What It’s Really Like to Be a Santa Claus for Hire

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Working as Santa Claus during the holiday season can be a jolly, potentially lucrative gig. But it’s not always an entirely magical experience.

Here are some insights into what it’s really like to pretend to be Santa Claus, culled from recent interviews with seasoned professional jolly old elves.

Santa can’t be a germophobe. The holiday season is also runny-nose season. Because Santas come into contact with loads of germ-spreading kids, and because a case of the flu will seriously dampen Santa’s spirits (and earnings if he’s out of work), hand sanitizer is paramount. “I’ve been using hand sanitizer like it was my job and taking Emergen-C every day,” an anonymous department-store Santa in the Philadelphia area explained in a Q&A with Philadelphia magazine. “It’s absolutely an incubator.”

The costume is hot, sweaty and uncomfortable. Santa lives at the North Pole, so his suit is understandably designed for cold weather. And whether a Santa for hire is naturally “jolly” in the belly or requires extra padding around the waist, he’s prone to overheating on the job. Charles Edward Hall, who plays Santa Claus on stage at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, offered this to the Associated Press as the simple formula for coping with the costume: “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.”

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The money can be decent. One’s earnings as a Santa for hire can vary dramatically. MarketWatch offered the broad estimate of $5,000 to $15,000 total per holiday season as Santa. The Philly-area department-store Santa gets a flat $16 per hour. Reader’s Digest reported that the average Santa earns about $10,000 from October through December; that doesn’t include bonuses — which some mall Santas receive after meeting their daily photo-op quota with kids.

Most Santas are open for negotiation. Kennison Kyle, a Santa based in Memphis, normally gets at least $150 per hour for private functions, going up to $300 per hour if there’s extensive time and travel involved in the gig, according to the Mississippi Business Journal. But Kyle will accept occasional weeknight bookings locally for $60 to $75 an hour.

Beard bleaching is tax-deductible. Even Santa has to file tax returns. And while his business expenses are fairly unusual — professional bleaching of one’s beard and hair, a product called Shimmer Lights for making white hair “pop” — they’re entirely deductible. “I deduct hair spray, my boots, the fabric for having my suit made, salon charges for having my hair bleached,” said Kyle.

Parents tend to ruin the experience. More often than not, the Philly-area department-store Santa said, he wishes that parents would just keep quiet when the time comes for children get to meet the big guy. “As soon as the parent sees it’s Santa, the parent’s voice goes up, and they yell, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Santa’ to the kid. And it scares the kid,” he said. “I have a set way of getting through the ask, asking for the list. What good things have they done? Have you done all your homework? Have you eaten all your vegetables? But the parents interrupt and rush it: ‘Just tell Santa what you want!’ I’m trying to make it a more special interaction for the child.”

(MORE: Why Santa Claus Is a No-Show at Many Malls This Year)

Some of the kids break Santa’s heart. Indeed, children say the darnedest things. A recent thread on Reddit asked mall Santas to name the most memorable (“disturbing, heartbreaking or weirdest”) things that kids have asked for over the years. The requests have included getting dad out of jail, giving a blind sibling the power of sight, and a cure for a little sister with cancer. A semiretired Santa who works at hospitals and malls told the Wisconsin State Journal that he’ll always remember the little girl who asked to have her dad home for Christmas. The father had recently died in the war in Afghanistan.