
On Dec. 17, for example, the family visited an event at the Paramount Theatre, where Santa sat children on his lap and listened to their wish lists while Mrs. Claus and the elves handed out candy canes. Later that evening, Mr. and Mrs. Claus visited two private parties in the area, surprising kids with gifts.
Every time Santa walked in the room, children squealed with glee.
“We’re creating memories,” Canfield said. “Memories these kids are going to have for the rest of their lives.”
On Christmas Eve, the Claus’ stop at different homes throughout the night to drop off gifts and snack on cookies and milk while children watch secretly from a distance, Canfield said.
“You get these kids that are on the edge of not believing and you wake them up and Santa is actually there — it’s not just dad or mom in an outfit,” he said. “I think that’s really the best part of this — how many memories we can create. Especially if we can make a difference in those kids who are on the cusp of not believing.”
And for that reason, Canfield takes his job as Santa very seriously.
“Santa is more than just a guy in a red suit and beard,” he said. “Being Santa is so important to children — that Santa knows who they are and listens to them. To take on the role of an icon like Santa is really an honor.”
But it’s also a huge responsibility, he said.
“If I say the wrong thing to the wrong person, it ruins Christmas for somebody,” he added.
When talking with children, for example, Canfield is careful not to make promises.
“A lot of times kids will ask me for outrageous things like Xboxes and new cellphones and you know that’s not what they’re getting for Christmas,” he said. “I’m not going to promise them that. I’m going to tell them that I have a very special present just for them and I’ll put that under their tree, but it’s really hard to not promise them something that they really want.”
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Occasionally, Mr. Claus will encounter children who are afraid of him. But with gentle coaxing and a little Christmas spirit, he can usually gain their trust.
At the Paramount event, for example, a 7-year-old named Liam hid behind his parents, shielding himself from Santa when they arrived. But when Santa joined him at the coloring table and engaged in conversation about his favorite thing — chapter books — Liam began to open up and even eventually sat on his lap for a photo.
When Canfield saw the effect he had on Liam, he said he “got a little misty-eyed.”
“It’s just one of those things, where you go wow, I kind of made a difference,” he said. “Who would have thought putting on a red suit at Christmastime would make a difference for anybody? But when you see how much joy it brings ... I can’t even put into words the feeling it gives you.”
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