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Real People Money Diaries: Making Ends Meet When You’re Santa Claus

What it’s like to live the Christmas season 12 months a year

In this series, we explore how different people make ends meet in an age of increasing inequality and job instability, by looking at what they do, how much they make, what the job is like and what their hopes are for the future.

Name: Santa Rick
Age: 67
City: Atlanta
Job: Santa Claus, co-owner of a Santa school, Christmas casting agent
How long: 50 years  

Becoming Santa

I started as Santa 50 years ago when I was 16. I’m 67 now! It was kind of cute, so I kept doing it. I don’t remember my first professional moment — I’ve been at it so long. But in 2012, I became a year-round Santa instead of a seasonal Santa. There are very few of them in the country, so that put me in a different category. Most Santas work two to six weeks and that’s it. I actually work year-round.

Santa used to be just a Christmas figure, but Santa is much more than that. Santa is someone who represents trust, hope and love, and he’s nonjudgmental. While the commercialism of Santa is directed at Christmas, the reality is that the representation of what he does is something that fits every circumstance now. You can have Santa give away company bonuses (many companies give them away in January and March). You can have Santa propose to women. You can have Santa do weddings (I don’t do weddings, but I’ve been asked to do a couple of them). You can have Santa give away anniversary or birthday presents. Santa is now doing gender-reveal parties, and he also announces pregnancies, which is even more special. 

Then there are the sad things that Santa does year-round as well. Maybe Aunt Margaret is dying in March, and Christmas is her favorite holiday — you’ll go to a home, hospice or hospital, and we’ll do Christmas because that’s what they want.

I have a Santa school — Northern Lights Santa Academy, the second largest in the country — and that’s twice a year. It takes about six to 12 weeks twice a year to work on. We have 22 instructors! I’m also an agent for Christmas performers of all types: Mrs. Claus, elves, live reindeer, photographers, trains, anything you’d want for a Christmas party. I have clients and performers all over the country and parts of the world, so I stay busy year-round.

Being A Real Santa

The simplification of the Santa world is there’s two types: There’s the mall Santa and then the private party/event Santa. Many of the Santas around the country will tell you they’re making more than they are: There is money to be made, but you have to earn it — you can’t just put on a red suit.

I’m Santa for the Atlanta Braves and the Falcons, and I do a ton of work with children’s health care and other sports teams. I’ve been booked in China and other places. The youngest child I’ve had in my arms was two hours old, and I’ve gotten a lot of babies under two weeks old. The oldest person I’ve had in my lap is 106, and the tallest was a professional basketball player who was 7-foot-4. 

I’m a trained actor as well, and I can tell you that being a trained Santa nowadays versus a guy who put on a red suit, the people who sit with me are having a different holiday experience. A real Santa goes to school at least once a year, knows the backstory and can talk like Santa. The reason for those things are really important — even a four-year-old knows the Salvation Army guy isn’t Santa. That’s because he doesn’t look like Santa, he doesn’t dress like Santa and he doesn’t talk like Santa. Santa has quality clothes. He has a real leather belt, not a pleather belt. He has a real brass buckle, not a tin buckle. The beard needs to be neat, trim and white. Santa is a clean and good-looking guy.

During the Christmas season, I get up around 5 in the morning, and I go to bed whenever I fall asleep, which is usually between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. I get up at 5 and I’m on the computer dealing with clients, dealing with other Santas and writing contracts. We have hundreds of Santas working for us.

After Christmas passes, for most Santas that’s it, and they have a hard time dealing with it. They get feelings of withdrawal or depression because, aside from the hard work, it’s an enormous high to be Santa, and then all of a sudden, there’s nothing. For me, I have so much paperwork that I have to do once Christmas is over that I really don’t slow down. For me the slow months are February and March, which means I’m working six to 10 hours a day, not 16 to 20.

The Demands

It’s incredibly demanding physically, mentally and spiritually. Physically, you lift tons of small children. But children are all ages: Even a 106-year-old is still someone’s child! I’ve had as much as 700 pounds on my lap — two men that weighed 350 pounds each. It’s mentally demanding because when you’re Santa, people will tell you anything: Their secret desires, wants and problems. You’ll hear everything from A to Z. But Santas aren’t psychiatrists, we don’t go to school like a mental health professional. On top of that, we have two to five minutes with people, and they will lay some heavy information on you.

Just this week I had a child come up to me who’s about 12. I said, “What would you like for Christmas?” And she said, “Well Santa, it’s kind of personal.” I said, “I’m Santa, it’s okay.” She looked at me and said, “My parents are getting a divorce, and I want you to keep them together.” So we hear some very sad things, and some very funny things. But these sad things, such as divorce, or death of a family member or pet, they come to us to fix it, and we can’t do that. We’re toy makers. But we can redirect that and bring hope and happiness to someone who’s downtrodden and sad. That’s why you want a trained professional — the wrong person in a red suit can kill Christmas.

Spiritually, there are two camps in the Santa world. My personal belief is that Santa is spiritual but not religious. One of the things we teach in our school is that America is a litigious society, so if you preach or pray with the wrong person it’s going to probably cost you everything you own. That’s not to take away the reason for the season — it’s about the identity of Santa and what he does, in my opinion.

Mall Santa v. Event Santa

A mall Santa has a very special skill he has to learn: The mall wants you to turn a group in two minutes because they’re selling pictures, so you’ve got to learn how to turn two minutes physically into five minutes mentally for the people. They should feel like they got to spend time with you. Santas at malls are torn because they’re constantly trying to do the right thing in talking to children while they’re trying to get the picture taken.

Being an event Santa is like a mall but with no pressure. But you really have to know your backstory: how to talk like Santa, how to answer every question in the world, how to be engaging and entertaining. It’s a skill, and if you don’t have it, you’ll go into a house and after three to seven minutes you’ll run out of stuff to say — but you’re there for an hour.

A Santa for All Seasons

I have half a dozen of the same red shirts. I have half a dozen of the same green pants. I have Santa suits. I have Santa swimsuits. I have Santa tuxedos. I am Santa, so these are my clothes. I can literally go nowhere without somebody stopping me and saying, “Hey, can I get a picture?” My life is in slow motion. If I go to the grocery store, it’s a trip — I’m not running in and out. Same when I go out to eat. If I stop at the gas station, I’m always good for a picture or two while I pump gas. 

I’m humbled by the opportunity to make those people happy and change their life in a positive way, even if it’s just a giggle. But you have to know how to engage a person properly: Some people are sarcastic, and other people say things that are very sad, like, “When I was a kid you never came to my house.”

The Money

I work hard to earn a living, and yeah, I’m comfortable, but I don’t take a lot of vacations. I live very frugally because I’m always working. My travel is basically always Santa-oriented. I took one trip last year for a week with my wife and son: Before that, it had been two years. They’re not really snazzy trips — I went to Washington, D.C. to see museums. We don’t stay at the Ritz, we stay in less expensive hotels.

There are a lot of people who have heard Santa makes a lot of money. If that were true everybody would be doing it! Most Santas make very little money. For one, it’s a short season. People in malls are making $5,000 to $15,000 a year, some make up to $25,000. It’s good money for the number of weeks, but it’s not good money for the number of hours because they’re working 80 to 90 hours a week, seven days straight for up to two months.

In private jobs, you have to schedule an hour or two between jobs, and most jobs are one hour. There are some half-hour jobs and there are some that are all day, but most are, “Come to my Christmas party for an hour.” So you’re running from job to job, and even though you’re making more per hour, you’re not doing more than three to five a day, so it takes a lot out of you.

Then there’s the main issue, which is that to be a professionally trained Santa (versus a guy in a red suit) is expensive. You need to have a real Santa suit. In my opinion, a quality suit is going to start at $600, and most tailor made suits are $1,200 to $1,800. They go as high as $5,000, but very few people pay over $1,800. You can’t get by with just one suit if you’re busy, because if it gets dirty, you’re out of business. That’s just the suit — you’ve also got to have a belt and buckle! Professional ones will run you $250. And you’ve got to have quality boots that are comfortable because you’re in them every day. That can be $300. On top of that, if you’re a professional, you’re going to school at least once a year, which means you’re traveling and staying at a hotel.

But I want to emphasize this: For most Santas that are professional, and maybe most guys in a red suit, money has nothing to do with why they’re doing it. The money’s important because it’s what allows you to be a better Santa — better suits, better training, going to Santa meetings and belonging to Santa organizations — but that’s not what it’s about, it’s about the children. And if you don’t love people and you don’t love children of all ages, then Santa’s not the right place for you to be.