DOUGLASVILLE, GA — The little boy dressed in a Christmas sweater and scratchy button-down shirt sat proudly on Santa’s lap at Arbor Place Mall in Douglasville, Georgia.
He whispered something in the jolly man’s ear and tugged on his real white beard. Santa spoke, but the child didn’t like what he said, apparently, and hopped down off his lap. He stomped his foot and turned his back on the red-suited, plump man — glaring over his shoulder. Santa patted him on the back, and off the boy went.
Everyone tracks Santa on the internet Christmas Eve. Parents use this as a means to get excited children to bed.
The mall Santa is somewhat endangered, according to the Washington Post. That’s because, as Americans trade brick-and-mortar stores for shopping online, more indoor malls are closing, leaving Kriss Kringles looking for new ways to spread holiday cheer.
But mall Santas are still a favorite, said Molly Mitchell, a spokeswoman for CBL Properties, which owns Arbor Place.
“Santa is still very much in demand,” Mitchell said. All of the malls that CBL owns or manages have Santas, she said. “The lines stay slammed.”
Santas actually can help malls, according to Forbes.
Shopping is no longer only about the transaction. Instead, it is about creating an atmosphere and experience.
A classic example is the concept of taking a family picture with Santa during the holiday season. In 2015, DreamWorks livened up the tradition, featuring Shrek as part of its “Adventure to Santa” holiday experience in a handful of malls.
Such installations are a draw for families and a boon for retailers who see more shoppers as a result of the attraction.
“All he’s wanted to do for weeks was come see Santa,” said Marjorie Jones, the little boy’s mother at Arbor Place Mall. “He wants to see the real Santa.”
And you have to look very real for the tiny skeptics these days. No more fake beards and stuffed tummies for the modern Santa. It’s all gotta be real. There are even Santa Claus schools where you can learn the ropes.
Today’s Santa has had to step up his game in many ways.
There’s school and modern checks and balances and even private bathrooms for Santas these days.
If you’ve ever perched on Santa’s knee at your local mall, there’s a good chance he was a graduate of Santa University, run by Noerr Programs Corp., an events company that trains and distributes Santas to more than 278 major malls and shopping centers across the country, according to mentalfloss.com.
Each Noerr Santa has to pass a background check and undergo several rounds of interviews. And a real beard is required. “That’s part of the magic,” says Ruth Rosenquist, Noerr’s director of public relations.
All it takes is one squirming child who falls off a knee, and Santa could be liable for thousands of dollars in damages. As a precaution, the professionals carry their own insurance.
“We carry $2 million of liability insurance,” Robert Hildreth says. Luckily he’s a member of a Santa training and advocacy group called International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which helps him get a group rate on insurance.
“We’ve never had to use it, but it’s nice to have it there,” he says.
CBL uses a company for its Santa fleet.
That shopping mall Santa may look as if he came from the North Pole, but more likely than not he came from one of the very few companies responsible for placing Santas in almost every shopping center in the nation, according to CBS News.
“Santa is a very big business,” said Diana Leone, marketing manager at the Lakeside shopping center in Sterling Heights, Michigan. “Just look at all the kids lined up all day to see him.”
Thousands of Santas work at malls during the holiday season, but just a handful of companies supply them. Among the biggest are Santa Plus, based in St. Louis, with 1,500 Santas at 400 malls, and Cherry Hill Photo, based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, with 1,000 Santas at 300 malls.
Each placement company has its own Santa-suitability standards. Some only want white men, while a few look for men from different ethnic backgrounds, and some will hire women.
All require vibrant personalities, but the ultimate Christmas wish is real, white whiskers.
“Our wages depend on one major factor: Are they a natural bearded Santa?” said Bob Wolfe, president of Cherry Hill Photo, according to CBS News. “If you have a real white beard, you get a contract and can make up to $10,000 a season.”
Salaries for the most sought-after Santas have jumped more than 20 percent in the last three years.
“As more malls see the value of real-bearded Santas, they have become more desirable, and their prices have gone up,” said Bob Riggs, president of Santa Plus.
The money can be so good for some that they work during vacations from their permanent jobs. Others are retirees who take the part-time work.
And some, such as Chris Hanley, uproot their lives for weeks at a time just to take the job.
Hanley left his gig as a Santa at a mall in Maryland to spend five weeks this year at the busier Newport Center Mall in Jersey City, according to CBS News. The retired 59-year-old works 10 hours a day, seven days a week, even during a recent heat wave that left him sweating in the Santa suit.
“The days are long, but it’s worth it in the end,” said Hanley, whose wife used to spend three hours dyeing his beard before it frosted over on its own. He declined to give his exact salary for the season.
Rules are big with Santa. Gotta stay in character always and use your own bathroom.
“I refuse to go to the public restroom if it’s at all avoidable,” says RG Holland, one of Noerr’s Santas. “The whole deal of being Santa, particularly at the mall, is when you’re dressed as Santa, you have to stay in character. And it’s kinda hard to be in a Santa suit staying in character in front of a urinal.”
He doesn’t drink when he’s out in public. Children are always coming up to him in restaurants and such because he looks so real even in everyday clothes.
But the hardest thing for Santa to do is answer the thousands of questions the wee ones ask.
How do you get around the world in one night?
The short answer: Google Maps and stardust propulsion, according to parents.com.
The long answer: Santa has more than 24 hours due to the Earth’s tilt and all the time zones —when New Yorkers are setting out the cookies, children in Australia have already opened all their packages.
Or even smarter kids may ask suspiciously: Why does Santa have the same wrapping paper as Mom?
Answer: Every once in a while, Santa reaches into his sack to pull out a present and discovers it’s not wrapped. This means that some elf didn’t do his job and will probably be demoted to cleaning the reindeer pen on Dec. 26. But in the meantime, the big guy keeps his cool and goes into your mom’s wrapping-paper stash to borrow just a little to wrap the gift.
Take that, video chat Santa?
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