I’m standing on the Promenade Deck of a Carnival Cruise bound for Ensenada, Mexico, a coastal city in Baja California. It’s a meet-and-greet with a sizable number of the passengers on board so I’m trying to come up with polite icebreakers. Since I’ve been told that everyone has traveled from far and wide to get here, I settle on, “Where are you from?” The question, however, elicits variations on the same friendly, confused response:
Um, the North Pole?
In hindsight, I guess it kinda figures. It’s the last Saturday afternoon in January, and I’m about to attend the 23rd annual reunion of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas — an organization for men who look like Santa Claus and take a vow to promote a positive image of him. FORBS has members nationwide and local chapters that meet monthly for dinners and seminars at local restaurants — FORBS of San Diego, for example, gathers on the first Wednesday of the month at a nearby Sizzler.
In addition to keeping a clean background check on file, as the name suggests, all members must have real beards — as opposed to “designer Santas” who wear wigs and are ironically referred to as “traditional Santas”by the professional Christmas community. Maintaining those beards — keeping them snow-white, hiding the roots, twirling mustaches just so — isn’t just a point of pride; it’s a prerequisite for the gig. That being the case, best practices for bleaching are a common point of discussion. “You know you’re a Real Bearded Santa when you have more hair products than your wife,” explains Santa Ron Breach from the North Pole of Orange, California.
Every modern Santa organization, convention, school and academy in the world can trace its roots back to this annual SoCal reunion. The name of the organization has varied over time (e.g., The Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas and The International Order of Real Bearded Santas) and there’s a bit of sordid history involved, but the through line is this yearly retreat.
It’s always over the last weekend in January, just after the busy season — their only busy season, really — when the MVPs of Christmas catch their breath and unwind amongst other white-gloved, real-bearded brothers in arms. “It’s an emotional roller coaster,” Santa Ron explains. “We’re so busy during the season. Then there’s a huge letdown afterward, and we have to pick ourselves up.”
It all began in 1994, when the German mail-order company Otto Versandhired a bunch of Santas to be in its fall catalog. The theme: “Even Santa can’t handle all the wonderful things in our catalog!” It featured 10 Santas bumping into each other as they struggled to deliver massive armfuls of wrapped gifts. A call went out to casting agencies and directors across Southern California, stipulating that the actors selected would need their own costume and real beards. Between takes on the 12-hour shoot, the Santas traded war stories about their most memorable gigs — in addition to portraying St. Nick during the holidays, most were aspiring actors — and agreed to have lunch together after the upcoming Christmas season.
Someone suggested their club should have a name, and borrowing a line from the casting call, the late Santa Tom Hartsfield proposed “The Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.” AORBS met on the final Sunday of January 1995 at the North Woods Inn near Pasadena and continued doing so for the next several years, each time growing in size and eventually outgrowing the Inn.
Nowadays, the reunion is typically held ashore and attended by 300 or so Santas who take over a SoCal hotel — last year’s was at the Sheraton in San Diego. This year, however, it’s on the Carnival Imagine, aboard which nearly 60 Santas, along with Mrs. Clauses and a smattering of Elves from across the country, are headed off to sea — first to Catalina Island, then to Ensenada — for a long weekend of eating, drinking, karaoke-ing, ukulele-picking and ho-ho-hoing.
Following the meet-and-greet, I take a stroll around the 900-foot Imagine,which feels more like a 1990s shopping mall than an ocean vessel. There are all kinds of people aboard: Honeymooners on maiden voyages; parents clutching toddlers attempting to enjoy a family Christmas gift; old people traveling with desperately old people, likely their parents; and 57 Santas who, size-wise, blend in seamlessly with 1,500 other giant Americans wearing “Big Daddy” and “Kiss Me I’m Cruisin’” T-shirts.
I’ve never been on a Carnival cruise before — nor Princess or Royal Caribbean — and I’m simultaneously dreading and delighting in the newness of it all. Though it’s about as novel as a food court or the front desk of a Holiday Inn, there’s a comfortable familiarity to everything, like Guy Fieri’s Pig & Anchor Barb-B-Que on the Lido Deck. “Throw in Guy’s signature line of barbecue sauces and you’ve got a rockin’ sea day on deck,” it promises.
Most of the 57 Santas are here with their wives, or Mrs. Clauses. Spouses accept that role with varying degrees of fervor — none more so than Diva, wife of Santa Rick Ervin, chairman of FORBS. Diva’s the beloved secretary of the Orange County chapter, but her unofficial title is cheerleader, one she holds with distinction. For instance, here she is getting her Whitney Houston on at the 2015 reunion:
And here she is resting her giant Mrs. Clauses on my back:
Admittedly, I’m no Real Bearded Santa. I can barely grow a goatee. But Diva and all the Santas she spends her days and nights championing almost immediately welcome me into their club like a long-lost Kringle.
* * * * *
Imagine’s faux-formal Spirit Dining Room brims with over-the-top splendor: Ceiling domes are painted with murals and hung with crystal chandeliers, large portholes are trimmed in gold and a grand circular staircase is decorated with a sculpture of Napoleon at his coronation. I momentarily lose my balance — a reminder I’m on an ocean liner steaming through the Pacific, not walking into the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City. Once I regain it, though, I’m on the lookout for Table 24 in the Santa section, my assigned dining location for the cruise.
When I get there, I find Santa Lou Martinez and his wife, Loretta, a friendly Latino couple in matching outfits who are fired up for the reunion. “It’s always great to see Santas I’ve become friends with over the years,” Santa Lou tells me. “It’s a brotherhood. Being Santa is a solitary job. It’s not like you can call a friend and go Santa-ing together.”
Other Santas at Table 24 have brought friends — or elves — as a thank-you for assisting them throughout the season. Like Santa Greg Cook and Elf Dave, lifelong friends who were in the Boy Scouts together. “Dave elfs for me on the Polar Express at the Southwestern Train Museum,” explains Santa Greg.
“I’m a great elf,” Dave says proudly. “I have a green outfit with a droopy hat and say things like, ‘Can you make room for Santa so he can sit right here?’ Elves get no respect, though. I’ve only had one kid ever talk to me, and that was just because of that stupid movie.”
As a fleet of servers clear away shrimp cocktail to make way for Oysters Rockefeller, I ask the table if anyone’s been to Mexico before.
“I spent a night in the Ensenada jail once,” says Elf Dave. “Got drunk at a titty bar and when I came out, I swung around one of those parking meters and a cop thought I was trying to break it and threw me in jail.”
I ask if they took away his elf license, too.
“Nah,” Santa Greg answers for him, somewhat defensively. “It’s okay, his background check came up clean.”
This leads to a tablewide discussion on such checks, which I’m told all FORBS members are required to update every two years to maintain their group insurance — essentially liability coverage for Santas.
Santa Ron rolls his eyes. “I keep several types — liability and molestation insurance — because all you need is one little girl to say, ‘Santa goosed me,’ and you’ll be wiped out.”
“You always want your hands to be shown in pictures so someone can’t ask, “Where’s Santa’s other hand?” Santa David adds.
“That’s why we wear nice, bright gloves, so you can always see where our hands are,” Santa Michael explains.
Santa Greg’s day job is chaperoning lunch at a San Diego high school, but he tells me the students can sometimes be obnoxious about his side hustle. “One kid leaned in and whispered, ‘Santa, please bring me that sweet, sweet pussy for Christmas.’”
Day jobs are required because mall Santas get about $20 an hour for an 8-hour day with a 30-minute lunch break. Home visits are better, Santa Greg explains. “For a half-hour home visit on a Saturday in San Diego, you can charge $200–$250 — another $100 if you’re in L.A. But there’s only two or three good weekends you can get paid for.”
“And we lose a weekend next year,” Santa Ron reminds the table. “Just the way the calendar worked out. It’s a grind. If you do this for more than one season you gotta have it here.”
He points to his heart.
Santa Michael, a minister who has invited me to Sunday worship tomorrow morning, views Santa-ing as an opportunity. “My job is to create a memory that’s going to last kids a lifetime.”
As everyone digs into their dessert — Grand Marnier soufflé served with orange vanilla sauce — the lights dim and a voice comes over the PA system:. “Good evening! This is Ian, your senior maitre d’ for this cruise. On behalf of my entire crew I’d like to welcome you to this celebration of food, family and friends. Are you all here to celebrate?”
A round of “Ho ho hos” ring out.
“All right, then, it’s celebration time!” Ian exclaims.
Without hesitation, Santa Ron, Santa Lou and Elf Dave leap from their seats into a spontaneous dance party:
After dinner, the party continues when I bump into Santa Glen Bailey, who is lugging a big blue bag over his shoulder and walking into the Illusion Dance Club mid-ship. “It’s always been a dream of mine to have an all-Santa ukulele band,” he explains, opening his bag to reveal a dozen or so miniature guitars. Soon, the club is filled with a bunch of Santas who are surprisingly adept at playing the ukulele. Someone notes that we’ll be waking up in Catalina and suggests everyone turn to “26 Miles to Santa Catalina” in their FORBS reunion songbook.
* * * * *
While Santa Claus is a secular myth, Sunday worship in the conference room on the Promenade Deck is well-attended.
A trio of Ukulele Santas kick things off with a rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” before turning things over to Santa Michael, who is legally blind and walks with a long, red-tipped cane: “Dear Father, I thank you for this opportunity. We gather here as a group because we have similarities in keeping children laughing and putting smiles on their faces. We live this.”
Santa Michael explains that because he had a stroke in October 2015, his sister-in-law came down from Sacramento to drive him to every single one of his Santa visits this season. “That’s why I trust in God that He will bring people across our paths so we can share the joy,” he says.
“Lord, as we’re together for the rest of this cruise,” Santa Michael concludes, “I ask that you be with us as we have a great time together in fellowship and friends.”
* * * * *
While waiting to board a ferry to Catalina, I strike up a conversation with a couple of Santas in line. After speaking at length about my hometown of Fairfield, Connecticut, I figure it’s appropriate to ask Santa David Nelson where he’s from.
“The North Pole,” he replies, smiling at a little boy I hadn’t seen approach us.
The boy’s parents explain he’s confused as to why there are so many different Santas on the cruise; he thought there was just one. Without missing a beat, Santa David explains this is the Kringle Family Reunion. Santa is here, but he’s kind of a rock star so he travels with an entourage. “One of these is Santa,” Santa David explains, pointing to a sea of St. Nicks walking off the boat, “but you don’t know which he is. I’ll give you a hint: Santa isn’t going to be wandering around by himself, because he needs bodyguards. So when you see groups of two or three Santas together, there’s a good chance that he’s one of them.”
“I know which one’s the real Santa,” the kid whispers to his mom, pointing to one.
“Wow, how do you know?” she responds.
“He’s the fattest.”
“Designer Santas become Santa,” Santa David explains to me after the family walks away. “We are Santa.”
I’ve heard this from a lot of the guys already, many of whom use the phrase, “Santa 24/7/365.” They view it as a sacred calling, and their real beards mean they must always be prepared to slip into character. Even when not in full costume — sauntering the streets of Catalina or meandering around the Lido deck after lunch — they wear various forms of Santa casual (red knickers with striped socks, overalls with a candy-cane motif, “SC” suspenders) to leave little doubt in young minds about their identity.
“I had a little girl walk right up to me one summer,” Santa Michael remembers. “Her parents scolded her when they realized what was happening. I interrupted them and said, ‘It’s okay, she just found out who I am and was describing the Barbie Dream House she wants for Christmas. I told her to be an extra good girl, and I might have some room on the sleigh this year.’ I keep a few candy canes in my pocket and handed one to her and winked at her mom. We always have to be ready. I even keep sugar-free peppermints in my pocket in case I have a kid who’s diabetic. They get so excited that Santa has something they can actually eat.”
* * * * *
After we return to the boat later that evening, per his request, I buy Santa Greg a pineapple piña colada from the RedFrog Rum Bar and join him and a couple other Santas in the hot tub on the Lido Deck.
They’re already making preparations for the 2017 holiday season. “You’re always planning for things that haven’t happened yet,” Santa Dave explains. “This year I took a sign-language course because I saw a scene in Miracle on 34th Street where Santa encountered a deaf girl. It was a good thing I did, too, because this Christmas I had four hearing-impaired children. For them, it was no big deal that Santa could sign — he’s a magician, after all — but the parents’ jaws just dropped.”
* * * * *
On more than one occasion while interviewing the Santas, I unknowingly stumbled upon a sensitive topic. References to “the confusion,” “the war” and “the dark period” are accompanied with troubled sighs — odd sounds from such a jolly bunch. And the conversation abruptly shifts if they notice I’m within earshot.
“I was a founding lifetime member of AORBS,” Santa Ron whispers to Santa Lou seated next to me at dinner one night. “I was part of the war — one of the ‘Gang of 31’ kicked out because we wouldn’t support Nick Trolli.”
Now armed with Google search terms, I discover a harrowing tale of Santas gone bad: By 2002 — eight years after the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, or AORBS, was formed by the 10 Santas in that German catalog commercial — the group had grown to thousands of members. Thanks in large part to Santa Tim Connaghan, who had a background in PR and who had agreed to assist founder Santa Tom Hartsfield in organizing and promoting AORBS. One of his suggestions was to begin collecting modest dues — $15 a year — to enable a more robust web presence. At that time, as FORBS president Santa Bob Callahan explains to me, “anyone who came to the lunch was a member and anyone who didn’t wasn’t. Accepting dues meant people who lived in Montana — or anywhere in the world — could still be members.”
Soon, however, lumps of coal started falling.
One of the newly joined Santas — the man Santa Ron referenced above, Nick Trolli — joined the board and started arguing with Santa Tim, accusing him of engaging in ethical conflicts. Namely: Santa Tim had signed a contract with a Hollywood production company for a possible movie on a Santa convention and stood to retain as much as $25,000 as the film’s consultant. He argued, however, that the group also could receive up to double that. Santa Tom urged Santa Tim to resign, which he did. (Though Santa Tim maintained it was because of all the infighting, not because he thought he’d done anything wrong.)
Trolli then ascended to the presidency, and power did not seem to agree with him. A 2008 episode of This American Life immortalized the feud that followed. As a 2008 Wall Street Journal story explains, “Detractors say [Trolli] began ruling with an iron fist in a white glove. His board stripped Santas of their membership for offenses such as maligning fellow Santas on Elf Net, a web chat group run by the Amalgamated Santas.” Per Santa Bob, pretty soon only two Santas were left: Trolli and Jeff Germann, the administrator of Elf Net, who went so far as to ban Santa Tom from the chat group for violating confidentiality agreements concerning board discussions.
“When we went to the luncheon in 2008, bad things happened,” Santa Bob remembers. “Afterward, we defected.”
Soon, the Orange County chapter of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas changed its name to the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas and adopted an official logo, which is on near-constant display throughout the cruise. And any lingering animosity or battle scars seem to have dissipated with time — if it hadn’t been for those few hushed whispers and my encyclopedic knowledge of This American Life, I would’ve never been able to tell that these guys were just a few years removed from a civil war that nearly destroyed them.
* * * * *
A handful of Santas are gathered around tables outside of the casino discussing best practices on bleaching their hair. I ask if everyone does.
“There are a handful of natural whites here,” Santa Lou says. “But over 60 percent of us are bleached.”
“Let’s say you were to bleach out,” Santa Ron explains. “After the first bleaching, your hair is gonna have this orange-yellow tint to it. So then you’re going to use a toner, like a Wella T18, and you’re gonna turn surfer-blond. Then you’ll bleach again and you’ll be white.”
“But if you leave the toner on too long, your hair turns blue,” Santa Lou warns.
“This takes a lot of work,” Santa Ron says, pointing to his beard. “In season, I have to have my roots touched up every eight to 10 days. Now that the season’s over, I can cut back to bleaching every six weeks or so.”
He eyes Santa Lou’s hairline. Gray roots are overtaking the front of his scalp.
“What are you now Lou, about seven weeks out?”
“Six or seven, yeah. They’ll still yell, ‘It’s Santa!,’ though. If it’s a grownup I yell back, ‘No, it’s Jerry Garcia!’”
* * * * *
The final day of the reunion is reserved for educational seminars.
One is led by a nurse discussing Santa health. “It’s not a matter of if Santa will get sick this season but when,” she explains, recommending a regimen of zinc, Vitamin C and rubbing vanilla cookie-scented hand sanitizer into their gloves.
Other seminars include “Running Santa as a Business” and “Santa Online,” which provides lessons on how to develop their Santa brands across the internet. I opt to attend “Improving the Santa Home Visit,” hosted by Santa Jo McGrivey, who explains why he’s stopped reading The Night Before Christmas.
“For years, I read The Night Before Christmas and told that story as well as any Santa could,” Santa Jo says. “But frankly folks, The Night Before Christmas is boring! ‘Visions of sugar plums danced in their heads’? Kids have no idea what you’re talking about! Maybe if you were a child in 19th-century England, but not the kids we deal with.”
Instead, Santa Jo suggests telling imaginary stories about things kids can relate to, like how Rudolph got his red nose, or how Dancer got his name:
Afterward, everyone gathers for the Santa Symposium, where a panel of veteran Santas answer questions about handling difficult situations with kids. One uncomfortable example: “What do you do when Jimmy sits on your lap and says, ‘I’m Jewish and my parents say all Santas are pedophiles?’” Or: “Can you bring me a football, the kind that explodes in a large crowd?”
But the highlight of the week, as promised, is the annual reunion luncheon.
It’s similar to how I imagine the Elks, Lions, Masons and Knights of Columbus hold theirs: We begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer. (“Father, we thank you for the opportunity of representing you as Santa Claus”); a remembrance of Santas who died this year (“We refer to this as taking your final sleigh ride”); the FORBS anthem, sung to the tune of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (“Put on your smile, we’ll make you a deal, we’ll prove to you that Santa is real, F-O-R-B Santas are here!”); a fashion show (“Next is Santa Michael who is wearing his workshop outfit, a custom made brown twill apron with a candy cane motif”); and a rousing rendition of the “12 Days of Christmas” (each table is assigned a different day).
When the luncheon is finished, all the Santas will go back to their own personal North Poles and wait. Dyeing their beards every eighth week, handing out candy to whomever asks and marking time until December. “I have a silly tradition to get ready,” says Santa Lou. “Thanksgiving night, I sit down and I watch Disney’s Santa Claus with Tim Allen. It’s about a guy who unknowingly accepts the role of becoming Santa and has to find a way to get the job done. It reminds me why I’m doing this.”
Then Santa Lou and his white-bearded brothers (along with their attendant Mrs. Clauses and elves) will go about their Santa business — for maybe a few thousand bucks, total — exhausting all the holiday cheer they have to give. And when their jolliness is fully depleted and Christmas is a thing of the past, they will once again make the pilgrimage to their post-holiday hang, whether by sea or by land (next year’s reunion is at a Sheraton in Cerritos), for a few ho-ho-hos, some gentle ukulele strumming and a very necessary reminder that they’re all in this together.