Naughty or nice: Is this Auckland's 'bad Santa'?

Neville Baker swears he's no bad Santa, but that being said, he admits that the role allows him to push the boundaries.

"In a Santa suit, no one knows who it is. You can do what you like."

You certainly can. I've just witnessed him cheekily ask an elderly woman if she "ever grew out of being a screamer".

Neville played Santa Claus for around 50 residents of the Erin Park Retirement village in Manurewa - and they absolutely loved him.

He was funny, energetic and more than a little flirtatious.

"I think you're hot because you're with Santa," he proclaimed to one giggling senior.

"It takes a lot to make me blush," whispers another elderly lady as she perched daintily on Santa's knee.

"She says you can't have Santa, she's got him," he laments, speaking for whom I can only assume is a long-suffering Mrs Claus.

When asked about his fun and flirty portrayal of Santa, he laughs, saying he adapts to the audience, be that sick children at Starship, corporate types at work functions or like today, a room full of senior citizens.

"You play it as you find it. You've got to be able to read people, some people don't want to be too intimate with Santa, for lack of a better word, others are happy to jump on Santa's knee," Baker says.

"You adapt to each person's idiosyncrasies, you adapt to the situation and each person's a one-on-one."

Santa entertains residents of Erin Park Retirement Village, Manurewa.
Santa entertains residents of Erin Park Retirement Village, Manurewa. Photo credit: Newshub.

Neville is a natural showman.

He embodies the role wholeheartedly from the huge bushy beard and hair piece painstakingly glued to his face, to his immaculate Santa suit, cleverly air-conditioned in ways he made me promise I would not reveal.

The appearance at Erin Park is almost two hours long and despite the heat and the heavy red and white fur regalia, Baker rarely runs out of energy and never drops character.

Even when I'm trying to ask him questions upstairs in a deserted unit, he refuses to acknowledge the existence of this 'Neville Baker' until I suggest we turn off the camera for five minutes so he can get changed, at which point Santa concedes Neville "might" appear.

Ten minutes later Santa is gone and a sweaty middle-aged man sits before me.

Neville Baker got his break as Santa Claus after a friend of his asked him to step in for their regular Santa for an event at Starship Children's hospital.

Despite his lack of experience, he performed well.

"I didn't have a clue what to do, but once you put on a Santa suit you take on a persona," he says.

Word spread and he was soon offered more work than he had time for, so he hired another Santa, then another.

Now he's got around 30 Santas, all bringing holiday cheer to hospitals, creches, corporate functions and retirement homes across Auckland.

Baker has been Santa for Starship Children's Hospital, Ronald McDonald House and the Special Needs Children's Christmas party, all of which he says he does pro-bono as his way of giving back.

"To find that you've just brought a bit of cheer and a bit of happiness into their lives, is priceless."

Neville Baker as Santa Claus.
Neville Baker as Santa Claus. Photo credit: Newshub.

Despite his wholehearted commitment to the role, Baker insists that the two personas don't mix.

"[Santa]'s a friend of mine, I know him intimately!"

To illustrate this he points my attention to the change in his voice, a subtle difference I'll admit I hadn't noticed.

"You'll notice my voice is slightly changed down there, it's a bit deeper, a little gruff and when I take the uniform off I'm back to talking like me."

I wasn't convinced and as I was leaving what seemed to me like a little snippet of Santa slipped past Neville Baker's lips.

"Goodbye, be good," he said in a deep gruff voice.


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