Sizing Up Santa

The belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly gets some scrutiny in this age of obesity

December 16, 2007|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Reporter

The florid face, the heaving gut, that terrible wheezing he makes just getting out of the sleigh and landing with a thud on your roof like a pallet of cinder blocks.

Let's not even get into blood pressure issues, cholesterol levels and body mass index. "A heart attack in a red flannel suit" - that's what they whisper at the doctor's office when he shows up for his annual physical.

The question is this: Should Santa Claus be hitting the StairMaster?

Is it time for the big guy to sign up for NutriSystem, join a gym, slim down, tone up and try to fit into those Dockers with the 36-inch waist again?

Sure, he's an international symbol of good will, selflessly dedicated to bringing Christmas toys to good little boys and girls all over the world, etc.

But isn't the image of a red-faced, jowly, flabby Santa at odds with a society wrestling with childhood obesity problems and struggling to get kids to eat right, put down the Xbox 360, and get exercise and fresh air?

Well, some might think so. But ripping Santa for being a fat slob is still a bad career move and brings immediate repercussions.

Recently, for example, the U.S. surgeon general, Rear Adm. Steven K. Galson, was accused of calling out Santa for being a poor fitness role model.

"It is really important that the people who kids look up to as role models are in good shape, eating well and getting exercise," the Boston Herald quoted him as saying. "It is absolutely critical ... Santa is no different."

The remarks circulated quickly over the Internet, fanned by irate bloggers who poked vicious fun at the good doctor and accused him of being a politically correct Grinch.

Galson's media rep, Jennifer Koentop, says the fat-boy remarks about Santa "were completely taken out of context."

"We believe that role models come in all shapes and sizes and anyone, no matter his or her physique, can be a positive role model by making healthy choices and by exercising," Koentop said in a statement. "Even Santa would agree with that."

Which, whether he's backpedaling or not, puts the surgeon general in lock step with everyone from Santa impersonators to weight-management experts to parents of young kids, who say Santa still gets a pass on his girth, even in this era of heightened body-image concerns.

Tim Connaghan, a longtime Santa and president of the Kringle Group, which books Santas for appearances and runs a Santa school, says he "never" hears that he and his fellow Santas need to go on a diet.

"In fact," he says, "I've heard just the opposite. I've heard, with thin Santas: `Oh, you need more cookies, Santa.'"

But Connaghan, past president of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, admits he's heard that the organization will be holding a "weigh-in" at its annual convention in Kansas this summer, and that current Bearded Santas President Nicholas Trolli is urging members to get in shape.

"I think people are trying to push the idea of being politically correct on Santa," Connaghan says. "We can't say, `Merry Christmas,' we can't say, `Ho, ho, ho,'" - it smacks of the derogatory street term for women - "and [now] we've got to lose weight and be thin.

"Santa's up on a pedestal, and people are throwing rocks at him."

Which raises the question: Is he too fat to duck? According to a survey of Santas done by the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, the average Santa stands 5 feet 8 inches and weighs nearly 257 pounds, which puts him way over the ideal weight in those actuarial tables.

But lots of Santas, such as Conrad Bladey of Linthicum, remain blissfully above the fat-guy fray.

Bladey, a member of the Bearded Santas and a Santa for 18 years - he's currently a Santa-in-residence at Arundel Mills mall - says he encourages kids to leave milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.

"And I don't want diet cookies," he says. "Or 2 percent milk."

Bladey, 54, who stands about 6 feet 1 and weighs a sturdy 220 pounds, says kids don't care whether Santa looks as if he cruises the buffet line or works out with an Ab Roller.

"Kids just want to see a man in a red suit and a beard," he says. "And he should be jolly and fatherly."

Still, Bladey gets the sobering e-mails from the Bearded Santas, the ones that make him reach for a granola bar instead of a fistful of Oreos.

"You hear of the list of Santas who have died at an early age or died from weight problems," he says. "Then you get the e-mails that say: `We should all be healthier and eat right.'"

Larry Larsen of Towson, a Bearded Santas member in good standing, gets the e-mails, too, and takes them to heart.

At a recent party for the Evesham Park neighborhood at Zen West restaurant near Belvedere Square, Santa Larry is working the room as if he's running for mayor of the North Pole.

Along one wall sit warming trays filled with fried chicken and Italian food, and nearby are platters of delicious-looking desserts that would make a Jenny Craig disciple gnaw off her arm.

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