Hopping onto a fake St Nick’s knee to ask for presents is a tradition that’s been around since our parents were kids, and will likely keep going. It’s a rite of passage that seems pretty much bulletproof, even for a newer generation hooked on screens. As we walked through shopping malls around the city, we got to wondering what it was really like to dress up as a jolly fat man and deal with an endless parade of children – not to mention their parents – in the six weeks leading up to Christmas. So we pulled out the Yellow Pages, got on the blower to Mr Claus – three Mr Clauses, actually – to get the real truth behind being Santa.

We chatted with Bob, from Westfield Parramatta; Peter, who is currently the Santa for Watson’s Bay Boutique Hotel; and Greg, who reigns over Westfield Sydney on Pitt Street. Of course, in telling you this story, we’ve already broken the cardinal rule of never acknowledging more than one Santa at any given time, so if you are under 10 years old, this story is just a magical dream and go and watch cartoons please.

Bob, Westfield Parramatta
Years as Santa: 12
Going on 12 years (not including the four before that when he was a volunteer) Bob is the longest-running Santa of the lot. “I got the job after driving a mini bus to Canberra for a Santa [parade], and becoming involved with the group that was performing,” he says. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes for Bob; he arrives an hour-and-a-half before each shift to make sure he looks totally boss. “I spend a part of this time polishing my boots and brushing my wig and getting my beard ready for the day.”

When you’ve been Santa for this long, you’re bound to see some weird stuff. Bob once had a guy stroke his inner thigh while he sat on Bob’s knee with his daughter. He says that the lengths parents go to for a happy snap far outweighs bratty kids: “I’m always amazed at the attempts at bribery by many parents. They stuff their children with sweets and promises of ice cream. I would love to have a video camera aimed at the parents to record their antics as they attempt to get a child to smile for the camera.”

Bob says the greatest joy comes from the ingenuity of the children, which is why he loves his job. Yes, one once called him “a liar, a cheat and a fraud”, having obviously done his homework on the holiday season, but more often he encounters children who tell him they don’t want anything at all. “They want their presents to go to a single parent or a child who has nothing,” he says.

Though he has seven grandchildren, Bob doesn’t believe his job has shattered the illusion of Christmas. Rather it has amplified the magic for them. “They see me as a very special person who has been chosen by Santa himself to be one of his special helpers,” he says, which is probably the best outcome from that potentially sticky situation. “Asking children the right questions to gain the rapport with them is important,” he stresses. “When asking about their behaviour [during the year] I always watch for the parent’s reaction – then I can indicate that Santa knows the truth because he is always watching them!”

Greg, Westfield Sydney (Pitt Street)
Years as Santa: 2
“I’m a pleasantly plump person, reasonably fit; I believe I am a natural Santa with my own beard grown long to create realism.”

That’s Greg, who occupies the sleigh in one of the busiest Westfield shopping centres in Sydney – Pitt Street. He’s been at it for two years, self-motivated and inspired by Mike Williams, the former musical star who is now a host at 2GB. Once, he says, a child asked him “for a live dinosaur”. Average day at the office, really.

Greg feeds the same story to his grandkids as Bob, but also makes sure that they and the other children he sees know it’s a double act. “Mrs Claus is my greatest asset,” he says of his partner, who works with him as Mrs Claus. He often defers to her and this helps in awkward situations, such as when children ask for things like live dinosaurs.

The secret lives of Santas, according to Greg, aren’t that exciting. Despite his natural Santa-like appearance, it still takes him at least half-an-hour to get ready and he’ll be on the job for half the day. Perhaps his biggest challenge is manufacturing an excuse to take a whizz. “Acknowledge Santa as a real person,” he says. “Allow Santa to have reasonable breaks. Explain to the children [that] Santa has to check on the reindeers!”

Peter, Watson’s Bay Boutique Hotel
Years as Santa: 6
“Some children like to ask for unicorns, which I tell them might be a problem with quarantine. I can’t get in any live animals, let alone rare ones.”

As hilarious as he is sincere, Peter is an actor when he’s not playing Santa. He’s “a peripatetic Santa”, having donned the red suit for six years across MYER and David Jones, as well as corporate functions before landing at Watson’s Bay Boutique Hotel.

“When you’re in the big city department stores, there are Santas in different rooms,” he says. “So you have to observe protocol – there can’t be more than one Santa at once. So you have to slip in and out without running into each other in front of the kids. It’s all quite strange.”

“Most kids know it’s not real, so they’re not so bothered. They’re just humouring their parents. In the modern age there are a lot of strange rituals divorced from reality and this is just another one.”

Peter also has the unique distinction of being the only Santa we talked to who has had a gun pulled on him. “There was a kid who wanted to shoot me one year, at MYER in Eastgardens. It was a pretend gun, but what a great photographic opportunity! That caused a bit of a kerfuffle because the photographers couldn’t get the photo, so we had to tell the next girl that he had to shoot Santa again. Her mother rushed off to tell middle management that her daughter was traumatised.”

As far as secret-Santa business goes, Peter’s been around the traps long enough to have seen a few Santa Inductions, which typically take place in October. “It’s where [management] get all the Santas together before the season starts to go through procedure. But it is amazing how many fat guys with white beards turn up. They look a lot like him already. You’d think they’re insane, but they’re not. I prefer to transform as an actor but they really go for it.

“In recent years they’ve done strange things like promotional shots with 30 Santas out on the lawn, which completely ruins it for kids early. The unity of Santa is important; you can explain there are impersonators, but you need to be the authentic Santa, otherwise kids question their parents’ sanity and the whole family falls apart.”

Perhaps more controversially, inductions are also when large department stores spell out which toys they’d like Santas to flog the hardest, which Peter flat-out refuses to do. “I had a four year old asking for an iPod today, and I turned to the mother and said ‘Tell ‘er she’s dreamin’!’ You realise how much trouble I’d have with Apple if I just gave their products away?”

“I’ve got an eight-year-old daughter,” Peter says, explaining why he loves his job. “I’ve explained to her there is in fact a Santa Claus, and I am him. I am Santa Claus.”