I was in my 40’s when I started working at the park district as a pre-school art teacher. It was so much fun I couldn’t believe I was actually getting paid. I had the greatest connection to my five-year-old students because they were creative, enthusiastic, and excited about everything we did. Plus, they laughed at all of my jokes.
Working at the park district gave me many opportunities to do things I’d never done before, such as tending to bee hives, searching for and finding salamanders at the nature center, and manning the docks during Smelt Fest.
I enjoyed it all, but, during a planning meeting for the upcoming Polar Express extravaganza, I heard the seven words that would change my life forever, “We need someone to be The Reindeer!”
My hand shot right up. I knew deep down inside that I had found my calling; My destiny. I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I looked around the room. No one else’s hand was raised, which I found surprising. I thought I’d have had to claw my way to the top.
But then it occurred to me that one doesn’t know if one wants to be a Reindeer unless one really knows one wants to be a Reindeer. For most people it’s a personal decision that might take hours of self-reflection, and a therapist. It’s not right for everybody, but it was right for me.
After my very moving performance at the train station that first year, being the Reindeer for the Polar Express became my annual gig.
It also earned me the title of the park district’s “Mascot du Jour.” Over the years I suited up as “Smilie the Safety Dog” who, with the addition of a cape, moonlit as “Dracudog” for our Halloween Hayride. I was also “The Easter Chick” and the “Winter Fest Snowman”. I was well-received, for the most part. Some kids would burst into tears when they saw me, but that’s happened even when not in costume.
I took the wildly fun job of being a mascot very seriously. I decided that to truly become one with each mascot, and to keep my identity a secret, I’d never be seen without my head, and I wouldn’t speak. Not communicating verbally also gave me the opportunity to freely express myself through interpretive dance. I finally had the opportunity to engage in my true passion in public without anyone knowing who I was. When I do it at Target people look at me funny.
As the Reindeer I’d stand on the train station platform across from the kids so I could entertain them as they anxiously awaited the Polar Express. I’d put one of my front hooves up to my antler and look and listen for the train. I’d check my pretend watch and shrug my shoulders wondering where the train could be. I’d do the Moonwalk, and, because I really am a hoofer, I’d tap dance a little bit, too.
I remember deciding to mix it up one year and posed on the platform bench like a supermodel during a Vogue photoshoot. My supervisor actually came over and whispered in my antler to tone it down. I guess I wasn’t exhibiting proper reindeer decorum. I think the earrings had something to do with it.
Sometimes I’d drive to an event and change into my alter ego at the venue. Other times I’d sit with my head in my hands while Richard gave me a ride. Because I never wanted to ruin the mystique, Richard would park where no one could see me (or him) and then he’d help me put my head on straight. But I never went into the crowd before asking myself, “What’s my motivation?”
Depending on the mascot, each head had a small mesh screen hidden in an eyeball, nostril, or beak, and allowed me a very narrow path of vision. I had to be careful not to step on a child, or trip and become an actual Flying Reindeer.
The little screen also served as my only source of ventilation. When breathing became an issue I’d interpretively dance away from the crowd, pry the Velcro apart that kept my head from falling off, and take a good, long breath of fresh air with my human mouth and nose. It got pretty hot inside, too. Even on the coldest days, I’d easily lose five pounds.
I began reminiscing about my mascot days recently when I happened to see a commercial for Coors Light that I thought was hilarious. It features two mascots from opposing college football teams heading into the locker room after what must have been an exhausting game. (It’s called “Mascot Chill” and I highly recommend watching it on YouTube.)
Then last weekend I watched the NHL All Star Weekend. Look, I like hockey as much as the next guy, but I was in it for the mascots. I found videos of the mascots playing dodgeball, running around Vegas, checking out buffets, shooting craps, and even trying out for Thunder Down Under. Spoiler alert: Gnash got the job. (Look for “NHL Mascots live it up in Las Vegas” and “NHL All-Star Mascot Showdown Dodgeball” on YouTube, too.)
I just loved being a mascot. I let loose. I had fun with it. It was liberating. I was a middle-aged woman running around in a faux fur suit with a head that couldn’t fit through doorways having the time of my life.
I envy you, Tommy Hawk, Gritty, Mick E. Moose, Sparky, and the rest. You have the best job in the world. I’m here for you if you ever need a sub.