'Costume Ladies' help spread holiday cheer

12/20/02 12:00AM By Susan Keese



(Host) Everyone knows that Santa Claus needs some extra help during the busy weeks before Christmas. Brattleboro's "Costume Ladies" have been catering to Santa's deputies for years, as VPR's Susan Keese reports:


(Keese) In her shop in an old house in Brattleboro, "Costume Lady" Margaret Moulton is brushing the fur on a red plush Santa suit. A half dozen more hang on a rack in her window, surrounded by large wearable heads of assorted Christmas characters like reindeer, snowmen, penguins, and even a Christmas mouse.

(Moulton) "This Santa suit's just been washed and I'm brushing him out a little before it dries. I wash them in cold water and put them in the dryer on air fluff just to take off all the excess lint and fur. And this one's getting ready for the next customer."

(Keese) The "Costume Ladies" are a year-round business. Moulton and her sister opened the shop 13 years ago.

Moulton says Christmas is always a busy time, second only to Halloween. She's got nine Santas going this weekend, plus a lot of elves, and some old-fashioned carolers. The Santa costumes are the most work. All those wigs and beards have to be shampooed and styled after each wearing:

(Sound of door chime. Moulton greets customer.) "Hello! .... Um, we have a grinch costume, a Mrs. Claus costume and a Santa Claus costume."

(Keese) It's Melissa Rabtoy, her son Richard, and James Jackson from Bellows Falls. They're planning to hand out candy canes and sing Christmas songs outside Rabtoy's mother's house on Saturday.

(Jackson) "Probably Jingle Bells, White Christmas maybe...."

Jackson's jingle bells needs some work

(Jackson, trying to sing jingle bells, laughing.)

(Keese) But Moulton says it'll come easy once he puts on his grinch suit. There's something about wearing a costume, she says, that causes ordinary people to become those characters.

The next customer, who's in his twenties, is running late for his appearance at his girlfriend's father's party.

(Customer) "I'm going to be Santa Claus, and come down from a rope off of the chimney onto a porch. It should be pretty fun."

(Keese) With a little help from the belly-stuffer that goes with the costume, he should be fine.

(New Santa) "Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas. See you Monday!"

(Keese) Ask Moulton why some people like to dress in costume and her response is, doesn't everyone? Moulton's father was an auctioneer.

(Moulton) "I grew up in a really large family and there were always dress up clothes at my house, because my dad would buy the contents of old houses."

(Keese) So she and her sisters have made a business of helping people bring their fantasies to life.

To Wayne Nickerson, being Santa is more than just a fantasy. Nickerson is a truck driver and safety officer at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant. Every year, in his rented suit and whiskers, Nickerson helps deliver hundreds of bags of groceries to the local drop-in center.

Nickerson says he and his wife have experienced for themselves the value of good neighbors in difficult times.

(Nickerson) "Back in the 1980s we were both working, things just didn't seem to meet. So this is just a way to give back."

(Keese) It's easier to share his Christmas spirit with people when he's wearing the red suit.

(Nickerson) "People are a lot more approachable to Santa Claus than they are to just a fat red-headed guy that comes walking down the street." (Laughter and squeals, jingle bells.)

(Keese) Some people never seem to lose that childlike excitement. Every year, with the costume ladies' help, George and Jeanette Newman create a Christmas wonderland in their yard across the river in Hinsdale. It's a world of 20,000 twinkling lights and holiday scenery. Newman is "the Grinch," ducking and peeking in and around the toy trains and illuminated reindeer.

On a cold moonlit night, dozens of kids and their parents visit Santa's workshop in the Newmans' shed. After talking to Santa, everyone's invited inside for cookies and hot chocolate and to see a house full of animated holiday figures.

Jeanette Newman, whose own grandchildren have moved to Virginia, looks like she's in it for the hugs. She's dressed as the ginger-bread woman, with a round brown head, and a red-frosting smile. As the Costume Ladies say, it's not just the clothes - it's the way you wear them.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Susan Keese.
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