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The Secrets Of Santa School

It's a 30-day work year with a year-round commitment. "You can't see Santa over at Chili's smoking a cigarette, like a sloppy drunk."

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When she picks up the phone, Susen Mesco has been working 17 hours straight. "That was an easy day," she says. As the owner of a school in Denver that trains Santa Clauses and a holiday party–planning business, December is a busy time. Sometimes she works 20 hours a day. "I go into a coma for two or three hours a night. There's a lot to do — but it's only two and a half months out of the year."

November and December are crunch time, but for Mesco, Christmas season starts around Labor Day, when she runs her annual Professional Santa Claus School workshop. Even in late summer, Mesco employs a boot camp mind-set. "We go from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. We only stop for meals," she says. "The Santas have 72 different seminar topics. They get lessons from makeup artists. They listen to seminars from child psychologists."

Mesco, a middle-aged woman with a high-pitched voice, founded her school when the mall she worked in asked her to organize their holiday events. She admits she's a somewhat unlikely coach of Santas, most of whom are heavier-set, deep-voiced men. "Founding and directing a Santa Claus School for 30 years & looking like a Barbie doll is a rather unique combination... LOL! " she wrote in an email when I first reached out to her.

Mesco will place Santas, most of whom came to her school, in around 1,000 events this year, from days at the mall to tree lightings to events in private homes. At the right event, Mesco says she's seen Santas paid as much as $850 an hour. But playing Santa is hardly a get-rich scheme.

Most top-billing Santas, she explains, only get to work about 30 to 40 days a year but have to maintain their Santa appearance for all 365. "And you have to pay for two $500 Santa suits, and you've gotta keep your website running. And is it a Santa who needs to spend $1,000 a year bleaching a beard?"

Most seasonal Santas, Mesco says, can make between $8,000 and $20,000 over the holiday season, largely depending on the region: "Pricing in New York and L.A. is different than in Apache, Oklahoma," Mesco repeats three times (she seems to have a fondness for Apache). For retired men looking to supplement their retirement savings, it's a nice bonus, but not enough to live on. And many Santas, especially retired ones, do it for free, or donate their earnings to charity.

"There are the international bookings, like going on tour in Europe, where they'll get $60,000," she says. "But that's really one in a million. That's the ludicrous top end."

One such successful Santa is Tom Connaghan of Los Angeles, who, in addition to having an IMDB page, has appeared on the cover of JC Penney catalogs and in Ford commercials. Like Mesco, he also runs his own school and event planning company. "I'm one of the few Santas that does it full-time," he says.

Connaghan's school, which he operates in different cities across the country, costs $280 to attend for a weekend session. Each year, he also takes aspiring Santas on a cruise — last year they went to northern Europe, this year they'll go to the Caribbean. Next year, he wants to take Santas on a cruise starting in Turkey, St. Nicholas' birthplace, and ending in Bari, Italy, where St. Nicholas is buried. If you can pay for the cruise, Santa lessons are pro bono. It's a vacation for everyone.

Connaghan helps his Santas find work, but he says they have to be entrepreneurial if they expect to profit. "I tell my Santas, 'Do not expect me to find all the work you need.' Sure, if you're working for a photo company at a mall, that'll take care of your entire season. But if it's private events, you need to be out there and connected. You need to know the DJs, the costume characters in your area, the caterers. You need to have a Facebook page, business cards."

But the only way to be a really successful Santa, he says, is to play the role year-round. Connaghan primarily works with "real bearded Santas" — in other words, guys who have long white beards even in the summer. These Santas, in particular, can take advantage of being Santas all year. "When he's at Home Depot in July, some kid will come over and say, is that Santa? And then he has the chance to give a business card to the parents."

Because kids recognize these types as Santa Claus, Mesco says, it's essential that they behave. "You can't see Santa over at Chili's smoking a cigarette, like a sloppy drunk," she explains. "The industry has started to, well, I don't want to say police, but we do background checks to make sure that they are healthy, quality, safe people who are safe to be around children. People say I want to play Santa, but it's not Halloween, you have to become Santa."

Most parents and children, Mesco says, think of Santas as "rosy-cheeked older gentlemen with a beard," meaning those who act as Santas are still largely older white men. "You're still not likely to see a TV commercial with a black or Asian Santa," she adds. Within communities, though, there is a demand for diversity; both Mesco and Connaghan said that Santas who speak Spanish are in high demand, particularly in heavily Hispanic areas of Florida and Texas.

There are not, however, many female Santas. Mesco says female Santas would be perfectly welcome, but that few women are interested in the job. "It's hard for women to keep their voice down very low in that Santa way. It's not that women can't be Santas, it's just that they usually play other roles like Mrs. Claus or an elf," she says. "And big guys with white beards don't make very good elves or Mrs. Clauses."