The Christmas season celebrates the spirit of giving and helping the less fortunate. Among the main symbols of that spirit are volunteer Santas, ringing their bells in busy shopping areas for a variety of charities. In New York, they can be found on street corners, in front of department stores and in transportation centers. But being Santa Claus takes preparation and practice.
Several dozen volunteers wearing fluffy red-and-white Santa's caps ring their shiny new bells, practicing for the day they'll step out onto the street.
They are giving their free time this season to help out Volunteers of America, an organization that sponsors one of New York City's many bell-ringing campaigns to collect donations to help the needy each holiday season. These sidewalk Santas collect money that Volunteers of America turns into food coupons that go to more than 6,000 low-income people in the New York City area.
Jennifer Gurtov says she's glad to be helping out, but she's also in it for another reason.
"I remember being little and seeing Santa and getting so excited about it," she said. "I just think it's going to be great being out on the streets of New York with everyone walking by. It'll be nice, it'll be nice for the holiday season."
Ms. Gurtov sits alongside 40 or so fellow volunteers during a crash course for Santas-in-training. The first thing the volunteers learn is that dressing up to be a sidewalk Santa is a complicated process. They'll have to put on fluffy red pants, then boots, then a sheath of padding to create Santa's belly. Over that goes a bulky red coat, a white belt and white gloves. They top it off with a curly white mustache and beard.
But that's still not all. Fashion expert Wayne Scot Lukas shows a volunteer how to put on his Santa wig of long white hair.
Lukas: Start from the front first.
Volunteer: Front first.
Lukas: So flip it over.
Volunteer: Flip it over.
Lukas: You want to hold this to your forehead right here.
Volunteer: Hold that to my forehead.
Lukas: Flip it back and put it on.
Volunteer: Ho ho ho!
Lukas: It looks good, doesn't it?
Dressing is just the first step. Being Santa Claus means being a public figure. And that means people on the street will ask you lots of questions.
Morgan Schafer, one of the organizers of the volunteer effort, quizzes the class.
Schafer: Are you a real Santa?
Schafer: And then where is Santa?
Audience: The North Pole.
Schafer: Getting ready for Christmas, very good.
Then, he has a trick question for Santa's new helpers.
Schafer: Where are your reindeer?
Schafer: You're his helper! You haven't been issued reindeer!
Schafer: The reindeer are in the North Pole with Santa getting ready for Christmas.
The Santas face tough questions, especially when children ask for certain gifts - like new bikes or fancy toys - which their parents may not be able to afford. The volunteers are told not to promise anything, rather to say they'll put in a good word with Santa.
Volunteer Chris Washington says he thinks that's the best advice.
"Not to feed the kids dreams about getting gifts, because you know, I remember that experience when I was younger, and I was told I'd get something and I didn't get it, so it kind of upset me," he said
Wayne Scot Lukas, who helped teach the volunteers how to put on their costumes, says giving back to those in need is what the holiday season is all about.
"We support all the kids out there that need help and their families," said Scott Lukas. "What's it like when you can't get your kids anything for the holiday? What's it like when you can't feed them? I mean, bigger than the gifts it's the food."
The volunteers finish the class and get ready to head out to the street, where they will collect money throughout the December holiday season.
Volunteer Janette Ramos thinks she's ready.
"This is going to be my first time ever being a Santa, yeah," she said. "I am a little nervous but I think I can pull it through."
Volunteers of America says its holiday food program provides vouchers that can be used as cash by needy children, senior citizens, and low-income families. That way, people can buy food they can prepare for a special family meal at home for the holidays, instead of going to eat at a soup kitchen.
All photos courtesy - Volunteers of America