Mall Santa’s Share What Their Job Is Really Like

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Thinking about donning a big red suit to play Kris Kringle?

We’ve got news: It’s not as easy as it looks.

“Some people think that Santa is just, you know—grab some retiree, put a suit on him, and sit him down in a chair,” says Santa Tim Connaghan (and yes, “Santa” is a title). “It’s not that easy!”

Connaghan has almost five decades of experience, and he’s played Santa in dozens of commercials and television shows. He also runs the International University of Santa Claus, which trains new Santas on the ins and outs of the job.

That fantasy is still there with those dreams and those wishes.

His voice, by the way, sounds exactly like the Santa voice you’re picturing in your head. We asked Connaghan to explain some of the intricacies of playing St. Nicholas, and he happily obliged.

In case you’re wondering…

Yes, the beard is (usually) real.

“Of the 3,700 Santas I’ve graduated from my school, most of the Santas are real-bearded,” Connaghan says. There’s a simple reason: Older kids will quickly spot a fake.

In fact, many Santas decide to take on the role because they bear a striking resemblance to the “real” St. Nick. We verified that by reaching out to another Santa.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

“For years, my wife tried to get me to be Santa at her school [where she teaches],” Santa Jonathan Kirk, who has four years of experience on the job, tells Urbo. “For whatever reason, I didn’t want to…I guess because Santa’s fat.”

About 90 percent of Santas have real beards, but the beard isn’t a prerequisite.

In fact, there aren’t really any prerequisites; these days, there are Santas of all shapes, sizes, genders, and races, and Connaghan writes on his website that the move toward diversity is a great thing for Santas everywhere.

Still, men who have the traditional Santa Claus look seem to gravitate towards the industry. For those men, that’s a mixed blessing, because…

During the holiday season, you’re always in character.

Here’s where false-bearded Santas get off easy: When the event’s over, they can simply take off the suit and rejoin the crowd.

“They’re very lucky. They’re like Clark Kent and Superman,” Connaghan says, “They can disappear. When you’re really bearded, you don’t have that luxury.”

Wherever a bearded Santa goes, he needs to be prepared.

“If you look like Santa from the neck up, 24/7, 365, you will be interpreted by someone as Santa,” Connaghan says. “If you’re in the hardware store buying something and you see a child thinking, wondering, pulling on Daddy’s shirt—guess what? They’ve seen Santa, and you have to go into character.”

In that case, Santa needs to have his backstory ready to go. For example, he might say that he’s shopping at the store to help a friend, then give the child a small gift to keep the magic of Christmas alive. Connaghan carries around a pack of trading cards for that purpose.

Taking pictures requires a few special skills.

Whether Santas work in malls or at private events, they need to become expert picture-takers.

“The first day of the school is technical,” Connaghan says. “We talk about how to pose correctly, how to hold the children correctly, how to make that picture come alive. It’s not just a cute smile and ‘cheese,’ the idea is to really be part of the picture.”

Danielle Beccaria/The Herald

That means adapting to the situation.

“If the baby is crying real loud, you don’t sit there and have a funny grin,” Connaghan explains. “That’s not a very graceful picture; it almost makes Santa look sadistic! You need to show empathy to the crying child.”

Other kids are too shy to smile for the camera. Don’t worry, parents; Santa has a few tricks up his sleeve.

“Sometimes, you have to tell the kids, ‘I’ll tell you what, look at me, we’ll count to three, then we’ll turn to the camera and smile.’ Little tricks like that can be invaluable.”

You’ll sometimes encounter heartbreaking questions.

Regardless of what happens in the chair, Santa needs to keep his cool. If you cry easily, you might not make it as a Santa.

Santa has to tell children that his magic is toys.

“Kids might ask, ‘How do you get mommy and daddy back together after their divorce?’ Or, ‘Grandma passed away this year, can you bring her back?'” Connaghan says. “Children have been told Santa grants wishes, so they bring to them these intangible wishes.”

Of course, Santa can’t provide false hope, but he can’t simply turn the child away.

Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune

“Unfortunately, Santa has to tell children that his magic is toys,” Connaghan says. “But he’s got to listen to the child, let the child know that he heard what they said, and then also let them know that they are loved.”

That can be a difficult task, since Santa won’t have much time during a typical mall visit.

“The average visit is about a minute long,” Connaghan says. “It’s not much. It takes a lot of work and a lot of practice.”

Santas need to be good negotiators.

Santas have to fulfill the expectations of children, parents, photographers, and event organizers, which can be a difficult balancing act.

“We are there for the children, that’s our number one job,” Connaghan says, “but when you’re sitting in the chair, you may have responsibilities to different people…You have to be diplomatic in some things.”

Leila Navidi/Star Tribune

Parents can make the job much more difficult, particularly when they ask Santa to change his routine.

Let the ‘experience’ happen.

“Sometimes the parents want different pictures or specific poses,” Connaghan says. “Some of them don’t even want to take the mall picture, they want to take their own pictures with their own camera, and of course, the photo company would prefer otherwise. Also, we don’t want a family taking over the set and taking lots of pictures, because the next family will want to do the same thing. We have to have some control in there.”

Santa Kirk agrees.

Brennan Linsley/AP/REX

“Parents, enjoy the moment and let your children enjoy it, too,” he suggests. “Let Santa control the flow and let the ‘experience’ happen.”

That “flow” is a really important part of the job, by the way. The time limitations can creep up quickly, particularly when kids get shy.

“There’s one type of child that will come up to you and freeze, and they can’t remember what they want,” Connaghan says. “Santa has to try to get them to open up.”

“Sometimes he’ll kid them and say, ‘Well, if you can’t think of what you want, can I bring you some socks?’ And of course, that kind of jars them a little bit, and sometimes the mental block will break for a minute.”

The suit gets hot. Really hot.

In fact, the big, red suit is one of the biggest challenges of the Santa job.

“The heat is the worst,” says Kirk. “It can get very warm lifting children into your lap for hours. If you’re not well hydrated, you can have issues.”

Sarah Pasley

That’s especially true in commercial buildings, where the temperature is sometimes set slightly high to get shoppers to take off their coats.

“They want you to take your coat off, be comfortable, and stay a while,” Connaghan says. “But Santa’s wearing a winter outfit indoors! He would like to take his coat off and cool down a bit, but part of the image of Santa is that red suit with the fur trim and the hat with the fur trim.”

There are, of course, tricks for managing the heat.

“Having a little fan 10 feet away blowing a light breeze can be a blessing,” Connaghan notes. “Some of the Santas have come up with cool packs that they wear underneath their suits.”

Mark Makela/Reuters

“Some,” he adds, “work in an environment that they call ‘natural Santa,’ where they take off their coats and wear a festive shirt.”

Still, most Santas stick with the traditional outfit—even in the Southern Hemisphere.

“In Australia, they have Santa, also,” Connaghan says. “He’s wearing the red suit, but it’s summertime there. So it can be a little bit uncomfortable.”

Ultimately, the job’s well worth the hassle.

Why would a person want to go through all of this trouble?

That’s easy, according to Kirk: “The kids.”

He continues, “The best is when they run and jump into your arms to give me a big hug. If that doesn’t warm your heart nothing will. That’s what Christmas is all about.”

Kristin Murphy/Deseret News

“You’ve got to have it in your heart,” Connaghan says. “You’re instilling to the children that they need to be good, and meeting with them allows them to present their wishes, their dreams. That’s a unique part of this, that that fantasy is still there with those dreams and those wishes.”

That’s what Christmas is all about.

Granted, the money’s pretty nice, too; according to MarketWatch, a Santa might make anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 during the holiday season.

Still, Connaghan says that, without a passion for the spirit of Christmas, you probably won’t make it as a Santa.

“A lot of the Santas have moved into this because there’s something about the kids,” he says. “You get this wonderful feeling when you talk to them, and you see the smiles on their faces and how excited they are, and that they believe. You have this warm, fuzzy feeling, and you want to do it again and again. It’s very addictive, and it’s a lot of fun.”

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