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."

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.

"We prefer chubby men, of course, ideally with a real beard, but we're not picky and take what we get," director Rene Heydeck told Reuters. "In a lot of families in Berlin it's a tradition that carries on even after the children grow older and stop believing."

But in retail-rich New York City, department stores never stop believing or finding the right men. At Macy's Herald Square Santa Land, where Santa has served as grand marshal of the Thanksgiving Day parade since 1924, Santa works for free.

"We have the real deal here, and he's as old as the beginning of time," said Macy's spokesman Elina Kazan. "We have a special relationship with Santa, who comes from the North Pole. We're his home away from home, and we take good care of him."