We’re over midway through December, and the holiday season is in full swing. There are sparkling lights all over town, everyone is happily sipping on gingerbread lattes, and it seems like every weekend is suddenly filled with ugly sweater parties.
We know that the holidays have officially arrived when requests for Santa Claus appearances start pouring into Thumbtack. This year is no exception, as more and more people have been requesting visits from St. Nick for everything from family parties to corporate events. All of this holiday spirit prompted us to ask a question: who are these men behind the fluffy white beards?
In the interest of dispelling some of the mystery surrounding these merry Kris Kringles, we spoke to a handful of Santas across the country, from New York to Chicago to San Francisco. Our first item of interest was simple. How did they find their way into the Santa industry in the first place?
Santa’s career path
As it turns out, Santas have a variety of off-season jobs, and many seem to fall into their Father Christmas careers by chance.
We spoke to John Fariss, a minister in Maryland, who first donned a red suit fifteen years ago when he stepped in to fill St. Nick’s boots at his church, when their scheduled Santa canceled his visit at the last minute. Since then, he has joined Santa America and Santas for Christ, two charitable organizations through which he visits critically ill children throughout the year.
Dale Kilpatrick, a Santa in Texas, first started practicing his “ho-ho-hos” back in the ‘70s, when he spontaneously decided to spice things up in his day job as a school bus driver by dressing up as Santa to entertain the kids. Thirty-five years later, he now provides Santa visits to about 2,000 children a year.
We also spoke to Dana Friedman, a Santa in Manhattan, a lawyer with offices located near the former World Trade Center buildings, who started volunteering as Santa at local firehouses and precincts as a way to give back to New York’s Finest after 9/11. Over the past decade, he has expanded to visiting children at hospitals, orphanages and more.
However they got into the business, most Santas today seem to do a mix of charity visits and commercial work, with the latter piece being rather lucrative.
Santa’s average hourly rate: $137.50
There are 169 Santas across the United States with profiles listed on Thumbtack. 79% of those Santas list their hourly rate, with the average hourly rate coming out to $137.50.
Of course, that rate varies quite a bit, depending on a few different factors. A number of Santas confirmed that metropolitan areas tend to be a bit more competitive and thus more expensive than rural areas, and that corporate events are often pricier than private parties. Most Santas charge higher fees on the weekends, and premium fees for visits on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. There is usually an additional fee for a Mrs. Claus to come along, and most Santas charge extra for any significant travel. What’s the cheapest time to hire a Santa? Without a doubt, it’s before Thanksgiving, when rates are often discounted. And why not get into the holiday spirit early?
Santa badges of honor: a real beard and a first-rate suit
All of those fees go in part towards offsetting the considerable personal investment that goes into being a top-notch St. Nick.
There are two key badges of honor in the Santa industry: a real beard and a first-rate suit. Most Santas we talked to said that they owned multiple suits, with the cheapest suits costing $500-$700, and the highest-quality suits retailing for anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000.
The best Santas take pride in their full beards and their stocky frames, delightedly proclaiming their natural ability to fill out a Santa suit. Growing out a beard may be cheap (if time-consuming), but purchasing a suit is no small matter.
For true top-of-the-line suits, most Santas swear by Adele’s of Hollywood, a legendary costume shop in Los Angeles which has been providing tailor-made Santa suits since 1945. Between a luxurious suit of velvet and real fur, authentic leather boots and a belt with a shiny brass buckle, there’s a lot of personal overhead that goes into being a first-class Santa, which echoes the reminder we heard from a number of Santas that you can’t just be in the business for the money.
Santa’s perks: classy soirees, helicopter rides, and photo shoots
That being said, there are definitely some perks to becoming a successful St. Nick, as it turns out that Santa gets invited to some very classy soirees. Our Santa in Texas informed us that in a past year he played Santa at a corporate holiday party at the ExxonMobil world headquarters. John Sullivan, a Santa in Chicago, is looking forward to an event this year in which he will be flown into a country club via helicopter (Rudolph needs a few nights off the job, after all). There are also quite a few syndication opportunities for Santas who can get into the market for commercials or catalog photo shoots, which one Santa said can pay up to $2,000 a day.
With all these opportunities for Santa appearances, the industry has become increasingly competitive over the years. How does a great Kris Kringle stand out from the crowd? Most of the Santas we talked to said that you don’t necessarily need to go to a Santa School to become a good St. Nick. Our Santa in New York said that Santa Schools cover the basics of the job, but they omit many of the increasingly significant business strategies.
How Santas market themselves
It’s becoming more important for successful Santas to establish unique and memorable brands for themselves, which is often accompanied by a strong online presence.
A number of the Santas we spoke to run their own professional websites, such as New York Santa, Professional Santa Claus and Santa In Chicago. Aspiring Santas looking for industry tips can keep their eye out for New York Santa’s 600-page manual (hopefully soon to be published) detailing everything from the history of Santa Claus through how to trademark your own distinctive Santa brand.
There’s also plenty to be learned from observing other Santas on the job. As it turns out, these Santas have quite a few tricks up their red velvet sleeves! For example, New York Santa revealed a secret tactic which prepares him to be tested on any language. He always carries a faux “Naughty or Nice” list, which is actually filled with the phonetic spellings of “Merry Christmas” in dozens of different languages. Sretan Božić! (That’s Croatian for you).
According to Barry Strawser, a Santa in the Bay Area, there are currently over 4,000 Santas for hire throughout the United States. So if you’re a consumer planning a Santa appearance for your upcoming holiday gathering, what should you be looking for when you’re selecting the perfect St. Nick? As we mentioned above, hourly rates vary quite a bit, and prices don’t really tell the full story of what makes a great Santa.
Tips for hiring a Santa
Here are some of the top consumer tips we received from Santas around the country:
- Safety: Every Santa we spoke to emphasized that safety must be a top priority, particularly if you are selecting a Santa to interact with children. Our Santa in Maryland said that the charities he works with run nationwide criminal background checks on all of their Santas every year, and the best Santas go the extra mile to provide police reports, letters of reference and insurance policies.
- Experience: Most Santas stress years of practice as the crucial factor that sets the best Santas apart. After all, anyone can put on a red suit and say “ho-ho-ho,” but what does Santa do if a child is too scared to hop up on his lap? Or what if a child asks Santa to bring Fido back? It’s only through years of experience that the best Santas learn how to handle the most delicate scenarios.
- Personality: When it comes to picking a Santa, you can’t just go by what you read. You’ve got to call up your potential St. Nick and chat for a while in order to get a genuine sense of how he interacts with people. The best Santas truly love meeting people. They understand how to listen and interact with children, and they are pros at conveying a sense of magic and excitement.
We learned a lot about the ins and outs of the Santa industry, but what resonated most of all was a phrase that was invoked by more than one Santa: “It has to be in your heart.” We asked every Santa, “What is your favorite thing about the job?” and without missing a beat, they all simply said, “The kids.” A true Santa finds joy in seeing children’s faces light up, and delights in bringing happiness and excitement to children and their families.
And as we all know, kids sure do say the darndest things. One Santa told us about a little boy who asked Santa to bring him Mars. The candy bar? Nope, the planet. Another child, upon seeing Santa walk through the door, whispered to his friend, “I know that’s the real Santa…I’ve seen him before!” And then of course, there are a few children every year who say they don’t want any gifts, because they want Santa to give presents to the kids who really don’t have anything at all. And what does Santa say to that? “Well, that makes you just like Santa.”