santa claus

Every year, when November’s turkey meals have been replaced with platters of frosting-dressed gingerbread men and their peppermint houses, Bryce Bassett’s cheeks flush rosy red with excitement. He can finally secure his long-awaited curly, white beard to his face, fasten his burnished black boots and guffaw his best belly laugh as his alter ego: Santa Claus.

Bassett, a graduate student studying entertainment and lighting design at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been dressing up as Kris Kringle every Christmas season for 12 years by conducting meet-and-greets and in-home visits for kids and families during the holiday season. From Dec. 1 to Christmas Eve, Bassett dons his furry red cap to dole out cheer. Almost every day, Bassett works various gigs such as charity events, personal holiday parties and even this year’s Holiday Cabaret put on by the Nebraska Repertory Theatre.

To begin portraying Santa, Bassett shaves any facial hair to make way for a white, designer beard that has been custom-built by Custom Wig Company and Atelier Bassi to fit his face. In addition to wearing the traditional Santa suit, Bassett spritzes himself with cookie-scented cologne and pops a miniature candy cane in his mouth to make sure his scent matches the magical experience. Bassett is a young Santa, merely 25 years old, so he adds faint wrinkle lines to his furrowed brow. He wears a prosthetic suit underneath his red coat to look as stout as Santa after a few too many Christmas Eve cookies.

The holly jolly man in red might be a fictional character, but Bassett said Christmastime is when he is most himself.

“The way I look on a daily basis is my Clark Kent mode for who I really am as Santa Claus,” Bassett said.

Bassett’s brother, Steven North, said he has seen the capacity of Bassett’s transformation into his true self firsthand.

“It’s not really a job to him, it’s more of a gift,” North said. “It’s changed his whole demeanor. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in his life — when he’s Santa, he throws it by the wayside to play the part.”

When Bassett’s friends and family escape the wintry December snow outside and enter his apartment, they may think they’ve arrived inside another winter wonderland, Bassett said — one that makes even the North Pole look contempt. A section of his home is enshrined to Coca-Cola Santa, the seasonal spokesman of the popular soda, and is fully-adorned with his images, advertisements and knickknacks. The rest of his holiday decorations have been meticulously planned in all their extravagance to do Bassett’s favorite holiday justice — with a little spousal reluctance, he added.

“I drive my wife nuts,” Bassett said. “God bless her; she’s able to deal with me and all my quirks.”

Five years ago, Bassett took his holiday passion to a new level and attended a three-day training session led by Hollywood Santa, a traveling Santa Claus professor that teaches Santa workshops through the International University of Santa Claus. There, Bassett received his “bachelor’s degree” in santaclausology and learned the proper techniques of handling any challenging situations that might come as a result of wearing Santa’s weighty fur coat — as complicated occurrences happen more frequently than one might think, according to Bassett.

“Little old ladies tend to get handsy,” Bassett said. “I have to laugh it off and try to stop the situation.” 

Thankfully, Bassett’s training prepares him for uncomfortable encounters with grandmas, as well as the innocently awkward questions children might ask. But little, Bassett said, can prepare Santas-to-be for the emotional weight of some children’s situations.

“Kids see Santa as: they ask for something, and he brings it,” Bassett said. “That level that I’m put on is when I’m asked [if I can] bring back grandma or grandpa that just passed away … They see Santa as the guy that has all the answers. It gets real difficult when kids are asking me if I can bring their parents back together because they’re divorced.”

One chilly Christmas Eve, thinking his work season was over, Bassett received a phone call notifying him about a little boy who would be transitioning out of the hospital and into hospice care that night. Cancer had spread throughout the boy’s brain, he was told, and it had made its way down the boy’s spinal cord. The worried boy told his parents that he feared Santa might not remember to bring presents for him if he were in a hospital bed instead of his room at home. With a few weeks to live, the little boy made one last request — a visit from Santa Claus on Christmas Day.

“My wife and I were supposed to be traveling on Christmas Day to visit her family, but I told her we were putting everything on hold,” Bassett said. “I thought, ‘I will never forgive myself if I don’t see this little boy.’”

Bassett said that when he arrived at the hospital, the boy was full of questions for Santa. He wanted to know why this was happening to him, Bassett said, and it was Bassett’s job to comfort him. He stayed for a while and cheered the boy, who sat teary-eyed beside his grieving family.

Other children in the hospital heard the bells on Santa’s suit and requested that Santa visit them as well. Bassett eagerly obliged and successfully held back his tears until he reached his car. Santa does cry, Bassett confirmed, but not around the children.

The boy died just two weeks after Bassett’s visit.

Photos of the child’s last Christmas spent sitting with Bassett and telling him how good he had been that year are memorialized in picture frames on the family’s wall along with heart-warming words Bassett had written about the boy.

“To this day, every Christmas, I go and visit that family,” Bassett said.

For Bassett, moments like these confirm why he stands in Santa’s big, leather boots. They remind him of the first time he put on his Christmas suit over a decade ago.

In 2007, early into his interest in the technical background of theater, Bassett was working the lights for a Christmas dance concert. Santa was supposed to come and visit the production, or so the directors had thought, but Saint Nick was nowhere to be found. The directors panicked over who would wear the Santa suit and distribute presents for the children waiting expectantly in the audience.

As dramatically as one of Bassett’s theater productions, one crewmember turned to him with tufts of Santa suit fuzz peeping through his fingers and locked eyes with his chosen victim. Bassett followed orders and shimmied into the suit.

As he stepped out in his red-and-white attire, Bassett had a revelation. In that moment, Bassett felt as if he wasn’t wearing a costume but that he was being who he was meant to be. Without meeting the excitable grandma or the little boy who would die of cancer in a hospital bed, without ever hearing any advice from Hollywood Santa, Bassett was sure what he was doing would make a positive impact on someone, somewhere.

“I knew it was my calling,” Bassett said. “Something in my bones at that moment, a feeling, just said, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be. This is going to be important one day.’”

culture@dailynebraskan.com