Dec. 9, 2008 -- In the movies, the life of Santa Claus is all about the North Pole and sleigh bells. But in real life, this year, Santa's riding the New Jersey Transit trains and New York City subways.
John Hauck, 71, dons the traditional red suit and commutes two-and-half-hours from Pennsylvania to New York, because, like most businesses these days, even the Santa business is struggling.
For the past five years, Hauck has worked at the local Granite Run Mall in Delaware County, Pa., but he was laid off when the mall had to cut back on Santas from its holiday display.
"I worked four days a week, 10-hour days, full days," he said. "I counted on that money every year. It's gone now."
To make up for the lack of work, Hauck commutes into New York.
"I'm coming to New York to make what I can and I'm doing whatever I can," Hauck said. "I'm doing some tree-lighting stuff and some private parties and things."
He's been able to pick up three days of work at PortraitBug, a photo shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, posing for holiday pictures with children. Even though some parents say they're cutting back on holiday gifts, Hauck stays cheery and merry.
"The parents usually say, 'Well, you know, this year is not going to be as good.' I don't try to reflect that," he said. "That's not fair to them."
Hauck isn't just any Santa -- there are no fake whiskers on him. When toddlers and tots hop onto his lap, most marvel in delight at his white beard. And it comes at a premium -- some real-bearded Santas can make as much as $125 an hour.
"Because we carry it around all year round," he said, "we have to get a little extra for that, don't we?"
But with this economy, the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, a union for "real-bearded gentleman dedicated to the joy of being Santa," says bookings are down nearly 50 percent.
Santa Keeps Christmas Spirits High
But Hauck says he doesn't do it just for money.
"You get a little blue-eyed girl with big eyes like this that looks right in your soul and you're hooked, you're hooked for life," Hauck said. "It's unbelievable. You have to see it, you have to experience it, really, to understand it."
Walk down any street with Santa, and you learn that, whatever he might lose in salary, he makes up for in gratitude. As one little girl slides down his lap, she gives him a hug. The next thanks him with a high five.
"That's the thing. The spirit lives here," Hauck said as he points to his heart. "Not in the pocket."
Life might be tough for the street Santa, but Hauck says that the North Pole hasn't been affected by the recession.
"The elves, they love their work, they eat very little," Hauck joked. "Mrs. Claus keeps them happy. The reindeer don't care as long as they get their hay."
But, looking into the eyes of adoring children, life without Santa, even in tough economic times, is unthinkable.