Confessions of a Mall Santa

You see them at malls great and small; gents dressed as the merry elf from the North Pole. There they sit in their jolly red finery attentively noting every Christmas wish while smiling for photos. But what's it like from behind the beard? It should surprise no one that Santa is big business, and as in any segment of commerce, a continuum exists. At the strictly amateur end, wannabe Santas locally rent well-worn suits with dingy cotton beards. These non-professional Santas work for reindeer feed.

At the professional end of the spectrum are the RBSs (Real Bearded Santas). These men take their role as seriously as any thespian and command top dollar. Training is required and can come from several sources. The Noerr Programs Corporation conducts what's known as the Santa University. Noerr is among the largest national vendors of seasonal Santas because they are, surprise, a digital imaging company. Photos with Santa, get it?

But before we turn sanctimonious about the materialism of Christmas, Judy Noerr's company is successful because they know how to pick and train Santas that can create magic for children during the Christmas season. Noerr places The Big Guy at nearly 140 locations in 37 states and Puerto Rico.

In the quest for good throughput at malls (a high rate of kid-on-the-knee per hour) every Noerr Santa learns how to be picture perfect in the face of grueling hours, frightened children, and malcontent parents. They also learn about how to lift children and where to keep their hands (always in sight to stave off icky potential litigation issues).

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In addition to training, Noerr and other major Santa providers direct their most talented RBSs toward a woman in Atlanta, Georgia to do facial hair grooming (bleach work and trims). These very good Santas also don beautifully crafted suits that can cost $2000 after the requisite custom tailoring. AOL tracked down several of Santa's helpers and some genuine Santas to ask them what it was like in their mall homes away from their Northern digs.

According to one elf, "My job allowed me to see the best of humanity and the worst of humanity." (As she is still working in the industry, she asked to remain anonymous.) She recounts, "I have seen children show such innocent joy, and it is beautiful.

Then there are the adults that behave so badly I've had to call mall security." Of course, we pressed her to recall the most egregious examples of behavior that she could pull from her decades in the business. To this she recounted one tale of some high school kids lobbing coins down on the display from the upper levels of the mall. Those kids ended up on Santa's naughty list and were summarily ejected from the mall. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries.

Another story told was more disturbing, "A woman waited in line with her three-year-old son for an hour or two. This waiting isn't easy on the child or parent, so neither of them was in a great mood when it was finally time to see Santa. The little boy was all dressed up like he had just stepped out of a Christmas window from Macy's department store in the 1930s. He had the shorts and a little cap and everything."

Our elf continued, "The mother was totally stressed over getting the 'perfect' picture, and when her son wouldn't smile – he was scared of Santa and tired from waiting so long – she began swearing at him in front of the whole mall! I attempted to calm her down and make everything better, but it got worse. After several minutes of this, she harshly yanked the boy off Santa's lap, took him outside the set, continued screaming, and got physically rough. I called security right away." The worst of humanity indeed.

In contrast, there are stories that balance the scales and even tip them well into the magical range. Jim Pollard is a professional RBS with nearly fifty years in the business. He jokes, "When you're the big guy in high school, the red suit tends to find you." The 71-year old Pollard estimates that over the years he's listened to the Christmas lists of some 75,000 children, "At 300 kids per day, seven days a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, it adds up pretty quickly."

As an example of how to do the Santa visit properly, he recounts the story of Nichole. "It was just after Thanksgiving, and this little girl was so frightened of me that she wouldn't even look in my direction. I had a chance to speak with her mom, and I told her not to force it. You know, parents are kind of crazy to think that they've spent years telling their kid to beware of strangers, and then they surprise their kids by trying to plop them on my knee." The wise Santa continued, "So Nichole's mother brought her back every day for two weeks. Every day Nichole came a little closer until finally she climbed up on my knee all by herself. The picture she and her mother walked away with was perfect.

Pollard confided that he never forces a child onto his lap, and stresses that the best Santas are those who know the magic it creates for children. "You must be driven by the reaction of the kids. You must care for them or it won't work." Pollard is a wealth of stories about the Santa experience that he recounts in his book, "Things Kids Say to Santa."

His stories warm the heart and remind us that Christmas is more than a mercantile opportunity. But because even Santa has to make a buck, Pollard stated practically, "My wife didn't like the beard until the white turned to green." He confided that while non-professional Santas make minimum wage or slightly above, the best RBSs can make over $20,000 for a six-week stint. This wage would be in addition to travel costs and room and board, since most Santas don't work where they live.

Pollard is also a member of a group called This non-profit industry group provides Christmas visits any time of year to families who are experiencing the trauma of a terminal illness that might prevent the family from celebrating Christmas on December 25. These gentlemen demonstrate that Santa truly is magic, even when he's sitting in a mall.

Next:How to Be a Good Mall Santa >>

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