Ethics Quiz: The Ethical Duties Of Santa Claus Imposters

11 photos for movie review running Thanksgiving Eve. Billy Bob Thornton in Terry ZwigoffÕs BAD SANTA. Photo Courtesy of Tracy Bennett.

A post yesterday described the outrageous conduct of the management at the Six Flags Over Texas theme park, which declared a local man named Jerry Henderson person non grata and kicked him out of the park because he “looked too much like Santa Claus” (they want him to shave his white beard to resume his park privileges). He also gave candy canes to children after their mom asked him to pose with her kids for a photo.

A regular Ethics Alarms commenter related this 180 degree variation on the story:

My kids take swimming classes at our local park authority pool, and last week, while we were signing in, one of the managers came out of the back office dressed as Santa. However, he was doing it as a gag for the other employees, not for the kids. (About 80%+ of the people there were children.) My kids went running up to him shouting, “Santa, Santa!” He did not acknowledge them or the other kids, didn’t even say hi, and just walked into one of the workout rooms.

I thought my kids were going to cry. I had to tell them that Santa was busy right now, but not to worry, we would go see him tomorrow when he had time to talk to them.

Your “Bad Santa”-themed Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

If you look like Santa Claus, are you ethically obligated to act like Santa Claus?

This pre-Christmas season has already had at least one Bad Santa episode.  In North Carolina, a 9 year-old boy was allegedly told by a mall Santa after the child recited his list, ‘Lay off the hamburgers and french fries!'” The child started crying. (Did you know that Santa is an anagram for SATAN???)

My answer to the quiz lies in part with the rarely cited variation of the Golden Rule known around the Ethics Alarms offices as “The Rifleman Variation.” In a notable episode of the Sixties Western TV series “The Rifleman,” a show with frequent ethics themes,  hero Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) got into all sort of trouble because an evil look-alike (Chuck Connors) was breaking the law and bullying people. This conduct was unethical anyway, but it would have been especially unethical if the Rifleman Clone had known that his conduct would hurt the reputation of his good-guy avatar.

Anytime you intentionally impersonate an icon, a celebrity, or even a fictional hero that people care about, there follows an obligation not to harm your model. The Golden Rule question: “How would I like it if someone was impersonating me and acting like a jerk?”

The other part of the answer is the necessity of practicing Ethics Chess, which is thinking ahead about the likely or possible ethical consequences of our conduct. Santa attracts children, especially around Christmas. If you look like Santa, you have to consider that you may have interactions with children You are obligated to make sure you don’t harm the reputation of the merry old elf, or shatter an innocent child’s illusions.

Unless you’re at Six Flags, of course.


Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Childhood and children, Popular Culture, Religion and Philosophy

43 responses to “Ethics Quiz: The Ethical Duties Of Santa Claus Imposters

  1. “If you look like Santa Claus, are you ethically obligated to act like Santa Claus?”

    To the best of your abilities, yes. At the very least, you should not act in ways that are blatantly contrary to the persona of Santa Clause.

    Of course no one has ever met the “real” Santa Claus so no one know how he actually acts. 😉

  2. Steve-O-in-NJ

    Is there a list of characters who the same rules apply to, you think? I think anyone who has suited up as a character that will attract kids could possibly get on it. After all, who wants their kid to run into a cold Snow White or a rude Winnie the Pooh?

    • It’s a great question. I recall a video from Disneyland of one of Pluto losing it because a kid kicked him and chasing the boy. That’s a no-no. Also some icons like Elvis, Marilyn, John Wayne and others have estates with millions riding on continued public popularity.

  3. Slick Willy

    I think Santa is a special case, based on nothing other than his western culture ubiquitous nature and tradition. Put on the suit, assume the posture. He is watching, after all. 🙂

    Other characters, of course, are fiction, and their reputations cannot be damaged by real world impersonators.

    What? You think I’m gonna disavow Santa this close to Christmas?

    • Slick Willy said, “Other characters, of course, are fiction, and their reputations cannot be damaged by real world impersonators.”

      So a drunken Mickey Mouse walking down Main Street insulting little children with profanities would not damage the reputation of Mickey Mouse in the eyes of those children?

      When in costume and in the view of the public you remain in character 100% of the time.

    • What are your thoughts about a a mean or hipster Jesus, or Moses, or Mary?

      • Kristina

        I don’t like them.

      • Steve-O-in-NJ

        Leave that to the likes of people like Sarah Silverman, whose shtick is deliberately transgressing the lines of good taste. Note that they never portray Mohammed the pedophile raider…

        • That particular Jesus was introduced by a priest played by George Carlin in “Dogma”—a great film, by the way.

          • Patrice

            That Jesus was dubbed “Buddy Christ,” and I bought a small replica for my husband years ago because it was and is funny. Jesus was likely to have had a robust sense of humor anyway.

            There was an hilarious episode of either the Simpsons or Family Guy where God complains about how his Son came back to him and was never the same after what we humans did to him. Then you see Jesus on a swing set, just spinning around on a swing. It was funny.

            William Gibson’s “The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut, & The Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree” portrays nearly every Nativity icon as somewhat different from their Biblical images. One of my favorite plays of all time.

      • Gotta remember who Jesus was, he spread his message among lowly sinners. There is a song from an album called Autumn Sky with a song on it called “Riding his Harley” and the dominating chorus line is “If Jesus were here today he’d be riding his Harley”.

  4. Can you copy paste the discussion that has already occurred from the earlier post?

  5. Bob Madison

    How can anyone resist a post that mentions BOTH the Rifleman and Santa Claus…

    I think if you unintentionally resemble a figure like Santa Claus, the obligation is nil. Insisting on good cheer from legions of overweight bearded Americans would be a tall order, indeed.

    However, if you cultivate a resemblance to Santa, then … you had better behave like Santa. An overweight man with white beard who wears a Santa hat (by choice) indeed has an obligation to receive expectant children with warmth, good cheer and kindness.

    Brief story: when I was a boy (back when dinosaurs ruled the earth), there was an elderly gentleman in the neighborhood who cultivated a Santa Claus air. With tummy, long white beard … this man carried a walking stick designed like a candy cane all year round. My Mom would point in out in the non-December months and say that it was Santa, either off-duty, or in disguise and walking among us. When we would approach him… this guy would be terrific. And now, more than 45 years later, I still remember him. I have no idea of whatever became of him (remember – he was ancient and I was a kid), but I hope the people around him were as kind as he was to them.

    Oh … pox on Six Flags!

    • There was also an episode where Santa Claus visited, not The Rifleman, but Steve McQueen on “Wanted Dead or Alive”!

      • Other Bill

        During his Army service, Connors moonlighted as a professional basketball player, joining the Rochester Royals and helping to lead them to the 1946 National Basketball League championship. Following his military discharge in 1946, he joined the newly formed Boston Celtics of the Basketball Association of America becoming the first professional basketball player to be credited with breaking a backboard. Connors took a shot that caught the front of the rim of an improperly installed glass backboard during the Celtics’ warm up at Boston Arena on November 5, 1946.

        Connors left the team for spring training with Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers. He played for numerous minor league teams before joining the Dodgers in 1949, for whom he played in only one game. He joined the Chicago Cubs in 1951, playing in 66 games as a first baseman and occasional pinch hitter. In 1952, he was sent to the minor leagues again to play for the Cubs’ top farm team, the Los Angeles Angels.

        He was drafted into American Football by the NFL’s Chicago Bears, but never suited up for the team.

        In 1966, Connors played an off-field role by helping to end the celebrated holdout (see Reserve clause) by Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax when he acted as an intermediary during negotiations between management and the players.[9] Connors can be seen in the Associated Press photo with Drysdale, Koufax and Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi announcing the pitchers’ new contracts.


      • Bob Madison

        I remember that one well! Believe it or not — there is a champion episode of Have Gun, Will Travel about Christmas (oddly enough, with Johnny Crawford).

  6. Al Veerhoff

    I have a (trimmed) white beard and white hair but I’m too tall and thin to be usually mistaken for a Santa. Nevertheless, during this season I sometimes go into the stores with a red stocking cap and my half-frame reading glasses. If I see children staring at me wide-eyed, I put my finger to my lips and signal them to keep quiet, this is our secret. They love it. You can bet that I’m not going to do anything to kill the myth.

  7. JutGory

    Jack: “How would I like it if someone was impersonating me and acting like a jerk?”

    I don’t know, but I would say that they have done their homework.


  8. Al Veerhoff


  9. crella

    Yes, you are and should, even if it’s just greeting kids. A few kind words or even ‘Ho,ho,ho’ as he moved on wouldn’t have been hard for the swimming school employee, so little effort, but a much better result. You don’t break little hearts because you’re in a hurry.

  10. valkygrrl

    Moral of the story: Fully commit to your cosplay.

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