Santas don’t just give. They also receive.
Ed Gowin once was offered $25,000 to fly (presumably not via sleigh) to Hawaii for six weeks’ worth of ho-ho-ho’ing in a mall. He declined because of the time commitment, not the compensation.
That’s because there’s a clause in this Santa’s contract that any fee he earns be sent directly to Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery as a tax write-off for whoever hires him.
“I don’t see this as a job,” he explains. “This is my ministry. I don’t earn a penny.”
Gowin describes himself as something of a renegade Santa.
“Malls have asked me to leave. They see me as competition because I don’t charge people who want their picture taken with me.”
During a recent interview, Gowin discussed diabetes, dysfunctional families and the downside of long beards.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Gowin: Orange County, California.
S-R: What were your interests in high school?
Gowin: Traveling. I’d hop in my ’66 Mustang and drive to Arizona or some other place I hadn’t been.
S-R: What was your first job?
Gowin: When I was 15, my machine-shop teacher got me on at a commercial machine shop, and I ended up working there 12 years. Then I switched to making parts for airplanes.
S-R: What brought you north?
Gowin: After I got married in 1981, my wife and I had six kids. But I was always working and didn’t get to spend much time with them. One day in 1995, I went to Promise Keepers (an evangelical Christian organization for men), and the speaker talked about the importance of spending time with your kids. So I looked around the Northwest, found a job up here in two weeks, and I’ve been here ever since.
S-R: What made Spokane more appealing than Southern California?
Gowin: The four seasons – I love the snow. And the fishing.
S-R: Are you still a machinist?
Gowin: Yes. I work for Lyn-Tron, running a five-spindle Davenport screw machine. Each station does something to a part, and then it comes off complete. A lot of what I make gets pressed into circuit boards for computers.
S-R: When did you start growing your hair and beard long?
Gowin: I’m a product of the ’70s, so I’ve always had long hair and a beard. But I used to shave the beard off every summer. The last time I shaved it was eight years ago, when my second daughter got married and wanted me clean-cut for the wedding. Now, I trim 4 inches off every year. They don’t like it too long at work, my being a machinist.
S-R: Do you dye it white?
Gowin: Nope. I’m all natural.
S-R: What initially led you to portray Santa?
Gowin: I grew up in an abusive home, which made me want to work with kids. I was involved with my church’s children’s ministry for 13 years. One day, the pastor told me he thought I’d make a really good Santa because of how comfortable I was talking to kids. And he was right. The first time I dressed up as Santa, the kids loved it.
S-R: How much did your Santa outfit cost?
Gowin: About $500. I have two, because the red dye in the first suit wasn’t set, so it bled into the white, turning it pink. Now I only use that suit for breast cancer awareness.
S-R: How much do you pay to have it cleaned?
Gowin: Just $20, once a year.
S-R: Do you wear makeup for the rosy cheeks look?
Gowin: No makeup. But after I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes last year, I went on a low-carb diet and lost 50 pounds. I feel healthier, but now I need a pillow to fill out my suit.
S-R: Do you have any Santa role model?
Gowin: No, except maybe the Coca-Cola Santa I remember from childhood. And I never got a Santa Claus diploma. People have told me, “You can’t work as Santa if you don’t have a diploma.” And I tell them, “If you call it ‘work,’ you shouldn’t be doing this.” The only qualification you need is love in your heart for kids.
S-R: What’s the age range of people who approach when you’re in Santa mode?
Gowin: All ages. One old lady at the Davenport Hotel rushed up, fell into my arms, and said, “Today is my 90th birthday, and after all these years, I finally found you!”
S-R: What do youngsters ask for?
Gowin: All kinds of things. Some kids want their parents to quit drinking or doing drugs.
S-R: What presents are popular these days?
Gowin: Mostly electronics or animals – live ones. When it comes to animals, I say, “That’s something I’ve got to talk to your parents about.” And if they ask for guns, I say, “Santa doesn’t give out guns.”
S-R: Do they ask if you’re the real Santa?
Gowin: Yes, and I tell them I am. If they wonder how come there are other Santas, I say, “Those Santas are helping me out in the malls because I’m here with you, and I can’t be there, too.”
S-R: How has your Santa evolved over the years?
Gowin: When I started out, I was surprised by some questions I’d get. By now I’ve heard them all.
S-R: Which one still stumps you?
Gowin: “Where do babies come from?” (laugh)
S-R: Do you also reach out to adults?
Gowin: Yes. Sometimes I go into the downtown bus depot. Last year, as I was leaving, a security guard came up and thanked me, saying, “You don’t know how the mood here changes after you stop by.”
S-R: You call this role a ministry. Is there a religious message you try to convey as Santa?
Gowin: Only so far as I tell kids the story of St. Nick, and how Christmas is about the birth of Christ, not about Santa.
S-R: You’re wearing red clothes today, even though you’re not in costume. Do you tend to wear red a lot?
Gowin: I didn’t use to, but I seem to be going in that direction. I try to downplay red most of the year, though, because when I wear it, kids come up to me saying, “Santa, Santa!” Some parents tell them, “That’s not Santa.” But then I give them one of my personal Santa cards I have printed every year, and the parents say, “I guess that is Santa.” And the kids say, “I told you!”
S-R: What do you like most about your Santa niche?
Gowin: Being independent.
S-R: What do you like least?
Gowin: When kids pull my beard really hard, thinking it’s fake. One little girl grabbed it, yanked and pulled out a handful of beard. When I said, “That wasn’t very nice,” she reached up and did it again. It took me a couple of years to grow back the middle part of my beard.
S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?
Gowin: How much I enjoy cheering people up – especially when I visit folks in a hospital or rest home.
S-R: Do you ever wish you didn’t look so much like Santa?
Gowin: No. I see it as a gift from God.
S-R: Let’s see what characteristics you and Santa share. Do you make lists?
Gowin: Yes, I do.
S-R: Do you hold people accountable for their naughtiness?
S-R: Do you have a boisterous laugh?
Gowin: Yes. I’m a loud person.
S-R: Just wondering … does anyone ever say, “Santa, you have bad breath”?
Gowin: No, because I eat a lot of peppermint candy! (Ho, ho, ho!)
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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