Review: ‘Santa Camp,’ starring Dan Greenleaf, Chris Kennedy, Finbar Chiappara and Levi Truax

December 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Santa Camp” (Photo by John Tully/HBO Max)

“Santa Camp”

Directed by Nick Sweeney

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2021, in various parts of the United States, the documentary film “Santa Camp” features a group of predominantly white people (and some African Americans) from the working-class and middle-class who are connected in some way to the annual Santa Camp and the business of dressing up as Santa Claus and his wife.

Culture Clash: While many people embrace more diversity in what Santa Claus can look like, other people are very much against having a Santa Claus who isn’t presented as a white, heterosexual, cisgender man. 

Culture Audience: “Santa Camp” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in getting a behind-the-scenes look at how people are trained to be a professional Santa Claus and how this business is adjusting to having more diversity.

Finbar “Santa Fin” Chiappara and his mother Suki, also known as Mama Claus, in “Santa Camp” (Photo by John Tully/HBO Max)

“Santa Camp” is a delightful and interesting documentary spotlighting diversity issues in the business of being Santa Claus. The movie could have easily ignored these issues and just been a superficial film that focuses only on the lighthearted aspects of performers who dress as Santa Claus or his wife as a way to bring Christmas holiday cheer to the public. Those upbeat characteristics are very much a part of the movie, but “Santa Camp” is also a real-life reflection of larger, serious issues in American society, when it comes to diversity, inclusion and representation.

Directed by Nick Sweeney, “Santa Camp” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2022) was filmed mostly in 2021, when the New England Santa Society’s annual Santa Camp (held in Greenfield, New Hampshire) had three very different types of newcomers: an African American Santa; a Santa with spina bifida who uses a speech-generating device to talk; and a transgender male Santa. “Santa Camp” also features gender equality issues, as performers who portray Santa Claus’ wife demand equal pay and equal treatment.

“Santa Camp” shows the Santa Claus angle of show business. But on a larger level, “Santa Camp” also shows that how people feel about what Santa Claus should look like is really a microcosm of how many people react to those in top leadership roles who don’t fit the description of being a white, heterosexual, cisgender man, usually someone who is the age of a grandparent. The issues of diversity, inclusion and representation in relation to portraying Santa Claus speak to larger issues of how people feel about diversity, inclusion and representation in American society.

This historical fact is pointed out multiple times in the documentary: St. Nicholas (the third-century saint on which Santa Claus is based), also known as Nicholas of Bari, wasn’t white Anglo Saxon or Aryan but was actually of Greek heritage. St. Nicholas was born and lived in an area of the Middle East that is now known as the country of Turkey. However, by the 1800s, a different version of Santa Claus became popular in Europe and North America: a German character named Kris Kringle, who had distinctive Aryan features and was made to look like a jolly old man.

As Christmas and Santa Claus became more commercial in the United States and other parts of the world, the Kris Kringle version of Santa Claus became the dominant image in the United States. Coca-Cola is mentioned as a company that helped promote this image through TV commercials. And for many people, this is the only image of Santa Claus that they accept, because it’s the only image they know from their childhoods.

“Santa Camp” shows how people are adjusting to and sometimes resisting anything that doesn’t fit this dominant image of Santa Claus. The people in the documentary (and viewers watching the documentary) are faced with questions that, by their very nature, sometimes make people uncomfortable: Who gets to decide if this dominant image of Santa Claus is the only one that should be presented to the public? Who is it really helping or hurting if someone who doesn’t fit that image wants to dress up as Santa Claus? And where do you draw the line in defining what Santa Claus should look like and who has the right to look that way?

Most of the people who are interviewed in the documentary are not identified by their last names, perhaps as a way to give them an air of Claus performer mystique. The movie begins by showing a casual gathering of about six New England Santa Society men, who have decades of experience of being hired to perform as Santa Claus. One of them is Dan Greenleaf, also known as Santa Dan, who founded this group and is the co-founder of Santa Camp. He says early on in the film that the group took the initiative to reach out to more diverse people to portray Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, after he got a request for an African American Santa Claus and realized that all of the members of the New England Santa Society are white.

Another person who’s shown at this meeting is Richard “Dick” Marshall, also known as Santa Dick, who was a member of the New England Santa Society since the beginning. Sadly, Marshall died at the age of 90, during the filming of this documentary, which includes some footage from his memorial service. “Santa Camp” shows that Marshall was a highly respected and beloved member of the group, and he believed that the image of Santa Claus should be more diverse and inclusive.

At first, the men in the group are shown laughing and joking about some of the awkward experiences they’ve had when performing as Santa Claus. Santa Dick mentions meeting a boy who was so excited to meet Santa, the boy defecated in his pants. A retired advertising executive only identified as Santa Jack talks about his standard response when some kids would ask him to guess their names as “proof” he was the real Santa: “I only know the names of children on the ‘nice list.'”

The mood of the conversation becomes more serious when the issue of diversity comes up. Santa Dick has this response: “For my generation, as a group, it was a little more difficult to accept. God created no junk, so [the controversy over having different types of Santas] doesn’t matter.”

Santa Dan adds, “I think the issue we run into is that people just have a specific idea of what Santa should look like. And I think, a lot of times, it’s their childhood Santa, the one they remember as kids.” When a retired communications manager named Santa Dave says that Santa Claus originated in Europe, Santa Jack quickly corrects him and says that Santa Claus was originally based on Saint Nicholas, a Turkish man.

Even with diversity issues over what Santa Claus can look like, people still have certain expectations of what a traditional Santa Claus costume should look like when someone is hired to portray Santa Claus. A suit and hat that are red and white are considered essential elements of a Santa costume. A black belt and boots are also considered requirements for a traditional Santa Claus costume.

To a lesser degree, people also expect Santa Claus to have white hair and a white beard. (According to some of the professional Santas, a long beard is more desirable than a short beard because people like to pull Santa’s beard.) And a Santa Claus who looks chubby or overweight is often expected, even if people have to wear things that make them look like they are of a heavier weight than they really are.

Beyond physical appearances, those who are successful “Santas for hire” usually have to be of a certain personality type. They have to be comfortable meeting a wide variety of strangers and dealing with unexpected or unusual situations. Some of the Santas interviewed in the documentary say that the hardest part of the job often includes how to handle unhappy children or children who make demands for Christmas gifts that they won’t realistically get. The Santas who go to Santa Camp are trained on how to deal with various difficult situations.

The “Santa Camp” documentary could have used more footage of this behind-the-scenes training, but the movie is more focused on showing the experiences of the three “non-traditional” Santas who experience Santa Camp for the first time. In addition to offering the expected workshops and discussion panels, Santa Camp has leisure activities, such as swimming and competitive “Reindeer Games,” where the participants do things like try to assemble gifts without using sight.

The documentary gives some screen time to the movement of treating performers who depict Santa Claus and his wife as equals in public and behind the scenes—and having work contracts reflecting this equal treatment accordingly. These gender equality issues are explored in the documentary as related to overall diversity issues for Claus performers. In real life, Santa Camp has training for people who perform as Santa’s elves or Santa’s helpers, but these Santa assistants are not the focus of the documentary.

The three “non-traditional” Santas whose journeys are chronicled in the “Santa Camp” documentary are in their 30s and are passionate about having the portrayals of Santa Claus (and Santa Claus associates) be more diverse and inclusive, even if they experience a lot of bigotry and rejection. They all have supportive family members who are featured in the documentary. “Santa Camp” shows what happens after all three of these Santa Camp newcomers graduate from the program.

Chris Kennedy, also known as Santa Chris, is an amenities coordinator from North Little Rock, Arkansas. He says he was motivated to get professional training as a Santa Claus for hire because his daughter Emily Kennedy (who was about 7 or 8 years old when this documentary was filmed) didn’t see any African Americans as Santa Claus, and he wanted to be that role model for her and other kids. His wife Iddy Kennedy (who sometimes dresses up as Mrs. Claus) is shown as being completely supportive of what Santa Chris wants to do, with both spouses being proud of their African American heritage as they live in a predominantly white neighborhood.

Santa Chris also talks about being further motivated to go to Santa Camp after receiving a hateful, racist letter in the mail from an anonymous neighbor who objected to the Kennedy family having an inflatable, brown-skinned Santa Claus in the family’s own front yard. At first, Santa Chris doesn’t want to read the letter on camera because he says it’s too upsetting. “It was 100% an attack on me,” he comments on the letter. But then later, he reads the letter out loud during a Santa Camp gathering where the participants share their personal stories. It’s a very powerful moment in the film that moves some people to tears at the gathering.

Finbar “Fin” Chiappara, also known as Santa Fin, is from Barre, Vermont. He has dreamed for years of being a Santa Claus, especially in a parade. He has spina bifida and uses a speech-generating device to talk out loud. His constant companion is his single mother Suki, also known as Mama Claus, who says in the documentary that when Santa Fin was a baby, doctors told her that he would never walk and that he was better-off living in a healthcare facility. She didn’t take their advice and became his caretaker, while Santa Fin defied expectations and can walk. His sister Rose is in the documentary as another person in his support system.

Levi Truax, also known as Trans Santa Levi, is a transgender man from Chicago. His wife Heidi Truax often makes public appearances with Levi as Dr. Claus, and she accompanies Levi to Santa Camp. Out of all the Santa Camp newcomers, Levi and Heidi are the most likely to tell jokes as a way to cope with any discomfort at being perceived as “outsiders.” Levi and Heidi experience the most blatant bigotry shown in the documentary—not from people at Santa Camp but from people who objected to an advertised event where people could meet Trans Santa Levi and Dr. Claus.

One of these events, which is featured in the documentary, had to be moved to another location because of hateful harassment and other threats, but some members of the extremist right-wing Proud Boys still showed up at the new location with protest signs to condemn the event. An unidentified woman is also shown doing a social media livestream of herself in the event’s parking lot, where she says people involved in the event are doing the devil’s work. In the documentary, Heidi says she prefers to be known as Dr. Claus instead of Mrs. Claus because she wants people to know that this Santa spouse has a Ph.D. and is the complete equal of her husband.

Throughout the documentary, it’s very apparent that those who welcome diversity in the Santa Claus community believe that diversity doesn’t mean forcing people not to believe in a Santa who isn’t a straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied man. Rather, the belief in this diversity is that if people want to see a Santa Claus who’s different from the dominant image of Santa Claus, then those options should be available. Problems and controversy usually arise when people insist that Santa Claus can only be presented in one way for everyone.

“Santa Camp” also shows the reality that how people feel about having more diverse types of Santas has a lot to do with how people feel about diverse types of people getting the same socioeconomic opportunities that white, cisgender, able-bodied men often get in preferential treatment. After all, Santa Claus and related matters have become a big business. What does that mean if people other than white, cisgender, able-bodied men get some of these Santa Claus performer jobs?

The documentary shows that Santa Camp will welcome anyone who wants to pay the fee, but Santa Camp isn’t going to guarantee any paying gigs to any of its graduates. The prevailing attitude with the white, cisgender, male Santas is that they don’t feel worried about being replaced anytime soon by a large influx of people who don’t look like them. And because being hired to portray Santa Claus is seasonal work, very few people can really live on their Santa Claus earnings alone. Some of the interviewees in “Santa Camp” include Santa Bob (a retired truck driver), Santa William (an ESL teacher), Santa Daniel (a broadcast engineer), Santa Louis (a retired fire alarm salesperson) and Santa George (a retired mold maker).

A man identified as Santa Tom comments on the idea that Santa Claus always has to be a white cisgender man: “I don’t know if it’s a diversity problem, or just that people have accepted Santa as a certain way.” George McCleary (also known as Santa George), president of the Connecticut Society of Santas, has this point of view: “Over all of the years I’ve done this, I’ve never been asked by a child, ‘How come you’re white? How come Santa isn’t black like me?’ Kids don’t see color.”

While the statement “Kids don’t see color” might not apply to all children, many people of all ages actually do see color—and that’s not a bad thing if people are celebrated and included for their differences, not insulted or excluded because of those differences. As mentioned in the documentary, some people do request Santas that don’t fit the usual mold. “Santa Camp” shows how this event is at least making some attempts to respond to interest in having more diverse Santas.

“Representation is a big thing for our family,” says Santa Chris. He later adds as he arrives at Santa Camp for the first time, “Black Santas are not widely celebrated.” In a later scene, he says, “Being the only person of color here, it’s definitely lonely and awkward, to say the least.” The documentary shows at the end if Santa Chris thinks his Santa Camp experience has been beneficial and positive to him.

Meanwhile, Trans Santa Levi also talks about the importance of representation in portrayals of Santa Claus. He starts to cry a little when he says, “If I saw a trans Santa as a kid, it would be comforting … and empowering.” His wife Heidi adds, “It would’ve made a difference for you.”

People also want more flexibility in how the wife of Santa Claus is perceived. A Mrs. Claus performer identified only as Dianne, who is a retired spacecraft engineer, firmly believes that Mrs. Claus should be treated as an equal, not as a subservient sidekick, to Santa Claus. She says she’s against the rigid idea that Mrs. Claus can only wear dresses, and Mrs. Claus performers should have the option to wear dresses or other types of clothing.

Dianne comments, “I think everybody wants to be treated equally. How pushy do you have to be about it? I’m pushy!” All the Mrs. Claus performers interviewed in “Santa Camp” use Claus as their stage surname. They include holiday performer Bonnie Claus, nurse Mary Beth Claus, retired computer programmer Theresa Claus and box office manager Susan Claus, who says that there shouldn’t be a fantasy that Santa and Mrs. Claus have a perfect marriage: “Santa and Mrs. Claus don’t always get along.”

The documentary shows Levi and Heidi looking uncomfortable when attending a Mrs. Claus discussion panel. Heidi and Levi say that they didn’t like how the panel’s narrative was that Mrs. Claus’ main purpose is to make Santa happy and to be an example of traditional marriage as the “right” way to live. They both say that they wish they could have spoken up with their own viewpoints during this panel dicussioon. Later, during a smaller group discussion, Heidi asserts herself and says why she’s proud to be called Dr. Claus and to have a transgender partner in a relationship where they treat each other as equals. The people in the group applaud in support of what Heidi says, but it’s hard to know how much of their reactions were affected because the people knew they were on camera.

Although the “Santa Camp” documentary doesn’t do go too in depth over age issues, another minority at Santa Camp is anyone under the age of 50 who portrays Santa Claus or Mrs. Claus. It’s another reason why Santa Chris, Santa Fin, Trans Santa Levi and Dr. Claus all stand out from the vast majority of the people at this event. The age issue for Santa performers isn’t as big of a controversy because people can look older through makeup and wigs. When it comes to Santa Claus diversity, issues regarding race and non-cisgender identities seem to be the most controversial.

Regardless of how people feel about diversity in the Santa Claus image, “Santa Camp” does a very good job of showing how these issues aren’t going away anytime soon (especially in America, which has become more racially diverse over time) and that the people in the business of selling Santa Claus have to respond in one way or another to these issues. Many people who attend Santa Camp say that the Santa Claus performer community is like a “family.” As “Santa Camp” shows in endearing and sometimes tension-filled ways, the real test is how people want to define that family, who will be invited to join, and how they will be treated.

HBO Max premiered “Santa Camp” on November 17, 2022.

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