Holiday Help: Support Groups for Santas

Santa Claus is coming to town, and he has a wish list of things that will make his day at the mall go a little easier.

Enduring crying babies, impatient moms and the occasional wet lap, Santa relies on a support group of helpers to get him through the 40-day holiday season. A survey of Santas-for-hire reveals that their No. 1 concern -- beyond bouncing the 15 million children who sit on their laps -- is maintaining a lustrous head of white hair.

"If you have more hair care products in your shower than your wife, you might be a Santa," said Tim Connaghan, executive director of the Amalgamated Organization of Real Bearded Santas, or AORBS, who answers his telephone with a hearty "ho, ho, ho."

His group gives educational and emotional support to about 1,000 Santas around the country who frequently discuss how to keep their hair white and where to have it groomed. While not all men can grow a natural beard, those who can take pride in their wizened locks.

Business is booming in malls across America, especially for Santas with real beards who can pass for Edmund Gwenn, the star of the 1947 Christmas movie classic "Miracle on 34th Street."

"When you're only 10 feet away, a kid can usually tell if the beard is fake or not," said Connaghan. "We try to give the kids an opportunity to believe one more year."

In a recent survey of Santas, about 90 percent report having their beards pulled, 45 percent see camera flash spots more than 25 times a day as they pose for photos, and 34 percent end the day with damp trousers from giddy children. Many new recruits toy with quitting.

Connaghan has seen both naughty and nice children during his 38 years as a Santa Claus, and he runs the International University of Santa Claus, based in Riverside, Calif.

He started the classes six years ago and now travels around the country teaching one-day seminars for $89. Required reading for the class is his book, "The Man Behind the Red Suit." Enrollment in his Atlanta class has jumped from 35 to 130 students.

The jolly 59-year-old has appeared on television's "Dr. Phil" and will soon appear on "Deal or No Deal." Just last week he donned one of his many immaculate red suits for an appearance at Coca Cola's 75th anniversary exhibit of its original Santa ads, including the 1931 painting by Haddon Sundblom that became the modern-day image of Santa. It has appeared in museums around the world, including the Louvre in Paris.

"There's a real Santa phenomenon now," Connaghan said, even though most believers are between the ages of 1 and 5. Even with Mrs. Claus at his side and a few eager elves, his job is tough: First, Santa needs to complete a background check, then he must greet an average of 200 small children a day. Some urban Santas stuff stockings for 500 to 1,500 kids daily and still keep a hearty laugh in their sacks.

Santas are in high demand not only at malls but for parties and charity events. It can be lonely work, and Santa classes often serve as support groups for meeting others and sharing tips.

"It's not just what I am teaching, but it's the camaraderie," said Connaghan. "Gentlemen are on their own doing it in different cities. They've got a beard, and sometimes they are the odd man out, a little different. They get to share and have discussions and learn a great deal from the interaction."

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