Vail Valley Santa talks spreading Christmas joy
Editor’s note: This story contains age-sensitive holiday-related material.
We all know that Santa Claus works hard over the holidays, but so do the individuals that work as Santa.
Clark Brittain, a well-known Santa in the Vail Valley, often attends events such as tree lightings and Winterfest with his partner in crime, Ralph Plokhooy, otherwise known as the World’s Tallest Elf.
“We call it the world tour,” said Brittain of the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “It’s actually kind of grueling. We treat ourselves well, but we work really hard because it’s such a small window of opportunity.”
Brittain and Plokhooy begin their holiday work on Thanksgiving afternoon at a private home in Eagle, where Brittain lived for 30 years. They work as Santa and the World’s Tallest Elf up until Christmas Eve, when they arrive home late after visiting with families all evening.
“I have a soft spot in my heart for Vail because I lived there 1975 to 2005 and I consider myself (a) longtime local,” Brittain said. “People go all out with decorations and it’s really a magical place to be at Christmastime. Who wouldn’t want to be in a winter wonderland for Christmas Eve?”
It’s not just the time frame and the workload that put some pressure on the duo, but the amount of work that they put into their craft.
After a shave on Christmas morning, Brittain begins to take his beard-growing seriously in the spring, spending a fair amount on high-end products to keep it white and silky. As a professional actor, Brittain has attained makeup skills that help him create his rosy complexion and Plokhooy’s funky green spots and realistic pointed ears.
“We can be pretty snobby about how we look,” Brittain said in jest. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in plastic slip-on boots.”
For example, he wears his grandfather’s gold spectacles to really create an authentic look and experience for the kids.
The duo also likes to make the experience authentic from a social perspective, too. They’ll hide their car and act as though they’d landed on the roof, as well as make an effort to get to know the kids.
“We get to become a tradition with these people, coming into their homes,” Brittain said. “I’ll keep in touch with parents and find out what’s happened over the year, armed with all these facts about special things that happened.”
A staple for many kids’ Christmas, Brittain is always overjoyed to share the season with the young ones.
“As soon as we connect again and look at each other, it’s like we’re family,” Brittain said.
As if that weren’t enough, he does it all in character — and a character unique from most Santas.
“I see videos of myself in character, and I didn’t realize I was so goofy,” Brittain said. “Most guys are not so goofy, and I think that’s part of the reason for my success, because I’m different.”
Not all fun and games
However, for as much happiness as there in Brittain’s work, there’s an unexpectedly dark side as well. Aside from the constant traveling and working, the stress of public life and taking his act so seriously can wear on him.
“It’s kind of like being a celebrity,” Brittain said. “I understand how vulnerable they feel in public when their life is planned down to the minute as far as logistics and transportation. If something gets messed up it can be bad — the unexpected stuff can add to the stress level.”
Additionally, when kids go through a particular trauma, it can result in an emotional visit with Santa.
“It can be heartbreaking when kids ask for poignant things,” Brittain said. “Sometimes their parents break up or somebody dies. It’s part of the job to give them some comfort.”
But mostly fun and games
While they occasionally hear sad things, there are also amazingly happy ones that make up for those that are less so.
“Kids say things that blow us away that are so brilliant,” Brittain said. “At an event with 100 kids, maybe three will blow my mind, and I love to show the fact that what they just said blew me away. They love to see that, too.”
Additionally, returning clients are particularly heartwarming.
“Parents will show us scrapbooks with pictures of me with their babies and then me with their kids years later.”
Brittain also noted that he once met a woman who asked for “her team” to win. Three years later, the woman found Brittain again (in character, of course) and thanked him — her team did, in fact, win.
It’s safe to say that in his work year after year, Brittain achieves a major goal of his: to keep the magic of Christmas alive.
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The octogenarian debutante’s 14 paintings were hung in March but went unseen until last month when the Aspen Art Museum opened to visitors following a closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. The works date from the 1990s to 2019.