Although he brings joy to the lives of millions of children, don’t let those twinkling eyes, jolly laugh and girth that shakes like a bowl full of jelly fool you.
The business of being Santa Claus is serious work.
About 30 area Santas-in-training found that out during a recent intensive two-day "Santa school." Men and women of all shapes and sizes – white, black, tall, short, some with snow-white whiskers and others with salt and pepper hair, and one with a prosthetic leg – from as far as Michigan and as near as Conyers gathered in a Duluth hotel conference room to find out about the nuts and bolts of being Santa.
The workshop, led by "Santa Tim" Connaghan, a 40-year veteran of the Santa impersonation industry, covered many issues common to any small business entrepreneur – how to set fees, track expenses, establish a booking system, contracts, find liability insurance and how to market yourself.
But many topics were unique to the Santa trade.
"What’s this?" Connaghan asked the class, with his arms out as if he were holding a package away from him. "Wet baby!" called out several students, chuckling.
Other discussions centered on how to find hairdressers who specialize in bleaching hair and beards, tailors that make Santa and Mrs. Claus suits, and how to break into the lucrative mall photo market (tip: start with the photography studios that hold the contracts, not the malls), and networking with other Santas in groups such as the Peachtree Santas.
Connaghan, author of "Behind the Red Suit: The How-To Book on the Business of Santa," said he didn’t intend to have a traveling school when he started it in 2003, but the response was so overwhelming. This is the seventh time he’s taught in the Atlanta area, and the school has graduated 1,900 Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves nationwide so far. There are also other established schools for Santas in Michgan and some run by photo companies.
Interest in professional training for Santas has flourished, said Connaghan, in part because the world is more complicated than it was when he started in the business.
"People are also more careful today," he said. "It used to be any Santa could pick a child up, put ‘em on their lap, talk to them. Nowadays people want to know who is that man picking my child up. Is he insured? Is he safe? Because they’ve seen even some of their most respected community leaders and heroes fall down. What about the man called Santa?"
The downturn in the economy has also made more retirees interested in making extra income on the side. A regular Santa contract at a good location can net $8,000 in two months, pointed out Connaghan.
"It just flabbergasted me," said Conyers resident and Santa-newcomer Bob Clark, of everything he had learned in the class. "I went into this thing completely blind. I just figured this was something to do. I had no idea it would be this elaborate." Clark said he began seeing children peeking at him wide-eyed after he retired and let his beard grow out, and he decided to look into the Santa business.
Conyers resident Tom Harrison had a better idea of what was involved, but seeing all the other Santas in the class made him realize what an industry it was. Harrison, whose birthday happens to fall on Christmas Day, decided to get into the business after filling in for his daughter-in-law’s class Christmas event last year. "One little girl spotted me and ran full steam across the floor, latched onto my leg, looked up at me and said, ‘I love you, Santa.’ And I’ve been working toward being Santa ever since," he said..
Because of childrens’ trust, Santas and Mrs. Clauses sometimes have to handle delicate conversations, usually in a short amount of time.
"Children are told you grant wishes," said Connaghan. "Usually it’s just toys, but some children bring you wishes that are intangible. ‘Bring Mommy and Daddy back together.’ Or Grandma passed away, ‘Can you bring her back?’" said Connaghan. He advised that Santas had to acknowledge what the child said, and let them know they are loved. "You can’t do much to fix it, but you can make them feel a little better."
"These last couple years have been a little more difficult, and they’ve been bringing up the E-word. And it’s not Elmo. It’s the economy. They’ve been hearing their parents worry and argue about economy problems. How do you respond to that? How do you make the child feel good about it?"
"There is more to it than having a beard or the size or the red suit," said Connaghan. "That does not make a Santa. It’s having it here in the heart. If you don’t have it here, the kids can sense it, the parents know it."