The suit makes the man, as the saying goes. All the more so when you're trying to be a convincing Santa Claus.
For the Atlanta-based Rick Rosenthal, who has turned being Santa into a thriving, year-round business, nailing the look is crucial, and the bright red suit is only the first step. After all, Rosenthal says, "if you don't look like Santa, you're not going to be Santa."
Rosenthal is an industry veteran. He has been the Santa for the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons sports teams since 2013, and he acts as a booking agent for other Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves. He also runs one of the largest Santa schools in the country.
"People trust you because you're Santa. They just come running up to you," Rosenthal says. You have to commit to this business, if you want to succeed: "It is not a job, it's a calling."
If you're going to play Santa, you need a suit that looks regal and pristine. That's the most popular Santa look, according to Rosenthal. A high-quality one usually runs between $800 and $1,200. And most Santas need more than one suit since even good little boys and girls can be messy.
The suit is just the starting point, though. Rosenthal says most Santas also need to purchase boots, as well as a thick leather belt and buckle, which costs between $250 and $400. Customization is key: Rosenthal says many Santas will also purchase magic keys or pouches. Buttons alone can run between $6 and $75 each.
You can get by with a cheaper suit, but the cost becomes worth it when you hear people say you're the best Santa they've ever seen. "It can be an investment," says Stephen Arnold, president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. "But you're rewarded."
In addition to the actual suit and accessories, there are the day-to-day expenses like dry cleaning, which can cost $50 to $150 each time. Plus the necessary personal grooming, such as beard bleaching to get your facial hair that iconic silvery white, which can set you back about $100 to $200 per season. Rosenthal says trimming nose and ear hair is also a must.
Professionals should also consider legal protections. Rosenthal carries a $4 million Santa liability insurance policy and has an independent third-party background check conducted annually.
The most important accessory needed to play Santa, though, is one you can't purchase. "You have to have a heart to be Santa, that's what it's about," Rosenthal says.
There are about 5,000 to 6,000 professional Santas in the U.S., Rosenthal estimates, a figure corroborated by Stephen Arnold, president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. Currently, the IBRBS has about 2,200 members, including some Mrs. Clauses.
Around the holidays, they're in high demand. That means that, while the start-up costs can be high, Santas do make decent money. Most Santas with some experience are making around $5,000 to $8,000 a year, Rosenthal says.
Some may make $15,000 or $20,000, but "it's hard to get past that."
The most lucrative Santa jobs are typically those with shopping malls and photography companies, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's because it's consistent hours. If you're the lone Santa at a mall during the holidays, you're probably working 70 to 80 hours a week, since most malls are open seven days a week during the holidays, he explains. And even if you're splitting the shifts, that's still a 40-hour week. The median hourly wage for Santa is about $41 per hour, according to Payscale.
Rosenthal declined to specify what his businesses bring in annually, saying that most Santas can't expect to earn what he does. "I'm not filthy rich living in the mansion," he says. "I don't own a home." All the same, he says, he lives "comfortably."
In the end, Rosenthal says, it's not about the profits. "If you go into playing Santa for the money, don't bother. You're not going to make a lot of money. It's not what Santa's about."
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