Even with unemployment high and older workers facing job discrimination, one business is actively recruiting the post-50 set: Santa Claus contractors.
In August, Houston-based Sepia Photo Promotions began passing out fliers in malls, churches and schools, searching for the 5,000 workers, including 800 Santas, it would train to serve in U.S. malls this year. Sepia received 8,000 applicants, 70 percent of whom had never worked in the Santa industry before, according to CEO Jeff Angelo.
Despite retailers' troubles, it's a pretty good time to be Claus. A mall Santa makes between $8,000 and $12,000 a season, depending on whether he has a real beard, according to Timothy Connaghan, aka Santa Hollywood, who runs Los Angeles' School 4 Santas. By contrast, a seasonal retail clerk paid $10 an hour and working full-time for 40 days would make about $2,300.
In 2008, when retailers slashed expenses, some Santas found themselves out of work, according to Connaghan, who is also the official Santa of the Hollywood Christmas parade. This past year, attendance at his School 4 Santas -- $239 for a 16-hour, two-day course -- was back up. Hiring at corporate and private events has also recovered. About half of the Santas currently in malls have been flown in from different parts of the country (mainly the Southeast and Southern California, where retirees are found) and put up in hotels by photo companies, Connaghan said.
"There's a huge demand for Santas," said Steve Patterson, an independent Santa from Denver with a real beard. "I am so darn busy that I have two people that work with me, and and it's nearly a part-time job just taking the requests."
Patterson charges around $350 to $400 for an appearance, but he noted that in L.A. or New York, the fee would be closer to $600. A product development specialist for most of the year, he frequently turns down lucrative Santa gigs.
"I get paid well to be a Santa ... but my bread and butter is paid for by my work in product development," Patterson said. "I like making kids happy. ... [Being] Santa is one of the few politically correct things men can do and be joyous about the execution of their craft."
THE SANTA INDEX
Some people even think that Santas are more in demand when retail sales are down.
In 1985, Westaff, the company that furnished most of America's mall Santas in the '80s, began publishing the "Santa Index," which it claimed measured the health of the economy based on how many Santas retailers hired each year. The theory was that the more Santas stores hired, the worse the economy was doing, as Santas were part of a desperate attempt on the part of retailers to rev up falling sales. Westaff sold its Santa business to Cherry Hill Photo Enterprises in 1997, currently one of the largest Santa placement companies in America, alongside Sepia.
While the Santa Index would seem to explain this year's demand, Connaghan said that a mediocre economy doesn't guarantee a good year for Santas, pointing to 2008, when some malls stopped employing Kris Kringle completely. Today, even with retailers scrambling for shoppers, not all Santas are winning. The Macy's in Portland, Ore., recently outraged locals when it replaced its veteran real-bearded Santas for two new fake-bearded Santas.
"There's a lot of competition between the photo companies," said Connaghan of the Macy's incident. "A company comes in with a new contract and thinks they can replace the old guy who has been there for 14 years, who they're paying $30,000, with someone new for $15."
'CAN'T JUST HIRE ANYONE'
A bad economy also means more people want to be Santa. Angelo, the Sepia CEO, said that in the past few years his company has seen more overqualified applicants.
"A story will come out about a Santa who makes $40,000 a year," Connaghan explained. "But it's a guy who has been doing this for 40 years! Then I get a phone call: 'I just got laid off in trucking and I'm a big man and I got my own beard. Can you get me a job?' I want to help, but it's Dec. 8 and I can't do anything!"
"In this economic time, I know there are a lot of people out there saying, 'I need the extra money.' Many of them will soon find out [being Santa] is not their ball of wax," he said.
Long hours, crying children and holidays spent at hotels aside, new Santas also have to jump through hoops to break into the business. Angelo's company begins recruiting in August to make time for an intensive training program. Santas who miss the application period, and who don't have prior experience or clients, are mostly out of luck.
To work with any of the national chains, Santas also need insurance, available through one of the professional Santa organizations like the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas or Society of Santa. These societies perform yearly background checks on members, according to Patterson.
"You can't just hire anyone," said Patterson ominously. "I know of instances that have happened because someone didn't hire a professional but just stuck somebody in a Santa suit. ... You're taking an unnecessary risk."
For wannabe Santas hoping to score a last-minute job, Craigslist is another option. But the pay and prospects aren't quite as enviable.
Peter McClean of Long Beach, Calif., hopes to make $25 an hour playing Santa this year. Unemployed since he had his trucking license canceled for failure to make child support payments, he hopes that this year his "Santa Pete" character might bring in a little extra money. McClean's father, "Santa Bob," played the role for a long time in the area.
"I'm trying to make the best of things and make my own opportunities," McClean said.
The reason playing Santa is lucrative, Patterson noted, isn't because there's such incredible demand from retailers, but rather because it's a difficult job to do well. "There's a huge number of people who are simply unwilling to take that emotional risk of embarrassing themselves in front of a large group of people," he said. "It's like being an actor."
To do the job well, Patterson said, "You must be genuinely interested in furthering the goals and the myth of Santa Claus."