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What's the difference between a professional Santa and a man who throws on a red suit and says "ho ho ho"? The earnings potential.
The median pay for a mall Santa is $30 per hour, but those at the top of the scale can earn more than $100 per hour, according to PayScale. The compensation software and data company surveyed pay for 50 department-store Santas.
Freelance Santas hired to visit homes, office holiday parties or other events can earn even more, especially if he has training from a Santa School – yes, those exist.
"A typical hourly mid-range is about $150," said Dan Greenleaf, a professional freelance Santa who runs his own booking agency, imsanta.org. He spoke with CNBC while preparing for a gig – "ho-ho-ho'ing" from a fire engine during a tree lighting in a nearby town.
But that rate is just the middle of the road.
"There are guys getting $500 an hour," he said – and some, even more than that. Once, a Manhattan client offered one of Greenleaf's Santas $1,200 for a single hour on Christmas Day.
So why the significant pay disparity?
Katie Bardaro, vice president of data analytics at PayScale, attributes it in part to the wide range of Santa talent.
"There are a plethora of Santas out there, but there are only so many people who can be authentic," she said. "They can really have the power to drive the compensation. Supply is low – because there's only so many people who can pull it off – but demand is high."
Rates can also vary depending on the type of event, region and timing.
Greenleaf himself charges a flat weekend rate of $250 an hour – and double that on Christmas Eve. He estimated that last year, he made close to $20,000 from the beginning of November through Christmas.
Kris Kringle may be earning the big bucks this holiday season, but he'll be forking out a small fortune, too.
"It's very easy for the Santa suit alone to be $1,000," said Greenleaf.
At $350, he describes his own suit as "low budget." (But Greenleaf owns three suits, in addition to a custom-made $800 Victorian-style robe.) Tack on his $200 belt, "low end" $100 leather boots, and $100 accessories such as "magic Santa keys," and you've got yourself a $750 outfit.
And it doesn't stop there.
"I have more hair-care products that my wife does," Greenleaf says with a laugh, describing his high-end shampoo, conditioner and beard balm.
Greenleaf says he's fortunate to have a naturally snowy beard, as some Santas bleach their hair multiple times a year – a maintenance routine that can run several hundred dollars.
Then there's the matter of Santa School tuition. Greenleaf's own education cost him $250, excluding lodging and food. The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, which Santas have dubbed the "Harvard of Santa schools," is $520.
That effort to portray a realistic Santa contributes to why some earn more, Greenleaf said.
"If you're a better Santa and in higher demand, you should be getting more," he said. "What we provide is valuable to the people and they're willing to pay for it."
So what exactly makes a "good" Father Christmas?
Bardaro, who finds herself in line annually to see the Santa at Nordstrom, lists criteria including a real beard, a stylistic suit and the ability "to make every experience unique and personal versus the general, 'you've been good, here's a candy cane.'"
"You can see a real difference in a good Santa. It makes sense to find those Santas and pay them accordingly," she said.
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