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Where did he come from?

We have a soft drink to thank for our collective, cultural image of Jolly Old Saint Nick.

Before the 1800s, Santa Claus was often depicted as an austere religious figure.

But, in 1931, Coca Cola commissioned an ad designer, Haddon Sundblom, to draw an ad featuring a friendly, wholesome looking Santa drinking a bottle of Coke. This became the hallmark of the company’s holiday advertising for the next several decades.

And when this version of Santa collided with the 20th century shopping mall, it meant profits galore.

People generally agree that the first person to dress as Santa in order to drum up holiday business did so in 1890.

There are two other main influences on the tradition of hosting Santa at the mall: In 1924, at its first-ever Thanksgiving Day parade, Macy’s closed the festivities with Santa Claus, which is an appointment he’s kept ever since. Finally, the release of the Christmas classic “Miracle on 34th Street” permanently added the department store Santa Claus to pop culture.

Santa’s sack (of cash)

Mid 2010s estimates suggest that one mall alone could bring in about $1 million in revenue during the holiday season, which isn’t counting the revenue brought in by people who come in to see the Santa display, then do the rest of their shopping. It is estimated that in a busy week in December, Santa Claus could see as many as 60 kids in one hour.

But if you think you can just pick up regalia at a costume store and get hired, be warned: There is some training involved.

According to ZipRecruiter, in December 2023, the average national hourly wage for a mall Santa is just over $23.50 — although that’s dependent on your experience and skill level.

To get those skills, a lot of wannabe Santa Clauses enroll in school.

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Putting on the red suit

There are several Santa schools in the U.S.

As just one example, the International University of Santa Claus, or the School 4 Santas, offers courses throughout the year on various week-long cruises, supplementing their coursework with books and DVDs on how to put together an appropriate Santa wardrobe.

Each of the trips scheduled for 2024, depending on where you’d like to go — the Caribbean, the British islands, or Alaska — offer standard cabin prices starting in the low-hundreds up to the low-thousands. You can also pay $60 extra for a premium experience.

On the first day of the introductory two-day session, prospective Santas learn how to set up a photo station, how to pose, how to talk with hundreds of children, and how to take care of their grooming. On the second day, they learn how to run their business.

Once you’ve graduated from Santa school, you can take advanced courses and work your way up to a Ph.D in “Santaclausology,” which takes a minimum of five years’ experience, registration in your fourth “school” and an “Advanced Masters’ degree” to attain.

But beyond coursework, there are other ways to connect with the international Santa Claus community.

Unions

If working as a holiday Santa gets a little lonely from time to time, you can always join the union.

The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (better known as FORBS) is a union for Santas who maintain natural beards. Annual dues are $25, which allows each member to attend general meetings and cast one ballot in each FORBS election.

Another union is the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which also allows other members of the Claus family to become members. In order to join the IBRBS you have to submit an online application including a headshot of you in costume. Becoming a full member costs $32.50 a year, and allows you to vote on certain bylaws and join Santa-exclusive social media communities.

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Cons for the Claus

Inflation has hit everywhere, including Santa’s workshop.

In a 2022 interview with Associated Press, a long-time Santa confessed the price of red suits, whether bought or handmade, had gone up approximately 25% in recent years.

There is also the months-long preparation it can take, although the amount of time you take is up to you.

One professional Santa recommends that you begin the prep as early as June by finalizing your contracts, seeing if any part of your costume needs repair and ordering business cards.

Thoroughly modern Santa

Things have changed for all of us since the pandemic, including for the seasonal staff of the North Pole.

Yes, there are some Santa Clauses who still work the shopping mall circuit, where the typical shifts are between 6-12 hours long.

But in recent years, malls have been struggling to survive. Rather than clinging to tradition, many Santas have carved a new path for themselves.

In a move that’s only accelerated since 2020, you’ll more often find Santas booking private events, parties, and meet-and-greets these days, rather than malls (where Santas make the bulk of their money from their “photos”).

A bonus of freelance work is that you get to set your own rates, or you can contract to a booking agency. One in particular, Santa Claus and Company charges $295 an hour for a minimum one-hour booking on a weekday, $395 on a weekend and $495 on Christmas Eve.

Many Santa Clauses now have LinkedIn profiles and are encouraged by recruiters to maintain their own websites and social media pages.

There is also new outreach in the Santa Claus community to promote inclusivity — recruiting more Black and indigenous Santas, and those who, underneath the beards, are women — in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Embracing the spirit of Santa

Becoming a Santa Claus is so much more than having a seasonal, part-time job — even though it is only a seasonal, part-time job.

For the people who lace up the boots and don the suit, it’s often a lifetime endeavor.

Considering you work for six weeks out of the whole year, it’s safe to say that many of these Clauses do it mostly because they enjoy it.

In their 2023 survey, the National Santa website found that the average age of a working Santa Claus is 66 years old. Most are retired, and many make somewhere in the ballpark of $10,000 a season. It is more of a passion project side gig than anything else.

But there are limited spaces for Santas, so it can be competitive if you take it seriously. With the unions, schools, etiquette and background checks, it feels like a bit of a secret society — except the members are all sporting the most recognizable face around.

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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.

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