The above picture is of my dad as a baby on Santa’s lab. My career as Santa Claus started when I was 39 years old in 1999. I had decided to go to China to teach at university as an English professor for a year. I brought a Santa Claus suit at the Party Store in San Antonio, Texas on a whim. I don’t know what I was thinking. I had never dressed as Santa Claus in the US so why would I think about doing such a thing in a country I had never visited? After all packing space is at a premium when you travel to, literally, the other side of the world. Santa suits are not on many lists of things to pack when going abroad. Below is a picture of me and my sisters with Santa.
I didn’t know a lot about Santa suits back then and bought something in the thirty buck range. The cheapest suit was around ten bucks. The deluxe suit was around a hundred bucks. I figured the middle road was a good choice. In hindsight this was an excellent choice. The cheapest Santa suit is invariably made out of felt and will fall apart after a couple of washings. After the first washing the red felt will migrate to the white parts of the suit and vice-versa. I know this because later I bought felt Santa hats that my students could wear while taking photos and this is what happened to the felt hats.
The more expensive suits are generally made of velvet in the US. Velvet is not an easy to care for material and needs to be dry-cleaned. Velvet is also very hot when worn! My trip to China would turn out to be the beginning of an eleven year Asian journey as of 2010 with no end in sight. I would end up in Taiwan for several years that was semi-tropical and would have melted in a velvet suit. The suit I did buy was flannel. Flannel can be worn in Taiwan in the winter unlike velvet. I would also a say a flannel Santa suit is a good entry level Santa suit.
China officially celebrates the Chinese New Year which runs from January to February depending on the correspondence of dates between the Chinese lunar calendar with the Western solar calendar. I had to work on Christmas day and decided to wear my costume to my classes. I managed to get a VCD with subtitles with Christmas carols and figured teaching them about Christmas and how to sing a carol or two would be a combined English, cultural lesson. I could not believe the reaction. My college students squealed and shouted in joy. As I gave out candy the students became even more enthusiastic. Later I visited the children of a Chinese professor that was a friend of mine. I wore the Santa suit on the way over there and was mobbed by crowds. I was treated like a celebrity. The sheer joy I felt from the people washed away any depression I might have felt about being alone in strange land during a holiday which emphasizes being at home with your family. I was hooked on being Santa in Asia.
I do want to mention the role of Santa Claus in China and in Asia to some extent. China is not a Christian nation as the reader probably knows. Christmas has its origins as the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christmas has morphed in China into an almost purely secular affair and Santa has totally supplanted Christ as the focus of this holiday in China. This is also the case in most of Asia. I am a Buddhist so the secularization of Christmas does not bother me. There is evidence that early Christians took a pagan solstice celebration and turned it into Christmas. Christmas may ultimately be a good excuse to have a party in the middle of winter. One year in China was great but one year was more than enough. I haven’t been to China since 2,000 when I left but found the place too crowded and lacking many infrastructure amenities you take for granted if you are from the US. Also teachers were not all that well paid and I gather the situation is better but still not great.
I lived in Taiwan for several years after China. My pay was six times higher than when I lived in China and don’t let anyone fool you with the “cost of living” speech. Sure China had a lower cost of living but not six times lower. Maybe the cost of living is about half the cost of living of Taiwan. Even If your cost of living is twice as high and you only make twice as much you still come out ahead in the higher paying place because you save twice as much! Taiwan is a very comfortable little island which I have come to appreciate more in hindsight than at the time. The Taiwanese students enjoyed hanging around Santa. I was not teaching English majors but non-English majors. Many of my students did not particularly like English and anything that made that class more fun was welcomed by the students.
Over time, I started to leave the safety of the university and very methodically got pictures of Santa all over Taipei. In my opinion, the best pictures juxtapose Santa, a symbol of the West, with very Chinese architecture in Taipei. The overall effect is very surrealistic. Being a on the road Santa is not for a Santa beginner. You need a costume you can move in. You need real pants! I dumped the flannel pants and used some cargo pants that are more maroon than red but at least my pants stayed up! You need to think about where you carry your camera and cell phone. You need to deal with crowds swarming about you which can almost be scary. At some primordial level you get concerned when a crowd of strangers circles you. I also think being an on the road Santa can be an almost spiritual experience and you do learn something about your social limits. You are pushing a boundary between yourself and strangers and this can be both fun and daunting.
I lived in South Korea for one year after leaving Taiwan. I was pretty depressed during my winter in Korea. Korean winters are really long. I was not in Seoul but a much less international city with very few expats, no real expat pub and was pretty isolated. Koreans do get the Christmas holidays off and I was only teaching one intensive English class during the break. I showed up as Santa to the class but it just wasn’t the same as in China or Taiwan. The students weren’t all that excited and maybe it was a reflection of the lack of energy on my part. I moved to Japan for a semester after that and didn’t bother doing the Santa thing at all while I was there. I have always gone to Thailand to recharge my batteries while I was in East Asia and thought I might make a go at working and living in Thailand. I was especially sick of the cold of South Korea and even Japan and wanted to be in a warm place again.
During my first Christmas in Thailand I was between jobs and did not have the guts to hit the streets of Bangkok as Santa alone. During my second Christmas in Thailand, I was working for a university. I decided maybe it was time to do the Santa thing in Asia again. My Santa suit from San Antonio was eleven years old and looked its age. The red flannel had very obviously faded. I figured I had gotten my thirty bucks worth of wear out of the suit and perhaps it was time to get a new one. Plus flannel probably wasn’t the best fabric to wear in a tropical country! I actually did some research on fabrics on line but hadn’t really come up with a satisfactory solution.
I Googled “Santa suit and Bangkok” and not much came up in the way of costume shops much less a costume shop with a web site that dealt with Santa suits directly. I Googled “Santa suit and Pattaya” and the Party Shop popped up. The more I looked at the site, the more impressed I was. The Party Shop site offered different Santa suit options (http://www.the-party-shop.com/).
You could get the cheap felt suit or a medium level suit or a deluxe suit. The deluxe suit was made out of satin. This showed me that whoever was planning these suits knew what they were doing. You would melt in a velvet suit in Thailand! I hadn’t thought about satin as a substitute for velvet but upon reflection decided this was an excellent choice! I live in Bangsean and that is about forty minutes away from Pattaya. One of my fellow farang instructors actually lives in Pattaya and commutes to work. Bangkok is ninety minutes from Bangsean and I hadn’t found a store that dealt with Santa suits explicitly on their website so the Party Shop in Pattaya it was.
I went to the Party Shop in Pattaya on a weekend and found it pretty easily. Amber is the owner and manager of the Party Shop in Pattaya. I talked with her on my cell phone in her store. Amber is Australian and I quickly got the sense that this was a lady that took her Santa suits seriously and knew what she was doing. Two weeks later I got my satin Santa suit and I love it! I did ask for pockets and belt hoops for the pants. I also asked for belt hoops for the jacket. I am a Santa on the go. I am moving around and after more than a decade as a Santa had found that belts keep your pants up and your jacket in order. You want belt hoops when you have belts. The suit was around a hundred bucks and this included gloves, which I had never worn before, and a big Santa bag made of the same satin as my suit.
I came as Santa to the college Christmas party. The students loved it. Thai students are a lot more expressive than North East Asian students. I do think Thais are generally happier than North East Asians and are able to take more joy in the small pleasures of life than North East Asians. Thais generally score very high on any sort of happiness index. Sanook means fun in Thai and is a strong cultural value in Thailand. Thais believe that as much as possible one should make work and/or daily activities fun. This is a great cultural value and one of the reasons I love living in Thailand. Thais love fun and love having fun with the Farang who is crazy enough to dress as Santa Claus. I would say my best Asian Santa experience so far has been in Thailand.
Later I went to the university level Christmas party on December 24th. For Westerner’s this might seem like a strange date to have a Christmas party since most Westeners would be home with their family. I don’t have any family in Asia and would probably have spent the 24th in an expat bar as is the case with most single expats in Asia. Going as Santa to the university party was a lot more fun than hanging around some bar which can get downright depressing on the 24th. Actually, I would say most single expats in Asia do get a little depressed around the holidays and miss family, home and hearth back in the West.
I went to Bangkok for a couple of days before the university Christmas party and did some shopping for Santa suit stuff. Heck I had spent around a hundred bucks for the deluxe suit so why stop there? I decided I was going to get a real belt, real boots, Santa hair and maybe upgrade my beard. I started out at MBK, one of the biggest shopping centers in Bangkok, and there were hundreds and hundreds of types of belts but strangely nothing that really looked like a Santa belt. Finally I bought a pretty impressive belt buckle that was attached to white belt leather and was a woman’s belt. The white belt leather was obviously a no-no and I took the belt buckle of that leather and attached it to some black leather. I had a hard time finding some black belt leather that was a thick and long as I would have wanted and compromised with the longest and widest black belt leather I could find. I had a couple of other things on my Santa suit accessory list. On the top of the list was some Santa hair. I had skipped this accessory for years but figured I might as well go all the way. I searched for Santa real boots. MBK turned out not to be the place for such items. I talked with the MBK information desk lady and she suggested I go to Platinum. Platinum is a five story building with hundreds of little stalls selling clothes and fashion related items.
I found a white curly wig and actually there were several places that sold such a wig. The best place in terms of price was across the street from Platinum but I had already bought a wig. The difference in price wasn’t that big anyway. The wig isn’t really a Santa wig per se but more a generic, party wig but does the job. I didn’t run into any sort of beard in the wig shops much less a white Santa beard.
There are tons and tons of women’s boots in MBK and Platinum but very few men’s boots. I even considered going that route but the sizes are too small. Even Western women have a hard time finding shoes and boots in their sizes so finding a boot my size isn’t going to happen in a woman’s shoe store. The closest thing to a man’s boot would be the boots in outdoor shops like Timberland and Northern Exposure. I already own a pair of boots of that sort and they don’t look like Santa boots at all. I was looking for a biker style boot in particular. This would be something you could easily purchase in the US and even North East Asia. I guess Thai men don’t wear boots. People wear flip flops when biking. Even Thai construction workers run around in flip flops. Boots are too hot for comfort in Thailand.
After shopping in Bangkok I did find out that you can’t really buy an off the rack deluxe Santa suit in Bangkok. You can get a cheap felt one but as I have written before in this article, that is pretty much a one or two shot affair and will start to come to pieces even after one wash. The accessories of this sort of suit also suck. The belt is a flimsy vinyl affair and the beard is horrible! If you want to play Santa in Asia your best option is to buy a Santa suit online, buy one off the rack at a costume store in the US or get one made. In Thailand, I would say your best option is to go to the Party Shop in Pattaya.
In conclusion I would say I stumbled into a great way to really enjoy the Christmas holidays in Asia and avoid the depression that is so common among expats in Asia during Christmas. I have learned a couple of things about being Santa for over ten years in Asia. Do get into the role. Get some sort of over the shoulder bag to hold your candy if you are Santa on the move. I bought a giant stocking and added a strap and put my candy in there. The stocking has a pocket in the front and that’s where I put my camera. I use my new Santa bag to carry most of my Santa suit until I get to my destination. Satin may be a cooler fabric than velvet but a Santa suit is a hot affair no matter what fabric you use. The top is a jacket and you don’t need jackets in Thailand. The hat, hair and beard all raise your body temperature. Anyone who has lived in a cold climate knows that a warm hat is a must to keep warm. Conversely, a hat and wig are totally unsuited for tropical climes. I put my Santa jacket and accessories in the bag until I get to the destination and then put the rest of the suit on in a private room or bathroom.