An FAO Schwarz Toy-Fabulous Preview

To enter FAO Schwarz in Rockefeller Center is to walk in Oz. Each salesperson represents a distinct Technicolor realm of toys.

On this sunny day in October, Micah Feliciano, head of personal shopping, would help me on a challenging mission: learning as much about FAO’s 2019 shopping season in 15 minutes or less. As the oldest toy store in America, the one made famous in the 1988 movie Big, FAO is full of diversion. When I announced my arrival to an employee dressed as an astronaut, I determined I could easily take up 30 minutes on the first floor alone. 

“For my job interview here, I brought my puppet,” the astronaut told me while I waited for Micah. I asked him to repeat his statement, so I could let it fully absorb, but a Sharper Image 5 Inch Stunt Hand Controlled Lunar Drone flew by my head. Meanwhile, two employees raced by on light-up skates that hooked onto the heels of their shoes.

“Mrs. Claus!” exclaimed Micah when he saw me near the Melissa & Doug grocery store. “I’ve been working for you for years. Now I get to meet you in person.”

First, the tall, elegant Micah walked me back to the store’s entrance where we met two seasoned employees wearing uniforms in my favorite shade of Christmas red: Soldier Patrick standing outside the revolving doors and Soldier Johnny inside. Both had been with FAO when it was on Fifth Avenue, before this glorious new flagship store opened here on 30 Rock in 2018. 

Second, Micah showed me the menagerie of plush animals on the right and Ruby Red dolls on the left. Ruby Red dolls, each about $100, sold only in October and were similar to American Girl dolls with unique personalities and outfits. Their skin was so luminous the little girls looked real.

Third, Micah showed me the wall of Jimmy Fallon games by Hasbro. With the Tonight Show as an upstairs neighbor, FAO pretty much has to include products like the Face It Challenge Party Game and Best Friends Challenge Party Game for Teens & Adults. 

Finally, we entered the delightful FAO selection with its sturdy, high-quality choices of work benches, Vintage Bluetooth Musical Microphones, DJ Mixer Music Floor mats, Ultimate Jewelry Making kits, and Girls’ DIY Henna kits. Food items were big, with a Do It Yourself Gummy Bears Candy Maker for $48 and a Do It Yourself Cake Pop Maker for $32. Hint, this section will most likely be rife with deals on Black Friday.

Now we were in the section for Marvin’s Magic, a company that sells exclusively to Hamleys of Regent Street in central London and FAO Schwarz. We were soon to watch professional magicians demonstrate the Dynamic Coins trick and a card bit from the Mind-Blowing Magic Themed set. Price ranges were reasonable, from $20 to $100 depending on the type of set.

In addition to art easels and race cars (I liked the Remote Control Wrist Racer for $24), we passed big-names like Paw Patrol, UglyDolls, and Hatchimals. My nephews would love the science-based items from #MindBlown that include 4D Anatomy Kit Shark for $32 and the Model Engine Kit for $25.  

Classic Steiff teddy bears and Schleich figurines made me squint to admire the craftsmanship. Toys can be beautiful. 

Yet I was most impressed with the Barbies. 

In addition to the Star Wars collection (an unmasked Darth Vader is really a woman), I loved the David Bowie doll and all of the different shapes and colors of people.

“This is the fashion section,” Micah says pointing to the spectrum of Barbies in casual and evening wear. A few were gender-neutral dolls wearing outfits I might see any New Yorker wear on the street: shorts and patterned T-shirts. However, the biggest shift from decades past was the variety of skin tones. Browns and freckles were welcome. Body types ranged from slim to shapely.

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“And this is the career section,” he said. Of course I appreciated the scientist Barbies, but I immediately, I wanted to jump into the hip food truck scenario with Barbie and Ken.

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“Literally in every section, there is something new and interactive,” Micah told me in summary of our adventure through the store. “I’m seeing toys that promote the idea of ‘there’s no wrong answer’ and you can have a great time being you.”

Officially over our allotted time—it’s impossible to go through FAO without reverting back to childhood—Micah took me to the giant piano overlooking Rockefeller’s ice rink. I clapped in time while he and a fellow employee danced to “Heart and Soul.”

But before I left, I checked in with Soldier Johnny. Let’s just say, we Clauses know each other, wink wink.

With his wonderful Brooklyn accent, Johnny asked if I were the Mrs. Claus featured last year on Page 3 of the New York Post. I confirmed that yes, I am she—undercover—and still looking for work as a female in Santa-town. A Broadway actor with secret North Pole dealings of his own, Johnny said an elf had pinned that article to a bulletin board in an undisclosed NYC break room, as inspiration.

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Rolling in Dough: The Most Intimate Puppet Interview Ever
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Ah Snap!

A smart cookie never reveals his age.

My friend Ginger Snap always causes a stir when I take him into coffee shops. This week, I met him at my favorite Manhattan cafe. Customers sniffed him in line as he stood at their feet texting other ginger folk. He’s fond of emojis and sang along to the playlist of 1990s feminist ballads. Nude except for a casual bow tie and sugar accessories, he grabbed a seat and confided that he hasn’t been himself, even though the giant smile on his face says otherwise. Here, I catch him between 5K runs, something he does several times a day:

Mrs. Claus NYC: Good morning, Ginger Snap. How are you feeling today?

Ginger Snap: Crummy.

Mrs. Claus NYC: I’m so sorry to hear that.

Ginger Snap: I ate too much cookie dough this morning. I over-doughsed.

Mrs. Claus NYC: It can hurt your belly when you eat too many sweets.

Ginger Snap: Tell me about it. I can’t wait to lie down on my cookie sheet and take a nap.

Mrs. Claus NYC: You know, Ginger Snap, I don’t know much about you. How old are you?

Ginger Snap: I’m a food item. It’s not sanitary to discuss age. Do you want the New York Department of Food Safety to find me and lock me up?

Mrs. Claus NYC: Certainly not. Is that your biggest fear?

Ginger Snap: No. My biggest fear is … Shh. Come closer.

Mrs. Claus NYC: I’m listening.

Ginger Snap: Being eaten by the big guy.

Mrs. Claus NYC: You mean Santa?

Ginger Snap: Shh! He might hear you.

Mrs. Claus NYC: He’s in his toy shop. We’re here. How could he hear you?

Ginger Snap: Does Santa ever not hear cookies?

Mrs. Claus NYC: Good point.

Ginger Snap: That’s how I roll. Hey, I’ll let you take three guesses at the decade in which I was first baked.

Mrs. Claus NYC: Okay. I’m very good at this, you know. What’s your favorite band?

Ginger Snap: Oreo Speedwagon.

Mrs. Claus NYC: Aha, you’re from the late 1970s and mid 1980s, somewhere in the “I Can’t Stop This Feeling” era?

Ginger Snap: Try again.

Mrs. Claus NYC: I bet you’re gluten free like someone from the last 10 years.

Ginger Snap: Ha! I’m a total flour child.

Mrs. Claus NYC: Oh, so you’re from the 1960s.

Ginger Snap: Ah, snap.

Mrs. Claus NYC: I’m right, aren’t I?

Ginger Snap: Nope. Wrong again. That was your third try. Gotta run.

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Toy Review: Save And Start Planning For Quality Dolls Kids Will Love
Meet Diandrea, a new Our Generation Doll who wants to be a director. Our Generation Dolls are as tall as American Girl Dolls but cost much less. Diandrea is $21.99 at Target. A compatible American Girl Doll, like the company’s  TrulyMe  doll, may cost $115.

Meet Diandrea, a new Our Generation Doll who wants to be a director. Our Generation Dolls are as tall as American Girl Dolls but cost much less. Diandrea is $21.99 at Target. A compatible American Girl Doll, like the company’s TrulyMe doll, may cost $115.

Americans typically overspend during the holidays. In 2017, they accumulated an average of $1,054 of debt, according to an annual survey by MagnifyMoney. Many shoppers put that debt on high-interest credit cards. This worries me. I want people to feel less overwhelmed during and after December.

In my experience, I see many broken toys and electronics in the garbage after January.

So while I support Santa’s toy distribution schedule and all the businesses that make wonderful things, I do want people to spend less on fewer, more thoughtful things and have more time with each other.

My goal this year is to learn about sustainability. How can we fix gadgets that are broken instead of buying more products on Amazon? Also, what are the beautiful, affordable toys that allow children to be kids and feel good about themselves. Children are so heavily marketed to that I hope to be a voice of reason.

I’m impressed with Our Generation Dolls at Target. They remind me of American Girl Dolls in that they’re relatively tall at 18’’ and have individual names and personalities. In fact, they’re compatible with most American Girl and Journey Girl dolls but cost more than half the price. That means, little ones can mix and match outfits for economical fashion options.

Meet Diandrea, a young girl of color who is interested in movie directing. Or Millie, a blond with “unique gray-blue eyes,” who is ready to go to a party in a vest and pink tutu, the kind so many little girls love to wear today. Leticia wears a cute beach outfit and has long brown braids and gorgeous brown eyes.

Prices range from $21 for regular dolls like Diandrea, Millie, and Leticia to $34.99 for deluxe editions like Sydney Lee who comes with a book and an extra change of dance clothes in addition to her traditional ballet skirt.

The adorable Grill to Go Food Truck is $109.99, an example of the high-quality accessories that go with these cuties.

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How To Gift Your Claus Clothing
Jacki Chamberlain is on the right wearing her cherished green coat from Cheryl Claus, left, who died April 2018.

Jacki Chamberlain is on the right wearing her cherished green coat from Cheryl Claus, left, who died April 2018.

There’s an urban legend among Clauses. 

A beloved Santa died. His family had no idea how much his clothing was worth. So his $3,000 suit ended up in a thrift shop for $15.

If you’re a Santa, this tale is already horrifying. Your hand has probably landed on your mouth in shock. But it gets worse. A mother bought the gorgeous suit and cut the pant legs for her son’s Halloween costume.

I know!

Jacki Chamberlain, an Ohio Mrs. Claus, is here to help lovely things find good homes with wonderful people. She knows Kringle collections grow like forests and that gifts should go on giving, forever and ever. 

Last week, she and I talked on FaceTime. I showed her my Ikea shelving unit that currently holds summer clothes but will soon store thermal blouses and hand warmers, real sleigh bells, a cute little purse, wash cloths to remove stage makeup, sparkly earrings and accessories, and wrist- and elbow-length gloves in red and blue. Inside my closet, I hang a red tutu, a dark scarlet velvet jacket with ruffles, and a vintage 1930s red-orange dress with a rouched neckline. On a shelf inside a Tupperware bin, I stash a black and white skirt, three wigs (two from my grandmother), a bonnet, warm tights, and white faux fur. My hallway closet contains a jacket and a full red dress I covered with a sheet, so that the crimson doesn’t bleed onto the fur.

I live in NYC. Space is precious. So are my carefully curated costumes that say more about me than anything else I own.

Jacki walked me through her own Claus-et, more like an entire room with designated drawers for jewelry and racks devoted to a certain primary hue. I loved the backdrop she hung on the wall, an enlarged photo of her own kitchen that makes video calls with children more authentic. She even has a “staging area” to make sure she has all of her pieces in order before she walks out the door to an event. 

“People may not realize what the investment is,” she told me, “and it is an investment.”

In 2018 when a fellow Mrs. Claus passed away, Jacki was gifted several items from her sister-in-red's beautiful wardrobe. Attendees of Santa Nana Academy in Columbus, Ohio, also received items from this selection. “I know Cheryl’s with me when I wear something of hers, whether it’s a hat or a little pair of gloves,” Jacki says. 

In Gatlinburg, Tenn., at the 2019 Santa Family Reunion, she sold more of the items in a vending area. 

I bought several things from this angel Mrs. Claus, including a glorious pillbox hat with a veil and perky poinsettia and pom pom perched on top. As storytellers, we should wear pieces with history, even if we never reveal it or fully know ourselves. Here is the hat I bought, although I think Cheryl Claus wore it better.

Cheryl Claus with the dapper Santa Carlucci, her business partner. I bought this hat at a sale in Gatlinburg, Tenn. I am so happy to own it, especially because it is infused with such spirit.

Cheryl Claus with the dapper Santa Carlucci, her business partner. I bought this hat at a sale in Gatlinburg, Tenn. I am so happy to own it, especially because it is infused with such spirit.

Today, Jacki teaches members of the Buckeye Santas, a regional organization, how to record their prized possessions, so loved ones can pass them on to people who will love them.

With Jacki’s permission, I share from her one-page “Letter of Instruction” that is “a document that will asset your family in carrying out your wishes and distribution of property at your death. Not legally binding, but may prevent confusion and arguments.”

She suggests Santas create a spreadsheet that states something simple like: “I bequeath the following items of personal property to the beneficiaries below.”

Here are samples from Jacki’s template:

  • ITEM-make sure to clearly describe the item(s) so it won’t be confused with a similar item.

  • NAME-full name of recipient, not just Santa John, but John R. Jones

  • CONTACT INFORMATION-include address, telephone number, email address, relationship to you.

  • NOTES-

Here are examples of how to use the template:

  • ITEM-Santa Walking Stick with Holly and Ivy

  • NAME-Santa John R. Jones (Fellow Buckeye Member)

  • CONTACT-555 Rideway Dr., Columbus, OH XXXXX, 555-555-5555, santajohnjones@yahoo.com

  • NOTES-Item kept in the corner of my closet

To finish, sign and date the document. Because it isn’t legally binding, you don’t need witnesses or notarized signatures. (For that, you would need to consult a lawyer.)

Helpful instructions should include contact information for Santa organizations. Jacki also suggests writing your own obituary that includes your honors and Santa titles, like “founding member” or “past president.” Include a picture that best represents you as Santa, so loved ones know how you want to be remembered.

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I Went To Santa School To Become A Professional Mrs. Claus
My morning skate in Bryant Park in New York City.

My morning skate in Bryant Park in New York City.

I often wonder why Mrs. C chose me.

Slim and in my mid-40s, I am a tall, single New Yorker who ordinarily wouldn’t dream of making myself look older. I’m not domestic. In fact, I sometimes eat entire meals over my sink while my two cats stand sentry.

Help us tell more of the stories that matter from voices that too often remain unheard.

As a former musical theater dancer, I have always possessed a zeal for zany hats and vintage clothing. Today, I’m out of showbiz, but for the last several years, I have been working as a recreational therapist, incorporating dance into my job at a Jewish senior center.

Each December, my male actor pals put on red suits to earn a few extra bucks. When they told me stories of riding on top of fire trucks for local charities, I realized I wanted to do that.

Last holiday season, I spent hours searching for costumes online. Most of the clothing on Amazon was offensive — ranging from short dresses and thigh-high stocks to frumpy kitchen dresses and limp aprons. But as an experiment, I paired a black-and-white bustle skirt with my own red coat and a white lacy scarf. The crisp Edwardian look influenced me to gesture like a classy older woman.

I asked the leaders of a neighborhood garden if I might attend the annual tree lighting as Mrs. Claus. “We can’t pay you,” one of the board members told me on the phone. “That’s fine,” I said, suddenly determined.

So I arrived at my first gig in a pompadour wig and an adorable green hat with a red bow. Once the tree was lit and carols sung, I did a little twirl. That’s when Mrs. C entered my soul. For the next three nights, I lay awake in bed smiling in the dark.  

Outside the Kringle-sphere, the news cycle churned out endless headlines about mass shootings, climate change and toxic masculinity. While I certainly wanted to stay informed, I had begun to feel helpless against the deluge of negativity. Mrs. Claus became my guardian angel. Where I felt weak, she was unflappable. As an ageless humanoid, she had witnessed history repeating itself for centuries. Moving forward was her personal brand; at least that’s how her spirit expressed itself in me.

After that first gig, I perused every St. Nick forum I could find. Although I was late for getting jobs during the 2017 season, I thought I might have a jump on next December. Needing sturdier credentials, I applied for a scholarship to the Harvard of Christmas institutions, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan.

By April, I learned I had won a scholarship to the school from the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, a professional organization that sets high standards for Christmas characters.

“You’re serious about this,” my girlfriends told me. “It’s about time we had a feminist Mrs. Claus.”

Except my Mrs. C wasn’t trying to make a political statement. As I let her speak to me and take over a quarter of my closet with crimson jackets and tulle, I developed a picture of her spouse. Because Santa was such a caring CEO, best friend and lifelong sweetheart, gender discrimination didn’t exist at the North Pole. They were confident, both together and apart. How I’d like to find that in my own romantic life.

In October, on the first frosty morning of Santa school, I went to the hotel’s breakfast buffet to see nearly 20 real-beards and a few designer-beards drinking coffee and hanging out. (In the Santa community, “real-beards” grow their own whiskers. “Designer beards” appear as themselves in their workaday lives. For events, they glue on waves of luxurious white hair.)

“Merry Christmas!” I shouted, so excited I felt like I was 7-years-old. “Merry Christmas!” they yelled back.

The hardest part of the training would be to hold in my elation, so I wouldn’t crash the rental car or faint when I met fellow pupils, 200 men and 50 other women.

In the arts center’s auditorium, deans Tom and Holly Valent (her real name) motioned for us to stand up and sing “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” They told us we would learn stage makeup, beard and wig care, and how to develop believable stories about the North Pole. While we would touch on entrepreneurial aspects of the biz, the Valents would focus on the “heart of Santa.”

My own Santa memories are my most cherished. When I was a little kid in Indiana, my parents got me and my younger brother dressed up to meet the big man at the mall each year. I still feel the magic — the genetic impulse to gasp every time I see St. Nicholas.

Now I was among an army of witty, jubilant Clauses in “casual dress” that included overalls, newsboy caps and yards of plaid. I wore a green blouse and a giant feather corsage.

During an evening break, we Clausian cousins wandered the streets of downtown Midland, an industrial city located between the Mitten State’s thumb and pointer finger. Drivers honked and snapped photos through the windshields.

With Tom Valent of Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School.

With Tom Valent of Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School.

On Main Street, we visited the Santa House, a fantastical building featuring real falling snow, model trains, and actual reindeer. Here, I linked eyes with a gorgeous Mrs. Claus from Ohio. Even though we didn’t know each other, we laughed together.

On the final day of classes, we Clauses met up at a construction site to make wooden ducks in the workshop. Once I finished my old-fashioned push toy with flapping vinyl feet, I sauntered over to a nearby warehouse, where Midland’s parade sleigh was stored. Santas lined up all the way to the door for a chance to pull the reins on the lifelike reindeer.

At the front of the queue, I spotted Mrs. C from Ohio. She was taking videos for each grown adult who wanted to drive the sleigh through the midnight sky. Again, our eyes met and we got the giggles.

Back in New York, I showed my vacation photos to everyone, including the warden during my jury duty. “Wow,” the warden told me in his heavy Queens accent. “Everybody looks so happy.” 

In Chinatown, shopkeepers lit up when I handed them business cards that stated: “Caught being nice.” They gave me extra discounts for all my new costume purchases that included faux white fur and a copy of Princess Diana’s engagement ring, loose enough to fit over my scarlet gloves.

My wardrobe now included a floor-length dress for more formal affairs and two additional wigs, thanks to my grandma’s contribution. But finding paid or voluntary gigs in the big city was harder than I expected.

On GigSalad, an online platform that matches performers to events, I receive three inquiries a day — for Santa. When I write back explaining I’m a charming Mrs. Claus, I rarely get a response. If I do, the explanation is this: “We’re looking for just him.”

Santa was born in New York City, an incarnation of the Dutch Sinterklaas, later transformed into the guy we admire each year in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Party planners are open to hiring her, but his iconography overshadows hers so much that I may need to strategize differently than Mrs. Cs around the United States, where her legend is picking up momentum.

So far the only New York gig I’ve done this year was the garden party where I got my start. But in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, I had no trouble working the Holly Trolley during Small Business Saturday. Last weekend in Connecticut, a Santa agent and former Ringling Bros. clown took me on as his “latest wife” for a yacht club event. Children naturally gravitated toward him, but the babies preferred Mrs. Claus. As temporary life partners, we had a blast together.

I picture Mrs. Claus ringing the bell to the New York Stock Exchange. In the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, I envision a dialogue between Santa and her, because Mr. and Mrs. C sparkle like Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Together, their charisma could illuminate the planet.

Until then, I’ve been going out as her a few times a week to promote her brand and to practice. When subway conductors see me running in a bonnet and fur-trimmed dress, they hold the doors open just for me. At Rockefeller Center, a fake Minnie Mouse ripped of her head to inform a fake Elmo that “Mrs. Claus is here!” In my apartment building, I rocked the world of a pair of stoners when I knocked on their door. “Holy ssshh—!” they exclaimed, pushing through clouds of smoke. “It’s Mrs. Claus.”

Yet my favorite Mrs. C story is when I was at the grocery checkout dressed as myself. “There’s something about you that reminds me of Christmas,” the young clerk told me.

“That’s because I’m Mrs. Claus,” I informed him.

This article first appeared in Huffington Post in 2018.

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What To Put In Your Claus-et
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Santa Fashion=Big North Pole $$$

If the suit doesn’t fit, don’t buy it. Hold onto your reindeer and what’s still in your wallet.

photo by Kitt Creative

I will miss being at Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School this year. I went in 2018 for the first time. It’s a special place I describe in this blog post. With Tom and Holly Valent as the directors, the focus is on the “heart of Santa” instead of the business and the busy-ness that can clog one’s mind.

But the business is important. We Clauses all need things to use and wear. At one of the hotels near Santa School, I breezed through the make-shift specialty store and found stickers, North Pole coins, striped socks, jingle bells, and all sorts of costumes—just not the right one for me—yet.

I was struck at just what a huge investment most of us make to become Santas (the gender-neutral word for Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and elves).

At Santa & Co., LLC., which had a display in the hotel, a good Santa robe starts at $699.95. Workshop overalls start at $309.95 because Santa has to have a standard work look. For thin Santas wanting to achieve that “bowl full of jelly” look, there are adjustable vest paddings for $174.95 with shoulder pads for $25 and 2 Kool Packs for $25. (Many Santas say the hardest part of their jobs is how hot they get, and no wonder).

Then there are shirts: button-down or pull-over with laces. Cotton or satin. Belts aren’t just belts but experiences, like the C.W. Howard Style Belt for $189.95 or the Cola Style Belt for $274.95.

Suits cost around $800, worth the investment. They come in a dizzying array of styles: Professional, Cola, New Classic, Classic. Many men I met knew exactly what each of these words meant. The Cola, for example, is based on the old-fashioned Coca Cola ads that emphasize the buttons down the front of the suit with no fur around the neck.

Now let’s talk fashion for Mrs. C.

At the store in the hotel, I tried on a gorgeous colonial dress that was several sizes too large. Right away, I felt it didn’t fit my personality. I felt ridiculous, even though I adored the style and concept. I did love the dresses that matched Santa’s suits. Made of red wool with satin linings and faux fur trim, they were excellent quality but not quite me. But almost.

Online, I’ve been finding offensively sexy outfits like this beauty:

$39.99,  Neilyoshop  on Amazon Prime. Note the fur booties for … warmth?

$39.99, Neilyoshop on Amazon Prime. Note the fur booties for … warmth?

No. Uh-uh. I have potholders bigger than this. Tiny elves wear more fabric.

This pretty one has the opposite problem, too much material for a big, animated girl like me. One swoosh of the voluminous skirts, and I knock down everything in my apartment while breaking my neck as I rush down the stairs or get caught in a cab door:

$199.99,  Lightinthebox.com  on Amazon.

$199.99, Lightinthebox.com on Amazon.

The nice standard ones on Amazon are so cute. I have one, but so does everyone else. And white fur doesn’t do well on the subway, my main form of transportation when I can’t use the sleigh.

What I’m looking for is the Mrs. C version of a Superman suit, something I can change into quickly in a bathroom stall, since NYC telephone booths are a thing of the past. I need something with pockets that looks dressy, like I’m going to Wall Street to check on cookies (and coal) stocks. Something with a high collar and detachable parts: a jacket, a skirt, and a blouse. I’m tall. I can’t hide it. So how about I look taller with vertical stripes? Something relentlessly cheerful in red and green with a bit of humor, a visual pun. This fantasy item must fit into a small NYC closet or a garment bag. No fur, please. Fur turns pink and is stressful.

If all of this sounds like an online dating profile, you’re sort of right.

My future dream garment will be with me for a long time, like a good Santa.

Since I can’t find what I want, I’m designing one—a garment, that is—not a sweetheart.

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4 Doctors (and 1 Mrs. C) Offer Advice On How To Stay Well During the Holiday Season
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4 Doctors (and 1 Mrs. C) Offer Advice How To Stay Well During The Holidays

Seasonal wellness starts pronto! Yes, even in September.

photo by Kitt Creative

Mrs. Claus here to remind you that the holidays these days start in the fall or sooner. But you can prepare for a healthy beginning, middle, and end to the season, starting with a flu shot now, if you get them.

With less sunlight from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, folks become ticking time bombs of illness and depression, all in the name of good cheer.

“Our species is still bound by biology,” said Dr. Robert Hayden, owner of Iris City Chiropractic Center in Griffin, Ga. He expects to heal ballerinas injured performing in The Nutcracker, yet other cases can be more colorful than sugar plums. Imagine a client throwing logs over a fence and coming to the office with an aching shoulder.

“We think we can interrupt good habits during the holidays,” Hayden said. “I’m guilty, too. I think, ‘I’m going to watch that Turner Classic movie until 2 a.m.’ The next day, I wake up feeling sluggish. We can withstand a jolt in the system, but not over the course of a whole month.”

In other words, the delicious, frothy eggnog on your lips might spend a winter on your hips, as well as affecting your feet, neck, skin, back and sleep cycle.

A few years ago, I checked in with doctors in four specialties about holiday health problems. I have some recommendations too. I’m not just a baker, you know, my loves. I also have a MA in Health Education.

Here’s their advice (and mine) to keep you well in a season that seems to start earlier every year:

Foot Care: Dr. Jane Andersen, a podiatrist in Chapel Hill, N.C., said patients travel more frequently this time of year, which means they might be more susceptible to deep vein thrombosis caused by sitting for long periods. If blood clots break loose and lodge in the lungs, the situation can be fatal. To prevent clotting in the legs, Andersen recommends patients take aspirin before boarding an aircraft, wear compression hosiery and allow for frequent movement breaks on the plane or in a roadside rest area.

Andersen’s also concerned by dressy footwear that might spell disaster on slippery pathways after consuming alcohol.

“Shoes are like dessert,” Andersen said. “If you are going to a party, you can plan ahead. You decide, ‘I’m going to wear the pointy high heels, but on the way home, I’ll wear comfortable shoes.’”

During the winter, foot professionals note a rise in neuroma, also known as pinched nerves, and metatarsalgia, characterized by tingling, numbness or shooting pain through the ball of the foot.

Blisters and corns are problems that sound benign until they happen to you. Diabetics who might feel foot numbness must be extremely mindful of trauma related to new shoes.

To get the best fit, Andersen recommends trying on dress shoes at the end of a workday, when the feet are swollen. Pay attention to any pain as a signal that something is wrong and will only get worse. While some people are prone to hammertoes and bunions, issues could quickly escalate if a wearer insists on pushing through the misery.

Varying heel heights can reduce future problems. Stick to a 2-inch height or less, the chunkier the better. Toe boxes should be rounded rather than pointed, and if a party-goer expects to stand for long stretches, a boot or sensible heel would be wiser than platforms.

To reward yourself after a night of wassailing, soak your aching dogs in a bath sprinkled with Epsom salts. Indulge in Vionic slippers with arch supports, a great gift for yourself.

Chiropractic medicine: This time of year, Hayden treats hyper-extended knees from too much standing, necks cranked from guest beds and foreign pillows and tight lower backs from lifting and lowering heavy loads. Poor mechanics while cooking also burden the body.

Less sleep means more stress and irritation exaggerated by high emotions. While the season boosts happiness, a feeling of loss can often coexist with joy, establishing new pain while triggering old musculoskeletal injuries.

“During the excitement, we can try to stay in our routines,” Hayden said. “Keep up the good habits. Then you’ll end up ahead in January.”

Dermatology: Dr. Marie Jhin, a dermatologist in California, said many people forget to remove makeup, drink enough water or get proper amounts of quality sleep during the holidays. Patients might skip medications, contributing to episodes of acne, psoriasis, dry winter skin and eczema.

By New Year’s Day, skin—our largest organ—can look rough from all the binging.

Like Hayden, Jhin recommends hydration, rest and a regimen of general wellness. Avoiding super-hot showers can also prevent skin irritation.

Sleep medicine: As the other doctors mentioned, sleep boosts resilience against an avalanche of health problems.

While many of us can handle one or two alcoholic beverages on occasion, increased intake can have a negative effect on sleep, according to Dr. Darius Zoroufy, medical director at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

“Conditions we see at this time of year include insomnia that is seasonal,” Zoroufy said. “Many people have sleep disturbances because of the low outdoor light intensity and short daylight hours. We often see people who gained weight and have been drinking more alcohol than usual, both of which can cause manifestations of sleep apnea to become more obvious.”

Zoroufy recommended a consistent sleep-and-wake schedule, even on vacation. Avoid late nights and long naps. Set limits on sweets and alcohol and wash hands frequently to avoid contracting a respiratory illness that can also affect rest. To feel more alert during the day, consider talking to a doctor about using a therapeutic light box to offset seasonal affective disorder. And for teens who insist on noon wake-ups, negotiate a reasonable structure for a gentler transition back to school.

This piece was adapted from a piece I wrote for Observer.

Related Article: “What To Put In Your Claus-et”

Related Article: “How To Gift Your Claus Clothing

nyc, santaAnn Votawteens, skin, wellness, sleep
Rejection Season Has Started, So I Eat Cookies
photo by  Kitt Creative

photo by Kitt Creative

I admit I am a sidekick in the Christmas pantheon, at least here in the city. But as the world craves female voices, my image evolves. As a Santa friend reminds me, Lois Lane has had several makeovers to stay relevant. Likewise, Mrs. Claus is like a comic book character who experiences updates each decade. I definitely feel a change in my own folkloric DNA that is both exciting and scary. Who am I? Am I old? Am I young?

Some female peers want me to break all the rules and be a feminist warrior. Others are shocked I dare wear anything other than an apron and traditional mob cap, the ruffly hat preferred by Martha Washington. One Santa wanted me to add wrinkles to my youthful complexion, which I might do only in his company. I respect him that much, even though this feels like age-ism in reverse.

Then another St. Nick told me—gasp—that my youth makes Santa look like a “pervert,” his words in the beginning of the #MeToo era. Fellas, I love you so much I’m asking you to put your right hand on the screen and promise me you will never say this to a woman, or ANYONE, ever, especially when that person is trying to be the best version of herself. Banish this thinking from your brains forever, or at least bury it in your inner monologue. I did speak up on that one, and this influential Santa did apologize, as he should.

Yet every choice I make will be wrong in someone’s eyes, so I have to be myself and listen, listen, listen to what feels right. And I have to cheer on other Clauses to do the same. One gorgeous woman I know calls herself Ms. Santa. She is absolutely stunning and in the driver’s seat when it comes to who she is. Oh, how I admire that.

It is still hard to get work in NYC, even though I’m getting promising feedback early in the season. Here is an example through email:

Thank you for contacting us to become part of the [company name deleted] family! I have added you to our database so that we can begin to contact you for jobs in your area. But, if you have some photos, I would love a couple. Could you email some to me? Or, if there are some online somewhere, please let me know where. Also, I let all of our Mrs Claus' know that unfortunately we do not get a lot of work for Mrs Claus. But, we do get some and are getting more every year.

This is WONDERFUL news! One day, we will be trending.

Here’s a thoughtful rejection from a GigSalad client based in Tudor City in Manhattan:

I’m so sorry! We were really just looking for a Santa Claus.
Thank you though!

The 2018 gig called for a St. Nick to hand out presents and pose in pictures, in only 15 minutes. I felt sorry for the poor Santa who took that rushed job. There’s no way a human being can perform such stunts in such a short period of time. A half hour would do the trick, but candy canes! I am grateful to get a response at all.

Here’s another email through GigSalad that was for Christmas Eve 2017 on Christmas Eve 2017 in the Village:

Hi - is this for Mrs Claus or Santa Claus?

The client, whose name was Jonah, was confused. Sweet, sweet Jonah. He couldn’t figure why a silver lady like myself was writing to him instead of a gentleman with a beard. This made me smile. He seemed very stressed. I should have counseled him not to plan a major event with a costumed character on the day of the busiest night of the universe. But I never heard back.

Last week, I finally found the right number to an appropriate office at the New York Stock Exchange. The gentleman on the other end answered with a simple “hello,” nothing else. That’s a sign I found the inner sanctum.

I said, “Is this the New York Stock Exchange?”

“Yes.”

“How do I get on the schedule to ring the bell?”

The gentleman provided an email address. Before I hung up, I quickly introduced myself. “The financial world needs Mrs. Claus to ring the bell,” I said. “For better PR.” He laughed. Isn’t that glorious?

Here is my bull-market pitch to the NYSE through email:

Mon, Sep 9, 12:17 PM

to nysetv

Hi there,

My name is [deleted to maintain the magic]. I am [a] tall, confident Mrs. Claus NYC who dreams of ringing the bell for the New York Stock Exchange during the holiday season. Santa will never lose his place as the king of Christmas, but I am just as nice, if not more efficient and less well paid.


Last year, I won a scholarship to the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Michigan, considered the Harvard of Christmas universities. I was also featured on Page 3 of the New York Post, Marie Claire, and Huffington Post. As a new Mrs. Claus, I have entertained the Clinton family. Here is my website.

I love getting rejections, if that is what is to happen with the NYSE. If people didn’t care, they would ignore me altogether. As you can see, I’m getting very gracious pseudo-“no’s” with honest explanations. I deserve another five cookies.

Related Article: “Mrs. Claus Come Home to NYC”

Mrs. Claus Comes Home to NYC
Ann+Votaw+the+author+holds+the+toy+duck+she+made+at+Santa+school+in+Midland%2C+Michigan+in+October+2018..jpg

A high-flying Mrs. C

I would never dream of taking jobs away from elves or cab drivers.

Even as a cynical woman in her mid-forties, I believe in the spirit of Santa Claus.

Since I can’t be him, I hoped to become a gregarious Mrs. Claus in a city known for its transportation challenges.

I first portrayed Santa’s wife 2017 at an Upper Manhattan tree lighting. I was inexperienced, in the wig and bustled skirt I bought from Amazon, but children read me story books from the vintage suitcase I carried. An aspiring public servant asked my first name — I think he was flirting. “Missus,” I told him sweetly. A local activist asked me numerous questions. Once she felt she could trust me, she wilted beside me on a garden bench. “Oh, Mrs. Claus,” she divulged. “I’ve been to too many protests. I’m so tired.”

For several nights, I was too happy to sleep. In character, I became a mirror that reflected everyone’s better angels, including my own. Mrs. Claus has lived rent-free in my soul ever since. Her crimson wardrobe has taken over a quarter of my precious closet space and a portion of my anxious mind.

A few months into 2018, I applied for a scholarship to the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan. By spring, I learned I had won.

At the three-day training in Michigan, I was one of 50 women among 200 Santas, most of them men with long, white whiskers. Founded by legendary Charles Howard, a former Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the school included courses in beard grooming, tax law, and toy making. On the final day, I got to drive the school’s parade sleigh and pull the reins on its lifelike reindeer. “Ho ho ho!” I bellowed into the warehouse, where the sleigh was stored. The overall experience was more fun than any adult should be allowed to have.

When I returned to New York that late night in October, I held the wooden duck toy I had made that morning in the workshop. As I wandered through LaGuardia’s renovations, I felt so blissed out in my red beret and scarlet riding jacket that I stood out among locals dressed in black. But when they glanced at me with my feather corsage, they brightened and nodded. While I wasn’t wearing my wig and full costume, I felt filled with a lifetime of Christmas mornings.

Glowing like Rudolph’s nose, I floated to the cab line on a cloud of imaginary white fur. But the familiar yellow cabs weren’t there anymore. Uber had taken over. I pulled out my cell to order a pickup, but my battery had died. “Hello,” I called cheerily to the people in the queue. “Is anyone going uptown? I can pay half.” No one looked up from their screens, so I tried again, louder over the drills of a construction team.

Meanwhile, yellow cabs flew by us to another part of the airport.

I waved my hand vigorously, but the drivers shook their heads like I was high on glue. I went back inside the Delta terminal but found no one who could assist me. So Mrs. Claus — a resourceful dame of the tundra — took a deep breath, braced herself, and yelled “Help meeeeee!” into the Saturday night air. A construction worker stopped what he was doing to direct me through the scaffolding. “I’m so sorry,” he apologized. He escorted me through a plywood walkway to the hidden cab line, a scab of concrete much less visible than the queue for Uber.

“It’s okay,” I said, impressed that a little Christmas cheer provided such hospitality. “I’m not mad, but I need to get home to my cats.”

Immediately, a cab pulled up. Inside was the angriest driver in America. Tiny as a glass shard, she hoisted my bag into the trunk muttering expletives that could peel auto paint. “Uber and Lyft,” she grumbled. “I should have gone into accounting. The whole city is falling apart. No one can live here.”

As we sailed over the East River fueled on her resentment, she told me about the two fiancés who changed their minds. And by the way, did I mention how much she hated her job?

Then she grew thoughtful, “Did you make your bird?”

She was referencing my old-fashioned wheeled toy with its long handle and flapping leather feet. Trying to protect it from scratches, I held the duck awkwardly across my lap.

“Yeah,” I said. “I made it this morning at Santa school, in the workshop.”

 “What will they think up next?” she cackled and pressed her horn at the driver ahead who kept switching lanes. “You gonna be Santa? Santa?”

“Mrs. Santa,” I corrected her. “You’re a female cab driver. I’m a female who drives a sleigh.”

What?” she exclaimed in full Brooklyn-ese. “You’re taking jobs away from the elves.”

I chuckled, but she wasn’t joking.

“You know the elves don’t drive the sleigh, right? It’s supposed to be Santa, but Mrs. Claus can do it too. They’re partners.”

“Oh.”

She was silent for several blocks. As we entered Upper Manhattan, where I live, I spied the top of her perm through the divider. She was thinking so hard I could almost hear her brain.

In front of my building, she popped the trunk and pushed my suitcase over to me on the curb. “Good luck,” she said, with what might have been a bit of respect. “There could be some money in this.”

Related Article: “I Went To Santa School To Become A Professional Mrs. Claus”

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Hear The Santa Cast, With Yours Truly
The duet behind The Santa Cast: George McTyre and Anthony Piselli.

The duet behind The Santa Cast: George McTyre and Anthony Piselli.

I am so grateful to be on The Santa Cast with Santas George McTyre and Anthony Piselli. We discussed how Mrs. Claus can lead the parade or judge an ugly sweater contest. As George says, Mrs. C probably knits the ugliest sweaters. And that’s easy, since she herself oversees wool production from North Pole sheep. George, I am truly your sister from another mister. Next time you want to drive half-way across the country in a van, let me know. And Anthony, we will meet someday soon. Listen here for the latest!

A Santa Family Reunion
Ginger.jpg

Meet Ginger Spice

My new puppet, Ginger Spice, practically leaped off the vender table for me during the 2019 Santa Family Reunion in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. My new wireless sound system is in the background.

In the first few minutes of the 2019 Santa Family Reunion in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I bought a gingerbread puppet and my own bluetooth sound system.

Since that March morning, I have been tinkering around with Ginger and learning about whether this cookie is a girl or a boy. He/she refuses to give me its official pronoun. I’m trying to respect its dignity, even while hiding it from Santa, who loves to eat gingerbread.

In the meantime, I have been enjoying the sound of my amplified voice here at the North Pole with my new system. Without pushing or straining my vocal cords, I can communicate to all the elves, even the babies like little Nigel.

My dream is to have a 15-minute one-woman vaudeville show I can perform at the drop of a hat, even as I pull magical things from my hat.