Jonathan Meath has an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus. He’s just the right height—not too tall, nor too short. His body type is perfect—no pillows needed. And his real beard and dyed eyebrows are the color of freshly fallen snow. Even when he’s not in his so-called “business suit” kids wave, “Hi Santa!” Off-season, adults have looked him in the eye and said, “Too early.” Or please, it’s not the Christmas season.
“If I was 12, I would probably be embracing Harry Potter. But, I have a long white beard and I like to sing and Santa likes to sing,” said Meath, 56, a longtime children’s television producer and now Santa Claus for hire.
Meath’s job path veered in this new direction five years ago. One summer morning in 2006, he soaked in his claw-footed bathtub beneath a window in his duplex in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He pondered the Go For It speech he was about to deliver a friend who was contemplating moving to Los Angeles to become a musician.
“The light dawned on my marble head; I should be doing what I was preaching,” Meath said on a stroll around his neighborhood on a crisp November day, “Santa was presenting himself to me but I hadn’t been listening.”
Meath realized Santa was a way he could perform and sing—two things he loves. So before leaving the tub, he came up with a to-do list and checked it twice. He then went downstairs to tell his now ex-wife of his plans.
She wasn’t surprised. A year before, she had bought him his Santa “business suit” on eBay thinking he would make a good Santa. But, he’d been resistant to the idea, “It didn’t seem viable as a job path,” he said.
Meath decided if he was going to Go For It, he wanted to be one of the best, most authentic Santas–or Premiers as it’s said in the business. To achieve this, his personal to-do list included: 1. Be on the cover of the Lands End catalogue. He’s done that. 2. Sing with the Boston Pops. Check. 3. Make the cover of Boston Magazine. Nailed that first Christmas season.
Being a Premier Santa means the phone never stops ringing. It means working for a fancy brand like Neiman Marcus and performing at the White House or in the movies. It can also mean $40-50,000 a year.
But, there’s competition. To achieve this, Meath is building his brand. He wanted his Santa googlable, so he added a moniker, JG. (Jonathan Greenwood–his first and middle name. Or maybe, as he suggested, Junior Grade to distinguish him from other Santa’s helpers.)
Santa JG tweets. He blogs. His photo can be found on the Wikipedia page for Santa Claus. He’s been on NPR. He’s produced an album, Santa JG Swings!, and has a second on the way. He even has three booking agents—Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston.
At $200 per hour, he’s performed in malls, hospitals, and even a Red Sox commercial. He traveled to Japan for a multi-week gig last year. Next on the horizon? China. “Like the Polar Express, there are new ways of spinning the Santa tale. There is a ready-made platform for launching Santa in China,” he said.
All of this success is understandable. Santa JG is committed. “It’s taken me five years to grow my hair to where I like it where I think it looks like my version of the old elf. I would like it to be about 2 inches longer because when it curls I want it to fall on my shoulders rather then touch my shoulder,” he said. He’s a board member of the 750-member Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas and attends Santa conventions around the country.
Although being Santa is a modeling job first and foremost, Santa JG’s portrayal is not just skin deep. “He takes on the persona of Santa. His spirit is so genuine,” said Amy Haelson, the executive director of Dedham Square Circle who has hired him for their holiday stroll three years in a row.
“My Santa is an Old World Santa. He reminds us that life is not dark and is full of celebration and joy,” Meath said. He believes we need mythical characters in our culture–characters that are all good. He quotes Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung in defending this belief. “Santa is about joy and light and giving and love and caring. He doesn’t carry a gun; he’s not about aggressiveness. And even though he has a material side to him he is not about possessiveness. He’s about gifting,” he said.
But being an authentic Santa isn’t all jolly. Last Sunday, on the way home from a gig, he realized on Route 128 he had left his so-called Man Bag (Santa JG’s business suit doesn’t have pockets and he needs to keep his keys and credit cards somewhere) on the roof of his red Prius with OldElf on the license plate. He pulled over to pick everything up. His cards were found but his Prius’ Smart Key was run over. He had to be towed.
“I was distracted by romance,” he said about leaving his bag on the roof. He and his microbiologist girlfriend had squabbled. “She says I’m great; she likes everything about me. Except, she told me, I’m not sure I can hang out with a fat man,” he said.
At a tree lighting in Dedham on a recent Friday night, children packed the square and the sing-a-long in a synagogue a few blocks away. Dressed in his Savile Row-quality, plush, velvet suit, including a leather belt stitched with Christmas trees and leaping reindeer, Santa JG rocked out to Jingle Bell Rock and sashayed his hips like a Spanish dancer to Feliz Navidad.
“I’m a high-fiving, fist-pumping, jiving Santa. And unlike other media jobs, being Santa is one you can’t age out of,” Meath said.