Santa Incorporated

His beard may be shimmering, his cheeks rosy and his laugh guttural and jolly, but Santa doesn’t really park his reindeer on the mall roof, or magically know every child’s name without asking. The gift-granting main attraction at a local mall near you is hired, groomed and trained much like any other employee.

Not just any chubby senior can cut it as Santa. The hiring process is often highly selective. About one Santa candidate in every 75 is hired at Sepia Digital Event Photography, a 15-year-old company based out of Houston, Texas.

The company currently employs 85 Santas and over 500 elves-called the cast and crew-and is contracted in 44 malls around the country, including the Lloyd Center in Northeast Portland.

Santas first appeared in malls, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), in tandem with the growing popularity of the large central shopping centers in the 1950s. Before this time, most Santas lived in department stores for the Holiday season. Back then, parents would have to wait weeks to receive photos of their children with Santa. With recent advances in digital photography, however, pictures of any size are available almost instantly.

According to the Star Tribune, each mall offering visits with Santa will spend nearly $22,000 on decorating, building Santa villages and the like, and some mall owners believe that having a Santa increases patronage.

To attract more people, the majority of malls will celebrate Santa’s arrival with a special event, usually a parade, special breakfast, or reindeer feeding.

For the most part, photography companies are responsible for placing Santas in malls every Christmas. Usually the mall provides the decorations, and photo companies provide Santas, elves, and photographers.

According to Sepia owner Jeff Angelo, it’s all about looking the part. One of the most important factors in a Santa candidate is that they "embody the character," Angelo said. A Santa must be sincere, have the ability to stay in character no matter what, and have a general appeal to children that’s hard to pinpoint. "Children will tell them things they won’t even tell their family," he said.

Additional requirements at Sepia include having a real beard, a transition they made after their first year in business.

The hottest trend in the Santa trade seems to be the real beard. Angelo says that while children don’t seem to notice if Santa’s beard is real or not, their parents notice the difference.

"I think that attracts more parents. They seem to like that authentic feel," he said.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), more than 80 children per day and 6,000 per holiday season will flock to each mall to have their pictures taken with Santa. And the number of Santas has nearly doubled since 2000. Nearly 10 million Santa-lovers of all ages will visit the jolly fat man this season.

With picture packages ranging from $12.99 for a 5×7 print to $39.99 for assorted Santa-with-children photos, this proves profitable for photo companies. It is estimated that the Golden, Colorado-based Santa company Noerr Programs raked in $12 million last year, according to the Denver Post.

"[The Santas] will seek us out," says Ruth Rosenquist, spokesperson for Noerr.

Noerr has a four-step hiring process to fill its Santa gigs in 36 states. First the prospective Santa sends in a resume with a photo included. If Noerr likes what it sees, the Santa is granted a phone interview, goes through a background check, and is hired by a regional manager. They have nearly 600 Santas in their database, with 200 currently employed.

Much of their hiring depends on previous experience. The majority of Santas hired by Noerr have done this sort of work before, from private parties to simply dressing up for their friends and family.

The other requirement is, of course, a love of children. "If you don’t have love and affection for children and a lot of them," Angelo said, "then you just won’t cut it." Angelo says that some Santa applicants have actually replied "no" when asked if they like children, "which is not something you want to hear."

As far as training goes, "it’s not a fluffy thing," Angelo said. The hired Santas undergo a serious one-day training session, in which the discussed topics range from beard grooming to dealing with colds and other bugs that Santas commonly contract when dealing with hundreds of children per day.

In general, a first-year Santa is paid $10 to $15 per hour. An experienced Santa, however, can expect to make between $6,000 and $19,000 in the short six weeks of the holiday season. The pay is often well-deserved-12-hour workdays lifting children on and off one’s knee all day can be grueling.

While the Santa industry has become worth millions of dollars, anyone involved will tell you that money is an afterthought. Some Santas even donate their salaries directly to favorite charities, said Eddie McGregor, Sepia operations manager.

"It’s not just about getting a paycheck," Rosenquist said.


The real beard trend

Not all Santas live in malls. In the habit of popping into people’s houses bearing gifts is the private party Santa-a different breed who often sports an authentic beard, wears an elaborate homemade costume, and is a member of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.
The AORBS is an organization of over 100 Santas, professional or amateur, that meet each year to share trade secrets and provide one another with support. The only requirements are to have played Santa at least once and, of course, to have a real beard.
For AORBS member Patrick Lewis Silverton, the decision to become Santa Pat was never his own. "The children chose me," he said. He grew a belly over the years "probably from eating too many cookies and milk" and the job became a natural next step after he retired after 26 years as an employee for the State of Oregon.
Kids would approach him in stores and on the street and declare him the real Santa. In one instance, a boy rushed up to him and said, "I forgot to tell you, I also want a matchbox car like the one my brother got last year."
For the past couple of years, in addition to private parties, Silverton performs as the Man in Red at the Elsinore Theater in Salem and also works eight to nine hours a day at the Salem Carousel. He attained the job by walking into the Carousel’s shop one day. The other Santa hadn’t shown up and he was asked to fill in. "I was in the right place at the right time."
Being Santa is grueling work, he says, and some children can ask some pretty heartbreaking questions. One of the worst, Santa Pat says, is "when a child asks for Santa to get their mommy and daddy back together." Most of the time, however, "it’s all worth it. Every one [of the kids] is so special."
As for mall work, Silverton says, "I just like other atmospheres."
A defining moment in Santa Pat’s career was one Christmas when a severely disabled boy approached and asked if he could share his Christmas wishes with him. With the permission of the boy’s father, Silverton promised him he’d receive a brand new Lionel train for Christmas.
"I think I made his day, but he’ll never know what a day he made for me."