Santa Claus sinks his face into his red-velvet coat trimmed in white fur and wipes his eyes, speechless.
Although most of his days are full of children with twinkling eyes, letters written in hopeful innocence and Christmas cheer brought to young and old, this moment stands apart.
He is remembering a man who stood alone at Provo Towne Centre early this December, waiting until everyone was gone from Santa's chair.
"He came up, and I said 'Merry Christmas,"' Santa said, taking a long moment to wipe away tears. "He blurted out, 'I'm terminal. This will be my last Christmas."'
He told Santa he just wanted to see St. Nick one last time.
"I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything," Santa said. "I just stood up and embraced him, and we just wept together."
This and other happier moments are when Christmas rings true for this Santa, aka Bret Gold, who despite being a bit shy, getting laid off from his job in October and spending long weeks apart from his wife while working as the man in the red suit, emits the same positive and caring spirit as Santa himself.
As a mall Santa, he spends 10 hours on the job each day, happy to greet children and discover their Christmas wishes. His resonating "Ho, ho, ho," accompanied by a smile and a wave, quickly lights up faces of holiday shoppers passing by. He said he loves putting those smiles on their faces.
"Even the toughest guys with low-rider pants and gang hats wave when they see me," he said. "They wave and chuckle. That's a stretch for them."
His first gig as Santa was Christmas 2001, when he filled in at a church party for a flu-ridden Santa. He said he had a bit of anxiety going into it: He wasn't sure what to expect and was afraid the children wouldn't believe he was Santa, but once he got going, however, it was a blast.
"It was like someone turned on a switch inside of him," said Gold's wife, TaMara.
Gold said he still gets a bit of anxiety every year, because he wants to be his best and he's an introvert, something he says helps him connect with the children.
"I know they're anxious and they're scared," he said, although "it's more of an excited scared."
He changes from his normal self when he puts on the Santa suit.
"I can't be in front of a large audience and speak," he said. "When I'm Santa, it disconnects me kind of like an out-of-body experience. I become Santa. You put that mantle on, and that's what they're looking at, not me."
Even his own 7- and 8-year-old niece and nephew don't recognize him. After coming to sit on Santa's lap at the mall, they didn't realize the next day that he and Santa were the same person.
"I think it's because they want to believe," Gold said. In his experience, what truly makes the children believe is his belief in himself.
"If I believe, they believe," he said.
As children with high spirits and matching outfits wait for their special turn to sit on St. Nick's lap, it is obvious that, yes, they believe. Some blush at meeting the big man himself and others watch his every movement with eager eyes; some whisper their Christmas lists into his ear and others just can't stop smiling.
Gold has moonlighted as a Santa since the church party in 2001, but this is his first Christmas as a mall Santa. He was laid off from Integra Telecom in August, where he maintained and upgraded routers and switches. He said he thinks his long hair and beard have turned employers off in interviews.
"I tell (interviewers) that I'm Santa, but I don't think they believe me," he said. After little success, Gold accepted a position with AmuseMatte Corp. to be the Santa for the Provo Towne Centre. He said he plans to start interviewing for jobs again in January.
Although it may be a unique full-time job, the mall position is perfectly suited to Gold, said his wife. No matter the season, he still has the Christmas spirit.
"Bret is Santa all year long," his wife said. "He is a kind, caring man, and this just allows him to bring it out."
Gold maintains his snowy white beard, hair and eyebrows year round, bleaching them twice a year and touching up every two weeks. He also has five curling irons that he uses on his hair and beard in the two hours it takes him to get ready each morning. He also uses special glue to curl his mustache, called got2b glued, the same kind punk rockers buy to perfect their mohawks.
The preparation is worth it. Children sit on his lap with shy smiles as they whisper Christmas wishes into Santa's ear. Gold even has a collection of homemade cards, drawings and letters children have given him.
One crumpled letter scribbled in pencil says: "Deer Sata I wood like a fly pen and fly paper. and a baby Dolland Moon Shoes and a teddy Bear. and Beads and String. Thak you, Love Veronica."
Another, accompanied by a crayon drawing of blond mother and daughter stick figures surrounded by a tree with presents and a yellow piano with a bow on top, reads: "Der Santu, I wanta jumprope. and a tinee pyanow like the wun on charlie brown."
Gold's eyes twinkle as he reads them. Although many are written for the children by parents, his favorites are those made with tiny hands.
"The best ones are in children's writing," he said. "I've learned how to read children."
Gold and his wife also volunteer their time to benefit local organizations. TaMara Gold said each year, they try to donate a percentage of their appearances to charity. In past years, they have visited places such as the Christmas Box House. This year they will appear a sixth time at LifeStart Village, a program that allows single mothers to become self-supporting, distributing a bag of stuffed animals and spending time with the mothers and children.
Since he was laid off in August, Gold has spent time as an assistant football coach for little league football. He also works part time stocking music for Anderson Merchandising at the Wal-Mart on 4627 S. and 900 East, an early morning job he said is temporary. He said it helps him be a better Santa.
"A lot of kids will ask for music, and I'll ask what kind they like," Gold said. "They'll say country, and I'll know all the new albums and videos coming out."
With a more than 60 hour workweek, night appearances and two early mornings a week, Santa is bound to get tired.
"I get tired about three (in the afternoon)," he said. "But the more people who come and I can wave at and talk to and make smile, it energizes me. I like to make people smile I really think I make a difference."
When he is not in his big red suit, he doesn't stop smiling or lose his jolly attitude, either.
"Even when I'm not Santa, I see people with scowls on their faces and I think, 'Why are you so unhappy?"' Gold said. "I'll smile at them and they'll light up. They look so much more attractive and confident. Someone asked me if my face hurt from smiling all day long. I said, 'You know, it doesn't, because I'm smiling anyway.'"
Gold is living in a Provo hotel for the time being, while TaMara stays in Salt Lake to work, coming down on the weekends. She says the separation is difficult and she tries to keep busy, staying late at work.
"I pine for Bret when he's not around," she said. "He's a part of me. We're very connected."
Gold agrees that it's hard to be apart, but said that through it all, his own Mrs. Claus has been supportive.
"Like I said, I get a lot of anxiety," he said. "She gives me confidence, sets me down and says, 'You're the best.'" She also washes his gloves he's gone through 50 pair in two weeks. Dustie Johnson, manager for the Santa set at the mall, said that Santa is happier when Mrs. Claus is around.
"You can tell he misses her," she said.
Yet Tamara, like her husband, is dedicated to a higher cause.
"Everybody does service in different ways," she said. "His service is being Santa. Mine, when I'm not Mrs. Claus, is allowing him to go do it."
Gold said he feels rewarded as he enriches people's lives.
"What can I say I've done in my life?" he asked. "Sometimes people just go through life automatic, and I feel I'm making a difference. Even the heartbreak is rewarding."
He does see his share of sadness, his share of joy and his share of hope, mixed together and presented in life.
"Kids come in with a shunt in their head or a drain in their nose or a monitor or they've got oxygen or you can tell they've got chemo and you tell them they're beautiful, and their face lights up," Gold said. "I don't see these I see past that. They're beautiful."
It's a pay-it-forward kind of thing, he said.
"You smile at one person, they smile at someone else, and it continues," he said.
And the one moment that captures his entire experience? Simple.
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