Behind the beard, it’s not so easy being Santa
There is no unemployment problem in the world of specialized Santas, but getting the work takes a big investment of time, money and dedication.
Several years ago, the takeaway from a profile of the local mall Santa was the staggering amount of preparation this particular Kris Kringle put into the donning of his apparel.
"I'm the Robert DeNiro of Santas," he boasted, before reciting an elaborately detailed backstory for jolly old St. Nick and the North Pole's "Gumdrop Forest." Perhaps persuaded by his method acting, we walked away almost wondering if he believed he really was Santa Claus.
Such all-in dedication to the role is far from uncommon, simultaneously reflecting how important Santa Claus is in culture and business and helping make him so. Here are five things about the Santa business you may not have known or just thought much about.
Not just a beard and hat. Being Santa takes a lot of work, and training is what separates amateurs playing dress-up from the pros.
As such there are plenty of schools willing to train you to be Santa and professional organizations to keep you working and upholding the values of Father Christmas.
The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School was established in 1937 in Albion, N.Y., and named for the former Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade Santa with the goal of establishing "a set of more professional standards for department store Santas." It is the longest continuously running Santa Claus School in the world.
"There are other Santa schools. But this one carries a history that leads many here to describe it as the Harvard of the genre and to list it prominently on their resumes and business cards," the school's Web site boasts.
Among the curriculum points: history of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus; proper dress and use of make-up; experience for radio and television interviews; "Santa sign language"; live reindeer habits; and "Santa flight lessons."
There are a wide variety of organizations that cater to the professional Santa set, among them Santa-America, Servant Santas, the International Order of Santas, The Red Suit Society and The Brotherhood of the Direct Descendants of Santa.
Gary Casey is the founder of Santa Atlanta, a Web site that books private and public events for a roster of Santas.
Since 1994, his entertainment company has grown to encompass a talent pool of about 100 "real beard" Santas and a roster of elves and Mr. Clauses who book about 500 events a year.
"That means a lot of Santas are doing a lot of work," he says.
Casey also created Santa Claus Academy, a training program for new and older Santas alike.
"The whole basis of my program is developing Santas that repeat their business," he says. "If a Santa has a good personality, he will have his customers calling me back the next year to book them. I have some customers that will book a particular Santa Claus in January for the coming year. As a matter of fact, I am developing a contract right now to book him for five years ahead of time."
Casey's own journey into the world of Santa started with a simple nick of a razor. Post continues below.
"The transformation was the simple fact that I hated shaving," he says. "I nicked myself so many times over the years that I finally went out and bought an electric razor. Then I nicked myself with it too. So, I stopped shaving and six months later everyone was saying I looked like Santa Claus. 'Fine,' I said, 'I'll accept that I do look like Santa Claus. So that's what I went out and did.'"
Santa by the numbers. Tim Connaghan, principal instructor for the International University of Santa Claus in Hollywood, has been in the Santa business for four decades and is president of The Kringle Group, a collection of Santa- and Christmas-related companies and Web sites.
Among the revelations he's found by surveying professional Santas: 44% said they are sneezed or coughed upon up to 15 times a day; 28% have been "wet" on by a child and 86.9% of the Santas whose bellies shake like jelly feature their real physique with no padding.
Ninety-three percent of Santas have had their beard pulled to see if it is real, with nearly 43% of the beard-pullers being adults; 61% of Santas see camera "flash" spots more than 25 times a day.
Deck the malls. Even beyond the tens of thousands of commemorative photos parents will gladly pay for of their squirming, sobbing, bowl-full-of-jelly-phobic snowflakes, malls have come to rely on the annual visit from Santa's helpers to drive the seasonal sales relied upon for their end-of-year bottom line.
In its annual holiday-themed survey, the International Council of Shopping Centers found that 78% of all malls surveyed say they plan to spend $20,000 or more on decorations for the holidays (28% will spend $10,000 or less). Ninety-eight percent of all shopping centers began decorating for the holiday season during the first week of November; a mere 2% held off until after Thanksgiving Day.
In conjunction with all those LED lights and spray can snow, 55% of shopping centers and malls said they will employ two Santas for the season; 44% will stick with just one; and 75% of surveyed locations planned for Santa to make his grand entrance during the second week of November.
An article posted on the organization's Web site offers suggestions for maximizing Santa's arrival.
Among the advice is that planning should start in July and can incorporate the growing trend of featuring Santa's arrival via a local parade. Ample lead time allows for acquiring permits, hiring marching bands, developing traffic and parking plans and scoring media promotion. Also, don't limit Santa's arrival to just his traditional area. Spreading out activities and displays keeps shoppers at the mall longer, encouraging them to see more shops.
Stephen Patterson is "Chief Santa" for Kriss Kringle Outfitters and director of the Society of Santa, a nonprofit fraternal organization for the men dressed in red (and anyone else in the Christmas field).
He stresses that the world of Santas goes far beyond those working the nation's malls. His own efforts, for example, center on private parties and appearances at Bass Pro Shops in his area.
"In the Colorado area we have about 65 members, and I would say that most of us don't do malls," Patterson says. "I wouldn't want a mall Santa job because it involves sitting on the chair for 10 to 12 hour at a stretch. The pay ranges from awful at around $10 dollars an hour to very good at about $80 an hour."
He also says that Santas working at malls soon learn that much of the mall’s focus is on the business of selling photographs.
"They go after a good-looking Santa so they can have good-looking pictures," he says. "That's really what the business is all about. There used to be about seven large photo companies. Then there was a buying spree and now there are three large companies and they have most of the malls in America."
Patterson says the benefit of the free photo approach Bass Pro Shops takes is that he is free to spend as much time as he needs to with every child.
Ho, ho, professionalism. The need for professional standards is one of the reasons Patterson says he brings in the Kringle Group's Connaghan each year to oversee training for his organization's new slate of Santas.
"We think training is very, very important," he says. "We also think that every Santa should have a ready portfolio that he can show his clients, including a background check and insurance. We provide the insurance and we require that every Santa in our group have a background check."
"We have guys who have been in the business for a very long time say to us that they don't need insurance. Well, this is a litigious society. They will sue a Santa at the drop of a hat," Patterson adds, giving the example of cases involving candy cane injuries. "They are really going to go after the booking agents and the malls (which have more money) if they are going to make a claim. It is our job as a society to make sure that no claim is possible by conducting those background checks. We terminate everybody's membership every single year and they must reapply and they must have a fresh background check."
That policy has enabled the group to obtain better group insurance policy rates.
Ideally, Santas take it upon themselves to be good-will ambassadors, Patterson says.
"This is kind of my motto: 'I'm here to give your children the kind of Santa experience that you might wish you could have remembered from your own childhood,'" he says. "That's ultimately my goal. If I lose sight of that fact I'm not Santa anymore, I'm just some money grabber, and I have no interest in that. I'm not in the photo-selling business. I'm in the Santa business."
A growth opportunity. Among the expenses Santas say are part of the gig: breath mints, hand sanitizer, grooming apparatus, bottled water and small, battery-operated fans. According to the The Kringle group's survey, the average Santa has at least two suits. Almost 20% said they have four to six of them hanging in the closet.
Those costs, and many others, have to be accounted for when Santas working the private party circuit set their rates.
"In New York you can figure that a Santa is probably going to charge between $600 and $800 for an appearance," Patterson says. "Well, the cost of living is so much higher and if you go into the city all your expenses are higher. You can't really go in the city on the subway dressed in a Santa suit. In Chicago, the rate is somewhat less, between $500 and $700. In L.A., because there are so many actors that do Santa Claus, the rate is probably in the $450 to $600 range."
Among the Santas he works with in the Denver area "nobody has not been busy for the last six or eight years."
"I would say that there are roughly 9,000 working Santas in this country and it is pretty much their fault if they are not busy. I'd say there is demand for at least another 10,000 Santas. There is a huge demand. I could make $100,000 if I wanted to by going to Japan to work."
"The reason for that is I have a real beard," he explains. "Most of the demand is for a real bearded Santa."
"That doesn't mean that we don't have members who have to wear it," he adds. "I had one guy who had his beard burned off by a hairdresser who tried to bleach it and didn't know what she was doing. Now, for this season, he has to wear a theatrical beard. We do not discriminate and we have had Santas who have never had a real beard. But a good theatrical beard, with woven yak hair, is going to run you $1,100 or $12,000, so it's not a simple thing."
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