This holiday season, the average shopping mall will hire two full-time Santas to entertain almost 8,000 children, according to a survey from the International Council of Shopping Centers. Anyone can slip into a red suit and bellow, "Ho-ho-ho!" But how do you become a professional shopping-mall Santa Claus?
Sign up with a Santa distributor. While would-be Santas can apply to smaller shopping centers directly, national staffing services farm out talent to the larger malls. Noerr Programs Corp. serves as the North Pole's version of central casting: It supplies St. Nicks to 169 major malls across the country. At Noerr, aspiring Santas are carefully interrogated about their willingness to travel, experience with kids, and, if applicable, their own memorable moments playing Santa. One key question: What does Christmas mean to you? Preferred answer: It's all about the children. Santas can be of any ethnicity—certain malls prefer African-American or bilingual Santas—but they must be male, in keeping with tradition. Having a natural beard is also a prerequisite.
After passing a background check and receiving their mall assignment, Noerr Santas receive a list of dos and don'ts. Breaking character is a no-no. Trained Santas must maintain a jolly disposition, regardless of the situation. When asked for gifts, they should reply with positive phrases like, "Santa will see what he can do about that," to avoid disappointing a hopeful child. Any Santa supplied by Noerr also has to commit to a healthy regimen: avoiding large meals, steering clear of alcohol, and getting plenty of rest.
While personality and preparation are essential, appearance seals the deal. The best Santas wear hand-sewn suits that include pants, a jacket trimmed with white fake fur, a black belt, and long white gloves. (Since many Santas are naturally husky, padding is often unnecessary.) Beards should be manicured daily and bleached professionally. (Bleaching at home is not recommended, as improper technique could cause beards to go yellow.) A company like Noerr provides the Santa suit, but employees should show up with their own wire-rimmed glasses and boots, as well as enough blush to maintain a rosy visage.
According to Noerr, rookie Santas earn up to $10,000 per season, while repeat performers command more than that, as they are a magnet for the mall and attract loyal followers. Those looking to boost their résumés enroll at the International University of Santa Claus, based in Riverside, Calif. IUSC students pay $89 for a one-day workshop in which they learn tricks like how to guess a child's age based on his grade level in school. (Add five, and voilá.) They also get insider tips on the importance of keeping four to six red suits on hand and nibbling a half-dozen breath mints per day.
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Explainer thanks Tim Connaghan of IUSC and Ruth Rosenquist of Noerr Programs.