It’s the middle of summer and the 10-story atrium at the Chateau on the Lake hotel is filled with Santas.
They are slow-moving spots of cotton-topped crimson along the railings of the upper floors. They crowd the glass-walled elevators, rising and falling in rushes of red, white, and green. They are at the bar, by the pool, and in long lines for the buffet. A few are planning to meet later for milk and cookies near the spa. Outside, in 90-degree temperatures, Santas compete in tug-of-war and footraces. At night, they dance in their Santa casual cocktail outfits on a twilight steamboat cruise.
And everywhere, there’s the sound of jingles. Not short, hard rings that might signal a passing sleigh, but the slow, rolling sound of bells on the shoes of old men walking carefully and heavily.
Being Santa is not a young man’s game.
The average age of a Mr. Claus at Discover Santa 2016 is 62.5. Billed as the World’s Largest Santa Convention, the five-day celebration and trade show has drawn 750 Santa Claus impersonators from all over the United States to Branson, Missouri, a town in the Ozark Mountains that’s essentially like Las Vegas but with country music in place of gambling. Here, between the stifling humidity of southern Missouri and the air-conditioning of hotels, the Santas meet with vendors to talk about makeup, beard care, marketing, websites, and North Pole workshop sets—anything that can make them the best Santas possible. Because the life of a professional Santa isn’t easy … and it doesn’t come cheap.
The professional Santa industry is growing to outfit a larger, more organized community of aging baby boomers who are linked by the Internet and tasked with delivering increasingly cutting-edge performances. At Discover Santa, attendees are given an agenda book that reads like a Santa Sky Mall, packed with gear that includes the Santa Oath Belt Buckle, $55; a service that makes websites for practicing Santas, $369 and up; and Planet Santa Cooling Vests, $199 on sale.
"Most of these guys are never going to get back what they spend," says Santa Mike Pulattie while watching a fashion show at the convention. A basic, quality Santa suit can run $600. Pulattie, a retired Texas high school coach who only does charity events, counts himself among those who won’t see a return on their yuletide investments. But he says there’s a magic moment when a kid looks at him and really sees the myth turned man, and that instant of innocence and awe is incentive enough for Pulattie to stick with the seasonal job.
For some of the attendees, being Santa is an encore to a successful career in another field. One Santa I met was a retired Navy pilot; another was an active Catholic priest. Others have aged into the role. After all, there is really only one job for which white haired, chubby, bearded, older white men—99 percent of the Santas at the convention are white—are uniquely qualified. For others, like my brother Pat, it runs in the family.
Our grandfather Howard Meehan was a professional Santa in the 1940s at North Pole Colorado, a Christmas-themed amusement park. Pat himself has spent 34 years “in the suit,” and has held the Santa job at an upscale mall in Louisville, Kentucky, for the past 25 years.
Pat loves kids; outside of being St. Nick, he volunteers hundreds of hours a year at schools and the local library. But at 63, the grueling business of being a mall Santa gets a little tougher every year. And the crowds get rowdier. A few years ago another mall Santa working across town got punched by an impatient parent after taking a bathroom break.
Pat and his wife, Elizabeth—both retired court clerks—spent $3,000 to make it to Branson this year. And it wasn’t spent lightly. For Pat, it’s an investment. He’s here to learn how to go beyond being a mall Santa and score advertising contracts, corporate parties, and in-home celebrations. He wants to go big time.
Santa Steven from St. Petersburg, Florida, works on his tan. He's been a professional Santa for one year.
Discover Santa 2016 offers 42 workshops to help with this. Some are basic like "A More Comfortable Hat for Santa" or a makeup tutorial called "Lights, Camera, Action.” Some are practical, including "Santa and Special Needs Children" or "Santa Ethics 101." Many of the workshops focus on the ins and outs of the business of freelance performing: "Finding and Keeping Clients," "International Santa Gigs," "Pro Level Santa Career Business," "Marketing Your Santa Services," and "Santa Schedule, Organization and Planning."
Nearly all the Santas in Branson are also real bearded Santas, a trend that began in the 1970s and is now the industry standard. Most, like my brother, wear their beards year-round and follow strict rules of conduct when in public. There’s even an official Santa Oath they follow.
I’m chastised one night over dinner because I keep talking about all the Santas. My brother frowns at me from across the table, and mouths "there is a believer" while nodding his head toward a little girl at the next table.
"There are a lot of Santa's helpers here," he corrects me in a voice loud enough for her to hear.
With a yearlong commitment to the act, it’s no wonder these Santas have come to Branson to learn how get more from it.
Jim Bethurem from Brighton, Missouri, fell into the Santa life casually, after his years working construction left him disabled and depressed. Last year, at 59, he stopped shaving, and when he finally had the full beard and white hair, people on the street started treating him differently.
"It's like going from being a nobody to being a VIP," he says. His first gig as Santa was in the 2015 Branson Christmas parade. He's invested $1,200 in two Santa suits and has a special fur comb to make sure his collar and cuff are just so. After the convention, he’s going to a weekend retreat put on by School4Santas.com.
School4Santas is owned by Tim Connaghan, also known as Hollywood Santa. Connaghan organized the first Discover Santa 10 years ago and is a master at selling himself as the model Santa whose success can be copied by anyone willing to invest some time and money.
As the number of Santas has grown, so has the array of Santa suits and personas to choose from. Connaghan said a few decades ago an American Santa had two looks—the religious, long-robed St. Nicholas and the Coca-Cola-style Santa with a cherry red coat and hat. Now, every variation of Santa is a chance to grab a new audience.
This year, the Lone Star Santas from Texas came 150 strong to Branson, wearing coordinated outfits that included matching red cowboy hats. At the inadequately named Red Suit Gala, a Civil War Santa wore a blue wool military-style coat with stars on top and striped red and white pants beneath. Steampunk Santa had brass gadgets affixed to a black coachman's hat and light-up shoes. A towering Big Sky Santa was draped in a floor-skimming red western duster topped with a black-and-white fur capelet and fur-trimmed cowboy hat. And Renaissance Santa sported gold-embroidered burgundy velvet knee breeches and a matching mid-length cape, with an equally elegant Mrs. Claus at his side.
Investments like this can pay off. In a workshop on how be a mall Santa, veteran Kringle Albert Johnson said that at a nice mall like the one my brother works at, a Santa could make $10,000 in a season. But there’s a trade-off. That kind of money requires 10- to 12-hour shifts almost every day from Thanksgiving through Christmas, a time synonymous with vacation and family time. Being a high-level Santa means working for most of the holiday season you embody.
This is especially true of traveling Santas who are contracted through agencies to work in remote or underserved malls. Traveling Santas can end up far from home and unable to even visit on weekends.
That’s what happened to Doug White, who came to Branson from Atlanta. White was assigned to a mall in Macon, about 90 miles away. He lived in a hotel for weeks, and gave up on the traveling Santa life after one season.
"I didn't like going home at night to an empty room," he says. "I didn't like waking up in the morning in an empty bed."
White now has a three-day-a-week gig at a historic home in Atlanta. The only traveling he does is to visit disabled children who can’t leave their homes.
Pat left the convention after making contacts at a few agencies. And he picked up advice on the kind of photos that work best on a website and new insight into working a Christmas cruise. But he can’t lose the nagging feeling he should be doing more.
Although I know mall Santa work is hard, it seems to me that a Santa who gets to go home to his Mrs. Claus every night during the Christmas season has it pretty good. And it’s clear if Pat wants do something dramatically different and get paid for it he needs to take his self-promotion to a new level.
And, in spite of an oversize persona, Pat, like some of the other Santas I met, are introverts at heart. They’re the ones I prefer. After five days in Branson, I’ve learned that Santas who are too on can be unsettling, especially if you’re trapped in an elevator with a dozen of them.
Throughout the convention, children would wander in and be told “the real Santa is here somewhere, you decide who he is.” The good Santas follow with a dramatic pause, a slow wink, and a smile. Others raise their hand and squeal, "It's me!"
The best are like my brother. They let the children approach, and if they do, then Santa leans down, smiles, and simply asks, "Well, how are you today?" And the kids, unafraid and awed, lean in to hug a legend turned real.
Mary Meehan is a Kentucky-based writer. Inspired by Discover Santa, she's considering adopting the role of Ms. Claus, Santa's red-Vespa-riding sister, this holiday season. She was a 2016 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.