Ho, ho, ho-liday: Santa Tom reflects on Christmases past
His eyes, how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry. His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin was as white as the snow. — from ’Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
At age 73, Tom Uebersetzig, or “Santa Tom” as he’s affectionately known, certainly looks the part. Even the license plate on his red truck confirms it: “IAMSANTA,” it reads. His home address, 1225 Painted Post Drive (Dec. 25? candy canes?), is a fitting parallel to his favorite holiday, though it completely eluded him until a church acquaintance brought it to his attention. Kismet?
This time of the year, Uebersetzig’s schedule is booking up. But unlike the 45 hours per week he used to put in at East Towne Mall each holiday season, these days he appears mostly at private gatherings, hospitals, and special occasions. It’s a role he finds especially important, and one he will continue to play until he’s “pushing up daisies.”
It all started decades ago, when Uebersetzig decided to let his white beard grow. Before he knew it, he was being asked to play Santa for UW Hospital, and 20 years later, he still does.
It just wasn’t planned. “If you would have told me 30 years ago that I’d be doing this, I’d tell you to check yourself into Mendota,” the jolly fellow laughs. “There’s just no way in God’s green acres I’d be doing what I’m doing.” Now, it’s who he is.
Call it the magic of the season, but once Uebersetzig tasted the goodness he could spread to children of all ages, particularly those in hospitals or with special needs, he knew he had found a calling. “The business community in Madison pours their hearts out with donations for all the kids who can’t go home for Christmas,” he says. “I’m the lucky one who can give these kids their presents. I consider it an honor.”
The business of Santa
A delightful man, Uebersetzig was a businessman long before his secret persona took hold. A Waunakee native, he graduated from Madison Business College with a degree in business management and worked for a lumber company before purchasing his father’s liquor store. Frito-Lay was next, where he spent 15 years as a route salesman. He later moved on to Medix, a medical supply house, before finally retiring from Trachte Building Systems.
But every year for the past couple of decades, as the leaves started falling and the nights grew colder, the calls for Santa would stream in.
He worked at Hilldale Mall for three seasons before becoming East Towne Mall’s Santa, a part he assumed for about 14 years. His Santa 4 U business card reads, “Santa Tom, with real beard.” Below that, “Former East Towne Mall Santa.” Clearly, he’s had a following.
For seven weeks each season, Uebersetzig would work an additional 45 hours a week beyond his 40-hour day job, entertaining children at the mall. He could have done without the elves, he admits. “They sometimes scared the children. Troublemakers. I didn’t want them on my set.”
At first, he was paid hourly, but then he became a contract employee and pulled in about $12,000 for seven weeks of work. Three years ago, at the age of 70, he decided it was time to hang up his boots. Now he’s a Santa-for-hire (firstname.lastname@example.org), charging $65 for 30-minute private home visits and sometimes accepting donations for the right cause.
Uebersetzig never received any formal Santa training. He never attended Santa school. He simply learned on the job, and his teachers were the thousands of wide-eyed children who visited with him for years. A Christian Santa, he credits God for many of the answers that “just came to him” when he was faced with difficult questions from the kids. Sometimes he didn’t have to say anything, such as the time a young boy approached and just wanted to be hugged. And hugged. And hugged. Turns out, according to weeping relatives nearby, the boy had just lost his father in a motorcycle accident earlier that day.
From the mouths of adults, and babes
Being Santa wasn’t always the bowlful of cherries it was cracked up to be. “It is stressful,” Uebersetzig admits. “You have to be up no matter what happens, or what is brought to you by these children, besides their Christmas lists.” As any parent can attest, children can be demanding. Sometimes, he says, they’d bring entire catalogs and flip from page to page, pointing to dozens of items, insisting Santa bring them every one.
His response? “I’d say, ‘If I gave you all those toys, when would you have time to play with all of them?’” Inevitably, the child wouldn’t have an answer. “Tell you what I’ll do,’” he’d bargain, “‘If there are boys and girls who don’t have a list, I’ll take something off your list and give it to them — from your list! Do you know what that’s called? That’s called sharing! Everyone should share at Christmastime. It’s called goodwill.’”
One boy once asked what would happen when Santa died. He was, after all, getting up in age. “Would the world no longer have a Santa?” It was a moment Uebersetzig recalls clearly. “I asked the Lord for help with that one,” he said, “and then it just came to me.
“‘The Lord picked me out to be a Santa, and when he wants me up in heaven to see him, he will pick another person to be Santa so there will always be a Santa for you,’” he told the youngster.
Another young skeptic asked, “How can you go and deliver all your presents in one day?” Uebersetzig thought, then answered, “The world is round. On one side of the earth, when it’s dark over there, it’s light over here. I follow the darkness all the way around in 24 hours.”
It’s important, he believes, to understand the basic tenets of other religions so he can converse with the children, or their parents, as necessary. One Jewish boy visited him three years in a row, and although the youngster didn’t understand Christmas or Santa, Uebersetzig would engage him in a conversation about Hanukkah, lighting the candles, and playing the game of dreidel. “We have to play it for candy, but Mom and Dad play it for money,” the little boy reported back.
Santa has a way of attracting all types. Once, a mother, her two daughters, and her son approached him at Hilldale. The woman told him her husband promised her $100 and each of their children $50 if they would have a picture taken with Santa in a mall setting. There was a catch: They all had to be in their swimsuits.
“If you’re willing, I’ll say yes,” Uebersetzig responded, “provided the suits are decent and I get a copy of the pictures.” Already prepared, the mother and her daughters stripped down to bikinis there in the mall while the young son donned a swimming mask, snorkel, and fins before bounding onto his lap. Dad’s wallet grew a lot thinner that day.
Throughout his career, Uebersetzig has been “tinkled on, pooped on, thrown up on, and spat on,” he laughs. He was also propositioned several times. “Oh, yes,” he says, rolling his eyes. “‘Santa, you can put your hands here, or there,’” he mimics.
Uebersetzig owns five Santa suits, including his original suit, which he once thought was “the cat’s meow.” Now it just looks outdated. His newer suits have been embellished and shined with the best of care, and the last one cost about $750. “In business, first impressions are the biggest thing,” he says, but especially for Santa!
The oldest person he ever had his photo taken with as Santa was a 105-year-old woman in Belize he and his wife met while they were on a mission trip; the youngest, a newborn just 12 hours old who had just been born at UW Hospital while he was visiting the children’s ward.
His thoughts on the commercialization of Christmas? “Humbug! The almighty dollar has taken over. I think it’s sad. Thanksgiving is becoming a forgotten holiday.” It gives him more reason to want to spread happiness to people young and old at this time of year.
His advice to Santa wannabes:
- Listen to the children and be compassionate.
- Always, always keep both hands visible!
- Never, ever have an alcoholic beverage in public!
- And never promise anything to anyone!
“There are so many Santas that are in it for the money and really don’t care about the people or the children,” he says. “It’s sad. Being Santa means affecting everyone in a very good way, including the deaf, the special needs children, the autistic kids.” Anyone can be a Santa, really. “That’s what Christmas is all about!”
Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.