I may be going soft in my old age. A documentary about a man learning to be a Santa Claus, and I give it a perfect score? Yes, I gave it a one, and if zero were better I’d give it that. I’ve watched many a cruel movie this year; too many times I’ve watched the end credits and sighed at the sadness of the world. Here, in this humble movie, is the antidote for all that misery. I’ll make you a bet, right here and now: You won’t be able to watch Becoming Santa without smiling that warm, comforting smile of pure happiness.
Jack Sanderson, a forty-four year old Los Angeles native, has no Christmas spirit, and hasn’t since his parents died. For reasons that aren’t too important here, he decides to get some jollity back into the holidays by training to be a Santa. First, there’s the beard and girth. Luckily for him, if perhaps not for his luck with the ladies, he’s got the second point covered already. As for the first, well, all he needs is a bit of bleach on his big bushy beard and hair and away he goes. The suit is next, and it’s a choice between the Coca-Cola variety or the traditional one — with or without buttons, basically — before boarding a plane . . . for (yes, it’s true) Santa School.
Susen Mesco has been teaching plump, jocular men to be Santas for over a quarter of a century. At this point I was just about ready to do my usual “only in America” spiel but, you know what? She’s actually bloody good at it. Sure, she’s got the schmaltz, the over-the-topness so typical of American self-improvement tutors, but her advice is spot-on, and pretty darn funny. She may well be insane, I’m not sure, but she’s effective. Jack and his fellow apprentices practice their “ho ho hos” (only three hos, never more) for the duration of the two and a half day intensive course in the hope that they too might receive that most coveted of degrees, a Bachelor of Santa.
Soon enough, with Mesco’s words of blessing ringing in his ears (“he could end up being one of the greatest Santas in the world”) it is time for Jack to go live. The first part of Becoming Santa is humorous, with Jack’s charming, irreverent personality obvious to all, but the remainder of his story is just pure, unadulterated joy. How could it not be? Jack’s Santa brings magical happiness to hundreds of kids, whether it be on the Polar Express or Quincey, Massachusetts’ Christmas Lights Festival. The movie’s last scene gave me the biggest, soppiest smile I’ve had on my face all year.
It’s not all about Jack, although I sort of wished that it was. There perhaps wasn’t quite enough material in his journey to warrant the movie’s runtime, and so we’re also given a history of the legend of St. Nicholas and how Santa became a part of our culture. It’s interesting stuff, and when I watch this documentary again (and I will, undoubtedly) I’ll pay more attention to it. Coca-Cola’s invention of Santa is discussed, but on the whole these interjections concentrate on Santa in America as opposed to the rest of the world. I was impressed, though, with the actions of the New York Postal Department’s Santa section, which reads every letter addressed to the North Pole and sees what it can do to help.
Becoming Santa is a strong contender for my favorite documentary of the year for no other reason than its content. Jack Sanderson is a charming, funny guy, self-deprecating and generous, which seems to be a prerequisite for the job. Other Santas are interviewed by director Jeff Myers and they all share the trait of generosity, of giving something back, and of making some little child happy. I can’t think of anything more worthy. It’s a tough old job being the object of a child’s dreams. You can’t even afford one slip up or one inopportune moment; think about that next time you’re at the mall with your young one, waiting in line for an hour. You’re doing nothing: Santa’s in his grotto, picking a kid up for the umpteenth time that day, guffawing, posing for photos, and possibly doing his back in.
Becoming Santa is a production of the small Cinema Libre Studio of Los Angeles, the company who also gave us the explicit sex flick, Now & Later, and many more films of differing topics you couldn’t wish to think of (all of which, by the way, can be obtained from their website). Forget It’s a Wonderful Life, never mind Miracle on 34th Street, pop Becoming Santa into your DVD player every holiday season and your Christmas will instantly get a whole lot better.
P.S.: To the Dutch people, I say but one thing: Zwarte Piet — really?