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Conventional Wisdom: International Santa Celebration

Beards, boots, sleighs and plenty of cheer at the annual gathering, explored by photographer Arthur Drooker

by David Graver in Culture on 02 June 2014

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For over a year now, photographer Arthur Drooker has traveled the US, stepping into the wondrous world of conventions and meeting their passionate, engaged attendees. Drooker invited CH along, to peer inside every stop through his lens as he constructs a new book appropriately titled Conventional Wisdom. With stops at a Fetish Con, the World Clown Association and even Bronycon, we've gained a little insight into the hubs of like-minded individuals uniting once a year. In mid-May, Drooker swung by a spirited Santa Celebration, hosted by the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas and—even in the Florida heat—plush red wool suits and thick flame-retardant boots reigned supreme.

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Nearly 300 Santas, Mrs. Clauses and a handful of elves congregated in Tampa, Florida with a view in mind to improve their character—their Christmas persona, that is. Many of the attendees are retirees who frequent malls, hospitals and private parties during the holiday season with the sole aim of bringing smiles to children and keeping alive the Christmas spirit. Santa Celebration's programming offers a platform for sharing ideas. "In Santa 101, novice Noels learned 'If it’s not in the heart, it’s not in the beard,'" Drooker tells us. "Once Upon a Time taught student Santas how to answer those darned questions kids ask, such as: 'I don’t have a chimney so how will you get in my house?' And A More Exciting Santa Mindset showed how to connect with children by not playing Santa, but being Santa."

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As Drooker has observed at other conventions, commerce factors into the Santa Celebration. "In the vendor area, it required deep pockets—figuratively and literally—to acquire Santa style," he says. An authentic Santa suit ranges from $675 to $4000 (depending on the trim) while black leather boots with shiny gold buckles cost around $750. In the vendor section, Drooker crossed the path of Santa Sam Militello, who has been creating Santa apparel for 26 years. Militello explains, “Santa wouldn’t be wearing velvet, Santa wouldn’t be wearing a plush pile because those are all costume materials. What we make is actual clothing for Santa and Mrs. Claus. It’s made of wool. It breathes, so Santa doesn’t have to suffer.”

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A centerpiece at this year's convention incorporated tech, magic and might. "The envy of Santas everywhere: the Cyber Sleigh measures 20 feet long, eight feet high, and weighs three tons. It elevates and spins 360 degrees in either direction," Drooker says. "Oh, and don’t forget the jet engine that rises in the back at the flip of a switch and emits a white cloud." As with any nice ride, the sleigh also contains a 5,000-watt stereo and 22 speakers—perfect for Christmas carols. The vehicle was constructed over a decade by a devout and dedicated Santa.

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However, not all Santas need a Cyber Sleigh or even expensive costumes. While this is a part of Santa Celebration, the true crux of it (as Drooker experienced it) lies in adults embodying the nostalgia of their past and bringing them to life for a new generation. It's the performance, the spirit and a desire to encourage imagination.

Cool Hunting was invited to follow Arthur Drooker behind-the-scenes as he continues to survey and photograph conventions around the US. All images in this ongoing series are by Arthur Drooker.

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