Becoming Santa: More Than a Red Suit and 'Ho, Ho, Ho!'

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Many are former military or men from law enforcement. And Santa doesn't have to be white -- black and Spanish speakers are welcome, as well as those who use sign language. Women are mostly recruited for elves and Mrs. Claus.

One female candidate began training as a male Santa at Victor Nevada, but she dropped out.

Sanderson said historically Santa was a "solo act" and Mrs. Claus only entered the scene a century ago.

Robert Mindte, founder of talent agency Santa For Hire, said the business market for Santas is best in Georgia, Los Angeles, New England, Texas and Florida, but it's hard to find recruits.

"We have more jobs that we have Santas," he said. "I have a request for one in Fargo, N.D., and I don't have one."

Susen Mesco, president of American Events, Mesco, books 1,300 Santas each Christmas in Denver alone and another 1,200 throughout the country.

"I have been training Santas for 29 years," she said. "The real key is that it's not about the money."

"Most people think about being Santa for years and years and as their beard turns white and people come up to them at Dennys and they start to think about it," said Mesco. "The world calls them to it."

Even if they can pass the background check, most can't hack the 54 hours of rigorous training -- five days from 8:30 a.m. to as late as 1 a.m.

"They have to learn Spanish and sign language and have a clean background check," she said. "They have to put white under their eyes and go to the store and memorize toys. They weed themselves out."

"It all sounds good when someone screams out free money, but Santa has to prepare," she said. "He has to work on his outfit, on his skills and getting his bookings. People call me Christmas morning for their booking the next year."

It's good work during hard economic times.

"Some people save up their vacation time and work the holiday season," said Mesco. "A lot of companies know a guy who looks like Santa and they give him the afternoon off. Some guys who are retired are supplementing their income and are available 24/7 for every Santa situation."

They have to be healthy, as well. "Sometimes a guy is 75 years old with a white beard weighing 400 pounds and he can't get through the season being around kids with all the sniffles."

Mall work is especially demanding. "I was an elf and we had 300 children in one hour and 45 minutes," said Mesco. "You have to be in shape."

The Santa chairs are also uncomfortable with carved arm rests a straight back and no cushions. "And people like to put Santa by the fireplace just has he has come in from outside with three layers of under armor on."

They are taught how to answer the impossible questions: Mommy and Daddy moved out of the house and Daddy doesn't have a job -- can you help Daddy? Or Grandma died and the only thing I want is to see her at Christmas dinner.

Sanderson's hears those heartbreaking requests and will often reassure the child, then say, "Can I surprise you?"

"That's one thing they teach you in school," he said. "Santa can't promise them anything -- Santa has to be optimistic, but he can't lie to them."

He said he will never forget the 5-year-old boy in a tri-cornered hat who, when asked what he wanted for Christmas, said "a wig for Uncle John" who had lost his hair in chemotherapy.

"Children are not given enough credit," said Sanderson. "They are aware of what's around them."

"The whole point is to listen and be empathetic," he said. "Empathy is losing ground in our culture."

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