For dedicated professional Santas, representing the world's most famous merry man is a year-round gig.
“We’re Santa 24 hours a day,” Bob Callahan, 79, president of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS), said in an interview. “If I go to the grocery store, I can’t be offstage. Kids look at me, and they know.”
Created in L.A. in 2008, FORBS unites 350 natural-bearded Santa impersonators for learning and networking events. Most of the members are retired from other jobs, and find that appearing at malls, parties and Christmas Eve stops as St. Nick is a rewarding way to supplement their Social Security checks.
Impersonators in the brotherhood call each other “Santa” first as a sign of respect. “All my friends are Santa,” Callahan says. “You have to be willing to live your life as this character.”
On June 17, 75 FORBS members will attend the annual Christmas in June-themed Angels baseball game in L.A. — clad in jolly red street clothes.
Now the organization is working together on practicing original storytelling in order to get more bookings. FORBS secretary Michael Wubker says when it comes to home visits, families want a Santa who does more than a reading and a "Jingle Bells" sing-along. That means Santas are looking beyond The Night Before Christmas to spin their own personal tales with characters that leave an impression. Wubker came up with a backstory about his elf Murray at the North Pole, while another Santa carries around a chest of "pixie dust" that he tells children make the reindeer fly.
Joining the "Christmas community" often starts with friends or family persuading a man to don the costume. “You’re just an old guy with a white beard until you put on the suit. The persona comes over you,” Wubker says.
Spreading joy in the proper attire can get expensive. An aspiring Kris Kringle can drop $1,000 on red velvet Coca Cola-ad style suits (buttons) and traditional (white fur) versions. They'll spend as much as $400 on thick belts with a shiny gold buckle and fine leather boots, and most dye their hair platinum white regularly.
The movie The Santa Claus? It was fine until the sequel when the big guy knew every kid’s name, thus setting impossible expectations. “Tim Allen has given us a lot of tough moments," Callahan says.
But he insists he can sway some non-believers as long as there’s time to talk, and most kids believe. Off-season, children ask members one question: “Is it you?”
“Sometimes a wink goes a long way,” Callahan says.