Belly boosters, beards and being PC: Mall Santas spill the dirt on playing Kris Kringle in 2018

·Writer
What it’s really like to be a mall Santa. (Photo: Getty Images)
What it’s really like to be a mall Santa. (Photo: Getty Images)

Santa has been an iconic part of the holiday scene for decades. And while the overall vibe of Santa is the same now as it always was — red suit, long beard and a man who goes “ho ho ho” — some things have changed.

Playing Santa was once a gig limited to white men, but the profession has opened up to men of color. That includes Larry Jefferson, the first black Santa ever hired by the Mall of America in Minneapolis, in 2016.

The gig is also pretty lucrative. Santa fees vary depending on where a Santa is located and who is hiring them (a family vs. a company), but Santas say that they make anywhere from $30 to $100 an hour, with some making several hundred an hour for bigger appearances.

Here’s what else they had to share:

The rules are a little different than they used to be.

It’s important for Santa to make it clear that he’s not there to manhandle kids. “We have to get training on where and how to put our hands, how to keep them exposed, and wear white gloves all the time so your hands can be seen,” Bob Crowder, a Santa who works in Michigan, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“There are a lot of instructions involved today that are different from what they used to be,” Tim Connaghan, the official Santa of the Hollywood Christmas Parade, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. In the 1970s, when he started playing Santa, “instructions were a one-page piece of paper with handy hints on making sure your beard was on well, not chewing gum, not smoking and being nice and polite,” he says. “Today’s Santa needs to be on his toes more and even be a bit of a psychologist to children.”

Many Santas are also aware that parents may be concerned with how he picks up their children, which is why Connaghan has parents actually place children on his lap. “It’s also a safety concern for the child — if they’re scared and want to get away, the parent is right there and can calm them,” he says.

Daniel Thompson is a member of a several organizations that celebrate Santas with real beards. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Thompson)
Daniel Thompson is a member of a several organizations that celebrate Santas with real beards. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Thompson)

Santa has to be PC.

Crowder has been in the business for 10 years, and he says he’s definitely learned there are certain things you can’t do. “These days, if you look at someone a certain way or say ‘you’re such a lovely young lady,’ they could think you’re a pervert — you have to be aware of that,” he says. “You also can’t say, ‘I’m having a gay old time.’”

Crowder learned the hard way that Santa can’t assume he knows family dynamics either — he once mistook a child’s older mother for their grandmother, and she was not happy. “Now I say ‘Mom’ to every woman, even grandmothers,” he says. “If she’s a grandmother, she’s still a mom.”

Some Santas have special hype routines to get ready.

Some Santas say they simply put on their suit and they’re good to go. Others have their own special routines. “I listen to Christmas music, beginning about a week before Thanksgiving,” Michael Cawthra, a Santa in the metropolitan Denver area, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Then, I recite ‘T’was the Night Before Christmas’ to myself.”

Daniel Thompson, a Santa in Southern California, says he also gets in the mood by listening to holiday music in the car on his way to a gig. “I usually put my suit on before I go to the event so I drive in my car with my Santa suit on, listening to Christmas music,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Santa Michael Cawthra listens to Christmas music to get into the spirit. (Photo courtesy of Michael Cawthra)
Santa Michael Cawthra listens to Christmas music to get into the spirit. (Photo courtesy of Michael Cawthra)

Real beards and bellies are the premium, but aren’t a requirement.

Thompson is a member of a several organizations that celebrate Santas with real beards. “In our opinion it’s very helpful to have a real beard rather than a fake one — we look better,” he says. Of course, that means he also looks like Santa during his off-time. “Sometimes I’ll go to a restaurant and there will be a child acting up. His parents will point me out and — boom! — his attitude and demeanor changes so he can be on the nice list,” Thompson says. “It’s so much fun.”

But sometimes it’s better not to have a real beard. Anthony White, a Santa in Utah, also works as a magician in the off-season, and needs to be able to look different to children he sees during his other gig. “If I had a full beard, the kids would know it’s just Mr. White with a costume,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I wear glasses, a wig, suit, and yak hair mustache and beard — the kids don’t know it’s me even though I go to their school or daycare a few times a year.”

Santa Anthony White listening intently to a little boy. (Photo courtesy of Anthony White)
Santa Anthony White listening intently to a little boy. (Photo courtesy of Anthony White)

As for the belly, it’s not a huge requirement anymore. Thompson says a slimmer Santa has been more accepted lately. “A lot of us are losing weight,” he says. “I’ve lost 175 pounds since I’ve started playing Santa.” However, some people like Cawthra will wear a “belly booster” to make them look bulkier. “My doctor appreciates this accommodation,” he adds.

Santa has to bring it in photos.

Yup, Santa has had to learn how to take a good selfie, says Santa Mitch Allen. “Over the years, way more electronics are wanted, as well as a shift from the normal pictures with Santa at a mall to more informal events where people are able to take pictures with their cellphone and post them online,” he says.

Santa Mitch Allen checking his list, twice. (Photo courtesy of Mitch Allen)
Santa Mitch Allen checking his list, twice. (Photo courtesy of Mitch Allen)

There are “so many pictures taken,” Connaghan says. “You have to think about pictures and need to have some action on the picture. People want to have something different to put on Instagram. Santas have to create moments.”

While Santa may have changed slightly over the years, playing the man in red still comes down to doing it for the kids. “You have to have a love for children,” Crowder says. Adds White, “Ultimately, you’re there for them; they’re not there for you.”

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