They show up each year in malls and department stores like clockwork, seemingly eager to hear every child's Christmas wish list and pose, broadly smiling for photos. And, of course, there's that unmistakably hearty "Ho, ho, ho!" that signals that the holiday season -- and Santa Claus, himself -- has arrived.
But what's it really like being the chief elf? How much can you earn, and how are the working conditions?
First, the good news: The pay can be exceptional. A PayScale survey showed that Santas can earn up to $100 an hour. Amounts posted at RealSantas.com show even higher rates, $175 to $300 for the first hour for posing as Santa at private parties. Additional hours average $125 to $200 each.
But there are some downsides. The attractive pay combined with the current tough job market means there's lots more competition for available gigs. And those who land assignments playing Santa say that the nonstop cheerfulness can be draining. The season is stuffed with 10-hour days, tending to demanding children. And sometimes kids can get unruly -- even aggressive.
"I did not leave the chair to go to the bathroom and it ended with me getting hit in the head with a frying pan" by a scared child, Scott Serafin, 66, a Buffalo-based Santa, who also sells sleds, recently told the New York Post. His biggest, most exhausting gig included 2,600 children during a seven-hour stint at a psychiatric hospital.
Letting your fatigue or irritation show can also get you sacked. Just ask the Santa who -- as the Christian Science Monitor put it -- was "fired for being naughty, not nice," after parents shopping at the Maine Mall in Portland, Maine, complained that he was rude. The Santa (who was not identified) was let go after a local TV station aired a story and parents posted complaints about him on Facebook.
The Santa in question allegedly turned surly after 6-year-old Chantel Mailhiot's mother, Jessica, declined to buy a $20 photo set. Santa also refused to let Chantel sit on his lap, mother and daughter told WGME-TV. What's more, Chantel said, when she asked for an American Girl doll, Santa replied that she'd get an "American football."
Of course, rudeness isn't only limited to overworked Santas. Santaisreal2, a contributor to Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" subsite, recently wrote about an incident that was among the worst he's experienced playing the jolly old elf (even though he's just 25).
"Kid was walking by and I said Merry Christmas! The Mom told her kid in a really loud voice, that I wasn't santa claus but some perv playing dress up." [Note: Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" section uses anonymous sources, which can't be verified. Excerpts that appear here retain their original spelling and grammar.]
Santaisreal2 noted these examples as among the stranger items that children have told Santa that they wanted, when asked, "What do you want for Christmas": a "Pink Pony," "Food" (from a 15-year-old who was caught off guard by the question), an "AK47," and "PBR" -- apparently requested by a thirsty 30-year-old.
Asked if he had to buy his own outfit, Santaisreal2 replied, "Nope, my santa costume was provided for me. (I couldn't afford it, if i had to pay for it)." The contributor, who says that he works as a nurse in a children's hospital when he's not playing Santa, also says the pay isn't that good: $13 an hour -- a far cry from the $100 an hour others get.
But that may have more to do with the venue than Santaisreal2's aptitude. He writes: "I work in a pretty White Trash mall. Plenty of teenagers who think they are tough and get into it at the mall."
Santaisreal2 goes on:
"So one year two guys started picking on a kid. I couldn't yell at them as santa because I had a kid on my lap. But one thing led to another and the one of the two guys stabbed the kid that was getting picked on. I broke character immediately, and ripped off my beard and wig and started to work on the kid. (both kids ran off after they realized the severity of stabbing a kid in the stomach) I stabilized the kid and reported off the to police and EMTs. Had to throw away that santa suit ... "
So much for holiday spirit.
Still, Santaisreal2 might consider himself lucky to have a job. As MarketWatch reports, there's no official Kris Kringle employment index, but anecdotal evidence from a Santa school in Canada suggests more Clauses are going without employment this year.
"There's no question about it, the number of Santas out there looking for work has grown," says Jennifer Andrews, headmaster of the Santa School in Calgary, Alberta, which trains Santa to work in stores and malls in the U.S. and around the world.
Enrollment increased fourfold this year, Andrews said, adding, "there's not a lot of room for untrained Santas." The story is similar at The Kringle Group, an agency based in Riverside, Calif., which has more than 2,200 Santas on its books.
One of those keen for work is 56-year-old George Kane, a former emergency medical technician and scuba technician, who's yet to make it rich playing Santa, despite his very full -- and real -- white beard.
The Yulan, N.Y.-resident is so eager for work, he's charging just $30 an hour or $50 for two hours to play Santa. With the job market so tough, Kane told MarketWatch that he plans to use the Internet and social networking to more aggressively market himself. "If I can get back into the workforce doing this," he said, "I'd be very happy."
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