A Collaboration Between
Boyd's Station and
Text and Photography by Shafkat Anowar
Driving into Aloha Stadium’s Show Aloha Land, this year’s drive-through Christmas light show, the infamous Santa Claus sits at the entrance with his radio playing Christmas songs people look forward to all year. As people drive by, he waves and welcomes them with a jolly “Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas! Always listen to mommy and daddy, kids.” That is Don Gonzales, and he has dressed up as Santa Claus for the past five years.
Gonzales has worked in multiple professions during his 56 years of living in Hawaii. When he is not dressed up as Santa, he is a foster caregiver, a drummer at several local churches, and a fumigator. However, during the holiday season, he has taken on the red and white outfit entertaining people around the island.
His first opportunity to dress up as Santa was at a portrait studio in the Navy Exchange Mall on O’ahu in 2015. He says it was his long white beard that convinced the studio owner to showcase him as Santa Claus.
He recalls his first interaction with the studio owner. “She looked at me and said ‘is that real?’, and I looked at her and said ‘of course it’s real,’” he said. He continued being Santa at the mall’s rotunda for the next three years until he ventured to other venues.
What started as a side gig became a regular job during the holiday season. Soon after getting enough experience as Santa Claus, he became a familiar face at private parties, photoshoots, and malls. Among his many opportunities and events he has worked at, he believes his biggest achievement was being Santa at last year’s Winter Wonderland at the Hawaiʻi Convention Center.
The coronavirus pandemic has been financially devastating as it has inhibited his income, especially during the holiday season. It has shut down many opportunities where he could work as Santa Claus full-time.
“Up until this year I had been making anywhere from six to eight thousand dollars in just last week of November to Christmas eve,” said Gonzales about his wages from last year.
“This year I am only going to make half of what I usually make because there are not that many shoots on the beach, no private parties because of the pandemic and there is no mall where I could be working full time instead.
Gonzales had a stroke of luck after approaching the Show Aloha Land light show for work. Even though the company declined the offer on the first inquiry, the owner called him back with an offer to be a “contactless” Santa.
“I am hurt. I am really hurt” said Gonzales, when asked about how he feels about being a Santa over a distance and not being able to interact with people especially with the kids.
“I want them to pull the car over and come and take pictures with me,” Gonzales said. “Although I am here and they are there [in the car], the windows are up, the kids just want to touch me. They put their hands up against the window. The first time they did and I saw that my heart literally broke into a million pieces because I wanted to reach out and touch their hands.”
Gonzales longs to do what Santa Claus exists to do, which is celebrating the holidays with the kids who look forward to going to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap, pull on his beard and tell him what they want for Christmas.
“I was real. They could touch me. They could sit on my lap. They could feel me. But now because of this pandemic, I am like a figment of their imagination because I am untouchable,” said Gonzales.
Among all of his occupations, he believes he was made to be Santa Claus as he embodies his nature of generosity. “That is just me. If I see a need, I want to help fill it,” said Gonzales.
There were many times in his life where he experienced loss but in his heart, he is always a winner because he gives without expectation of anything in return.
“I feel in my heart that this is what I was meant to do. Maybe when that time comes when I am in my 80s and I am not working anymore and people ask me ‘What did you use to do?’ I will tell them, I used to be Santa.”
Gonzales previously spent eight years working as a tour guide in Waikiki but out of all the jobs, he has undertaken, being Santa Claus is the one he wants to be at the end of the day.
“Out of my driving job, out of my medical job, my fumigation job, out of any other job I had, I wish Christmas was 365 days a year because I live Santa 365 days a year because I do not stop giving.”
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