SALT LAKE CITY — To a man, they speak of the magic of Christmas, of the joy they see in people’s faces, of the warmth that seems to melt cold December days, of the feeling that in their own small way they’re helping to make the season bright.
So is that why they’re working overtime during the holidays? Is peace on earth, good will toward men what’s motivating them?
Well, yeah, that and the extra money.
As the 2017 Christmas countdown hits its stride, the Deseret News reached out to three seasonal workers who agreed to share their stories about laboring, through their own free will and choice, throughout the holidays.
The Tree Lot Guy: Thirty years ago, give or take, shortly after opening Valley Green, his landscaping maintenance business in a leafy neighborhood east of Highland Drive in Sugar House, Steve Leak bought a dozen Christmas trees from a friend’s lot and propped them up for sale outside his shop. Almost before he turned around, they were gone.
The next year he brought in 30 trees. They also quickly disappeared.
Soon he was up to 400 trees a year, partnering with Glover Nursery to buy in bulk, and still he sold out.
The reason for his success? Couple of them. Keeping his prices reasonable was one — he avoided bringing in super tall, super expensive trees. Another was providing little red wagons so his customers and their kids could haul their trees home.
A Christmas tradition was born. So much of one that five years ago, when Leak turned 65 and shut down Valley Green as a full-time business, he continued to sell Christmas trees because the neighborhood wouldn’t let him stop.
“Every year I think this it, I’m going to quit,” Leak smiles. “But I’ve got second generation customers now who keep encouraging me to stay open. That’s kinda neat, and that’s really the thing that keeps me going.”
Kids who once dragged home Christmas trees to Imperial Street or Glenmare or Stratford Avenue now watch their kids drag home the trees.
“I even see people who have gone to artificial trees come back because they want their kids to have a Christmas with a real tree, like they had in their childhood,” says Leak, who reckons that at least 50 percent of his sales are to people who live nearby.
There’s some extra income in it, Leak allows, “but it’s not as lucrative as some people think, not by any means.”
Especially this year, with Christmas trees in shorter supply than they’ve ever been.
The problem, Leak points out, is too many farmers in Oregon, where many of the Christmas trees have been produced through the years, are now growing marijuana instead.
Prices are up $10 to $15 per tree, as a result.
“I don’t know how much the higher prices will scare people off,” says Leak, who nonetheless hopes to sell out this year by the 19th, like he did a year ago.
For most of a month, he works long hours, cutting ends of trees off for customers, loading trees in the wagons or on top of cars, rotating his inventory. Sometimes, when his feet are going numb, his mind will wander to January and the trip he’ll take to Mesquite to relax and get some sun.
“That’s what’s nice about the little extra money,” he says, “I get to take a mini-vacation when it’s over. On some of those cold nights that’s what I think about, to get me through.”
The Mall Santa Claus: Ask Bus Riley about his picture-perfect Santa beard and he’ll tell you it didn’t happen overnight.
“It took 60-some years,” he says, smiling, “but yes, then it came out white.”
Riley is the resident Santa Claus at Fashion Place mall in Murray. Since just before Thanksgiving he’s worked eight-hour shifts, noon to 8; from Dec. 12 until Dec. 24 he’ll work 12-hour shifts, 9 to 9.
Then he’ll hop on his sleigh, fire up his reindeer and go home to sleep for a week.
It might look easy, sitting in a chair, hearing children whisper to you — their absolute idol — what they want for Christmas, but over time it takes its toll, Riley attests. “Last year it seemed like a lot of money, but by the end of it I knew I’d earned my money. I’m confident I’ll earn it this year, too.”
Besides the stamina it takes to just sit there, there’s also the requirement to stay in perpetual good humor.
“I’ve always considered myself a good guy,” Riley says, “but between you and me, I’ve never been jolly 12 hours in a row for 12 days in a row.”
Fortunately, besides being Santa Claus, Riley is also a professional actor. He’s had roles in dozens of movies and stage plays throughout his long and varied career. (That’s in addition to being an artist: the portrait of Ruth and Nathan Hale that hangs in the lobby of the Hale Centre Theatre, he painted it).
About 10 years ago, when the beard turned white, he became a natural for Santa Claus parts. Most recently, he played Kris Kringle in the 2015 movie, “A Christmas Eve Miracle,” joining a cast that included Jon Voight.
“I’ve had people in July ask for poses with me as Santa,” Riley says.
It was inevitable that the Santa Claus roles would eventually lead him to the big chair in the mall.
He says he’s yet to meet a mean kid.
“You know, it isn’t the kids that are mean,” he says. “It’s the parents that insist on a smile from a traumatized toddler. Santa will smile, but the kid, maybe not.”
The best part of the job? Meeting kids brimming with Christmas spirit — the ones who sit on Saint Nick’s lap with no pretense, who truly believe he is who he says he is.
“The dollars get me here,” Santa Claus confesses, “but the magic with the kids is what keeps me here.”
The Bell Ringer: William Travis has 20/200 vision in one eye. That’s the good one. In the other eye he has 20/400 vision. Legally he’s blind. For 11 months out of the year he mostly stays home in his apartment, living off government assistance that comes in the form of monthly checks from Social Security.
But from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, he puts on a red Salvation Army apron and rings a bell next to a red Salvation Army kettle just outside the entrance of a Harmons grocery store.
For that, he gets a modest hourly wage — and a terrific view of mankind.
“I get to stand here and see good people doing good,” Travis says. “It makes me feel good to be part of something like this.”
Everyone doesn’t drop their spare change in the kettle, he’s quick to add.
“If they can give they will; if they can’t they won’t,” he says.
His job, with his bell, is to alert them to the opportunity.
“Most people drop their money and run,” he says. “It’s not that they don’t want to talk, they just don’t expect a thank you. You can tell they’re just grateful to give.”
Sometimes people will stop and tell him stories about how the Salvation Army helped them and now they’re in a position to help somebody else.
Travis works seven-hour shifts, noon to 7, five days every week, with Sundays and one other day off. The extra money he makes gives him a buffer for the entire year.
“Usually by the end of each month I’m broke,” he confesses. “My expenses are mostly within my budget, but by the 15th they’re all paid off and by the 20th I’m out of money. If there are incidentals or other extras after that, I’m up the creek.”Comment on this story
Or at least he was up the creek — until two years ago when a friend told him about the Salvation Army holiday gig. It’s just enough work that he can still do it and not exceed the limits set by Social Security for disability assistance.
“It gives me a little something extra, something to pick up the slack each month,” he says.
Getting out of the apartment, mingling with people, has proved to be a tremendous perk.
“I have a hard time finding work, with my vision and memory difficulties,” says Travis. “But I can do this. I like it when the kids see my hat and call me Santa. I get a kick out of that. It’s a real blessing to be here. I feel like I’m being part of the season.”