In the fall of 1989, Mark Woodley saw an advertisement in a local New York newspaper: Macy’s was looking for Santas to spread joy in its department stores during the holiday season.
Although he was trained as an architect, Woodley applied for the job. He thought that raising the children’s spirits might boost his own.
Woodley was at a particularly low point. It was at the height of the AIDS crisis in the country and he was mourning the loss of his best friend, who died of the disease. At the same time, he was dealing with his own HIV diagnosis.
But playing Kris Kringle offered an escape from his diagnosis.
“It’s hard to be depressed when you’re surrounded by an excited little kid,” Woodley, now 72, said in an interview with StoryCorps last month.
“It was just magical,” he said, “little kids coming in and the wonder in their eyes. And I was a part of that. I’ve never been more loved. I mean, c was love for Santa Claus, but I was the recipient.”
Macy’s invited Woodley back to occupy Santa’s chair the following year. As part of the hiring process, he was asked to undergo a routine physical exam, during which he disclosed the HIV and mental health medications he was taking.
“I was just being honest,” Woodley said. “And the minute I said that, I knew I had made a big mistake. The doctor’s attitude changed.”
Woodley said he was told they weren’t rehiring him as Santa. Macy’s argued, according to Woodley, that he was unsuitable for the role because he was taking antidepressants. But Woodley, citing AIDS discrimination, sued.
As Woodley’s case dragged on, Jon Winkleman, a young gay man from Rhode Island, had been organizing with the AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), when he read about Woodley’s plight. Woodley in the newspaper.
He brought it to the group. “I just said, ‘We should do something about it,'” he recalled in the StoryCorps interview.
As part of an ACT UP subgroup called Action Tours, Winkleman said, “We did these crazy, colorful, theatrical zaps that were really impossible for the media to ignore..”
On Black Friday 1991, the busiest shopping day of the year, they staged a protest that made headlines.
That day, 22 activists donned Santa costumes and descended on Macy’s. Cheerful crowds watched the swarm of Saint Nicks enter the store on 34th Street in Manhattan singing Christmas carols.
“Everyone is clapping and clapping because they think it’s so cute and adorable,” Winkleman, 54, said.
When the Santas reached the cosmetics aisle, they lined up in a circle, he said. They then put a new spin on the holiday classics, singing lyrics like “Santa Claus has HIV, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la/Macy’s won’t rehire him, fa -la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.”
That day, 19 Santa Clauses were arrested, including Winkleman.
“It was genius,” Woodley said.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Macy’s Santa Claus Protest.
“We forced the media and the public to talk about AIDS when they really didn’t want to talk about it,” Winkleman said. “We had a sense of humor in our stuff, but the backdrop was that people we loved were dying.”
Woodley eventually settled with Macy’s out of court and went on to play Santa at various pediatric AIDS clinics in New York City.
In a statement reported by The Washington Post a day after the protest, the department store said Woodley had not been offered the job “due to the specific type of medication he was taking and the advice of our medical expert”.
When contacted about this episode of StoryCorps, Macy’s said it could not discuss the decision not to offer Woodley the Santa job, citing the time it would take to investigate a 30-year claim and the remote likelihood that he could share private employment details.
In an email to NPR, the company added, “Macy’s supported HIV/AIDS charities and community advocacy and outreach long before this date, before this was common”.
When Woodley remembers the loved ones he lost to AIDS, he said: “Sometimes that grief is so sweet. But other times the pain is so much that they haven’t been able to live fully. their life like me.”
Audio produced for morning edition by Eleanor Vasily.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit organization that gives people the opportunity to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.