Holiday Help: Support Groups for Santas

For example, when a child refuses to sit on Santa's lap, it's wise to disappear and let mother sit down. "Then Santa can sneak back in and peek for the camera," he said.

How about when babies fall asleep just before the shutter clicks? Connaghan advises lying on the sofa and placing the child on your chest. "It makes a jewel of a photo."

Connaghan's group recently conducted a survey on its membership and shared the results with Auntie Anne's Pretzels, a mainstay of malls across the country. This season, the company provided Santa survival kits, which included some recommendations from AORDS: a small fan to keep Santa cool and a hairbrush with a mirror so he can keep tabs on rogue mustache hairs.

"When Santa eats a snack, he can't feel the crumbs in his beard," said Connaghan. "When he gets overheated, his mustache droops. Santas learn to be friendly-smelling. You can't bring odors to children or they turn to their parents and say, 'Gosh, he smells like Uncle Harry.'"

The survival kits also include boot polishing supplies, a beard grooming kit, chilled bottled water, a hand sanitizer, mints, throat drops, lip balm and even a backup light for Rudolph and an official pooper scooper for Mrs. Claus.

The Riverside, Calif.-based Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas began in 1994 when 10 Santas were hired to do a commercial in Europe. After 14 hours of filming that went through the night, the group bonded and agreed to see one another again. Now they meet for lunch on the third Sunday in January to share war stories. Each summer they hold a national convention.

During Christmas season, the group gets 20 to 30 casting calls for Santas from hiring agencies and photo companies. Recently, the requests have increased, as some veterans have suffered strokes -- not an occupational hazard but common in their age group (the average Santa age is just under 60 years old).

Santas earn between $7 and $10 an hour and choose the seasonal holiday work not only because they like children but also to make extra cash. Connaghan's earnings have helped him send his 19-year-old daughter to college.

In the survey of 325 "real bearded Santas," the group discovered that the average Santa is 5 feet 9 and weighs 257 pounds. More than half have blue eyes and grandchildren. More than 78 percent have college degrees, and a handful have master's and doctorates.

Santa's favorite treat is the chocolate-chip cookie, followed by oatmeal raisin, peanut butter and sugar. The majority drive pickup trucks; an adventurous 14 percent ride motorcycles; and a few eco-friendly ones drive hybrids.

"If it isn't in your heart, you don't make a good Santa," said Connaghan. "You have to get into it."

Ironically, the Santa business is not doing as well in Europe, where Santa Claus first found its inspiration in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The American Santa was immortalized in the Clement Clarke Moore poem "The Night Before Christmas" in 1823.

Just a month to go until Christmas, and the director of a Berlin "Weihnachtsmann" (Santa) agency said he is having trouble finding qualified help. In Germany, most Santas are students and paid only about $37 a day to bring sacks of presents provided by parents to their homes on Christmas Eve. Santa is required to shell out $60 for his own costume and also gives back to the agency 15 percent of his earnings.

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