Boot camp builds Berlin’s best Santas

Each year Berlin’s top Santa Claus provider Heinzelmännchen holds a veritable Christmas boot camp for hundreds of Santas, and The Local’s Kerstin von Glowacki stopped by to find out what it takes to be a member of the elite yuletide force.

Boot camp builds Berlin's best Santas
Photo: DPA

Leave it to Germans to impose a stringent code of conduct on even jolly old St. Nick impersonators.

On a drizzly December evening, the cold and naked hallways of Berlin’s Technical University are brightened by a troop of men dressed in long red coats, heavy black boots, and fluffy white beards as they march into the cafeteria. A hearty, synchronized “ho, ho, ho,” booms through the halls repeatedly, erasing all doubts that there is serious Christmas business afoot. With proper Teutonic thoroughness, tonight hundreds of Santa wannabes will have to pass muster in costume control, Christmas carols and customer service skills before they’ll be allowed to decide for themselves who’s been naughty or nice.

Click here for a photo gallery of Berlin’s Santa boot camp.

“The kids are our clients and it’s all about them,” rosy-cheeked veteran Weihnachtsmann Frank Wiebe tells The Local. “We have to give them a memorable experience, it’s not just presents,” he says, slapping his thigh and offering his knee with a wink.

Wiebe has served with the student job agency Heinzelmännchen or “elves,” for 31 years. It has long been an established part of Berlin Christmas tradition, providing St. Nicks for hire at private parties, schools and office events since 1949. Each year the agency hires some 500 Santa impersonators of all ages and nationalities to fill up to 5,000 local orders. But these aren’t just old men with boozy breath and an unhealthy interest in children – the Kris Kringle imitators take their code of honour seriously and are not allowed to don their robes without training in the subtle arts of carol singing and knee bouncing.

Wiebe conducts costume control, and says that it takes much more than an authentic beard and a belly like his to be a good Santa.

“It’s not just a red coat and black boots,” the 73-year-old says. “We demand white gloves because young, wrinkle-free hands would give everything away, because Santa is supposed to be an old man.” In addition to the required jute bag and shiny bell, professional Santas are required to carry a traditional golden book full of carols and key information on the naughty and nice, which parents provide when they order a Heinzelmännchen impersonator.

To make sure that children have good memories of their holiday experience, the organisation banned St. Nick’s traditional rod from the costume. “There are only good children,” Wiebe says as he signs and stamps the cards of appropriately dressed students.

“Everyone who doesn’t come in full costume tonight doesn’t get the seal of approval and therefore no job until they show up in the full garment,” Wiebe chants ceremonially as he sends an unsatisfactory “youngster” away.

Once Santa applicants have their uniforms approved with an official stamp, they are indoctrinated with the do’s and don’ts of holiday behaviour.

“Santa can’t use the toilet when visiting a family. That ruins the image,” Tarik Kilinc, the programme’s project manager tells The Local, adding that Santa also does not drink, eat or smoke when he’s on the job.

“And Santa doesn’t swear, of course,” adds Stefan Zwingel, this year’s Oberweihnachtsmann, or “Superior-Santa.” The 44-year-old is in charge of separating the wheat from the chaff. “Last year we had to kick 20 people out, and being drunk isn’t even the biggest problem. One guy abandoned nine families on Christmas Eve and claimed he had a flat tire on his bike,” he says.

Click here for The Local’s visual guide Christmas markets.

Being a Heinzelmännchen Santa Claus is a big responsibility, especially because the fragile emotions of children are at stake. “The kids probably thought it was their fault that Santa didn’t show up that night and that will stick,” Zwingel says.

Many applicants for the temporary holiday job are only in it for the money, veteran Wiebe says. At €28 per job, old St. Nick can earn up to €300 on a busy night. But the yearly vetting process does a good job of weeding out subpar Santas.

The money isn’t bad, Wiebe says. “But I am mainly in it for the fun,” he adds, bellowing a deep “ho, ho, ho,” before joining in group Christmas carol practice.

Click here for The Local’s guide to Germany’s best Christmas markets.

For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.