"Santa himself is not necessarily magical," says Stephen Arnold, a professional Santa Claus. "But magical things happen around Santa."
To keep up with his holiday schedule, he can use a little magic. Arnold, who lives in Memphis, puts on his Santa suit for events covering a large geographic area — ranging from Jackson, Mississippi, in the South, to Little Rock, Arkansas, in the West, and Jackson, Tennessee, in the East. It means that he spends many hours traveling to and from gigs like parades and office parties, of which he did 140 during the 2018 holiday season. But some Santas are even busier. One that Arnold knows of did more than 200 in 2018.
The job is demanding, and it isn't seasonal for many Santas. "We're not just Santa when we're working," says Howie Graham, another Santa performer, who is spending the 2019 Christmas season working at an iconic New York City institution.
"It's 365 days a year. You can't get away from it," Graham says.
Video by Jason Armesto
For Arnold, the holidays are especially hectic. In addition to his own Santa duties, Arnold is also the president and CEO of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (IBRBS), the self-described "largest Christmas organization in the world." IBRBS has more than 2,000 members, including Santas and Mrs. Claus performers, from countries all around the world, including Australia, China, and Israel.
The organization, which holds workshops and training seminars for professional Santas, costs $32.50 per year to join. It helps professional Santas work on their storytelling and performance abilities and also acts as an incubator for new Santas, or "start-up Santas," as Arnold calls them.
These days, there are a lot of people who want to be Santa. Many do it because they love Christmas and want to spread holiday cheer, while others see it as an opportunity to earn some extra money. Many, if not most, Santa performers are retired and receive Social Security benefits, Arnold says, and appreciate the chance to supplement their income while also getting into the holiday spirit.
The money, though, isn't what it used to be.
"There are rumors that, in the old days, people used to make $45,000 or $50,000 working in a mall. That might be possible if they worked more than 400 hours" and made roughly $100 per hour, says Arnold. These days, most mall Santas earn around $25 per hour, in part because there are more of them.
"There were a lot of people who heard the rumors of how much they could make. During the recession, there were a lot of people who had no job and thought, 'Wow, I can work six weeks and make $25,000 or $30,000,'" Arnold says. "And unfortunately for them, they discovered that it took money to make money."
For modern-day Santas, earnings vary greatly depending on location. Some Santas work for nothing, while others can charge more than $60 per hour. Arnold says he typically won't leave the house for less than $100, which compensates him for dressing up — a process in and of itself — and traveling, as well as the appearance. In an average year, he says, he'll make $25,000.
Santa isn't getting rich, but he is usually getting by. "Most of my friends in the business are very happy if they can make $8,000–$10,000" in a season, Arnold says.
Becoming a professional Santa offers up the opportunity to make money. Some Santas sign up to work in a mall for a couple of months, while others stick to gigs like tree-lighting ceremonies or a private visit to a child's home.
No matter how Santa chooses to spend his time, the character requires some up-front investment.
Generally, an aspiring Santa needs to buy a suit. A Santa costume can be purchased at a supplier for between $200 and $350, which is how many Santas get their start. But many performers quickly find that cheap suits don't last — they aren't easily cleaned and, depending on the material, can be unbearably hot.
So most professional Santas end up investing in a higher-quality suit, usually one that's custom-made, which costs between $900 to $2,500. And most Santas need several: Arnold says he usually has at least two with him for every gig.
But that's not all. For Santas who lack a real beard, adding a quality fake to the ensemble can add an additional $2,000 to the total costs.
Because they're in close contact with thousands of people over the course of the holiday season, most Santas need to pass a background check and get particular types of liability insurance to protect them from any lawsuits. But Arnold says that lawsuits are exceedingly rare.
Despite the expensive suits, the travel, and, for some, being away from home for months at a time, most Santas are happy to assume the role.
Graham, along with his longtime friend and fellow Santa Keith Carson, is spending this holiday season in New York City, far from their homes in Maryland and Florida. They're sharing an apartment and, even when they're not out and about in their suits, they spend their time connecting with kids around the country via Skype and FaceTime.
For both Graham and Carson, becoming Santa is about much more than making extra money in December. They've fully assumed the role and don the suit year-round. During the off-season, the two work with charities and veterans' groups. Carson, who is a retired police officer, also runs a nonprofit called the Believe in Santa Foundation, which provides year-round Santa visits to children and families in need.
The commitment to being Santa "really kicked in after I retired," Carson says. When a Santa performer canceled for an event with around 500 kids, Carson says he jumped at the opportunity. "The Santa that agreed to do it canceled out of the blue and panic set in," he says, so he volunteered. "That first time I did it ... I spent five hours in the chair," talking to kids, he recalls.
"I loved every minute and I've never looked back."
Neither has Graham. He worked in retail for 35 years before retiring and becoming a Santa. He says that he hopes to continue playing Santa, and bringing cheer to thousands of people every year, for as long as he can. For Graham, being Santa is much more than just a gig: "It's more of a calling than it is a job."
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