If being the actual Santa is the best job in the world, then portraying him is a close second.
“It’s just so much fun when the kids come up and there’s the magic of Christmas,” Callahan says. “They believe in you, and they just adore you. It’s absolutely amazing.”
Neither Callahan nor Erwin set out to become professional Santas; it just kind of happened. Friends from a camping group asked Callahan to play Santa one year in the 1970s, and then he donned the suit again years later when he had grandkids. Pretty soon he was playing Santa for various groups, and requests for appearances grew. A retired machinist and supervisor in the aerospace industry, Callahan started doing professional Santa gigs in 2001.
Erwin, who says he has a computer science degree “older than the Internet,” donned a red suit for the first time when his wife’s work colleagues wanted a Santa to deliver donations during the holidays. Someone had an old Santa suit in an attic, and Erwin’s wife quipped, “Well, I know where there’s a fat guy with nothing better to do on a Saturday morning!”
Recalls Erwin: “I had a mustache and beard, but they were too short and the wrong color, so I had to cover them with the costume wig and beard that came with the suit. I was horrible, but you’d never have thought so from the way those kids responded. … I was hooked!”
Malls, boardrooms and Hollywood studios
Although Santa at the North Pole may not earn a salary, professional Santas do.
Mall Santas in Southern California can make between $6,000 and $8,000 during the holiday season, Erwin says. “But doing so often requires them to work hundreds of hours.”
Corporate, private or municipal events pay more per hour, but the events don’t last as long as work shifts at the mall. Pay depends on the client list. Erwin says he typically earns between $8,000 and $10,000 for 60 to 90 hours of performing. He also does film work, but says with the time he spends traveling to auditions and callbacks, “Most years it seems I’m spending $1 for every two or three I earn.”
Most professional Santas also do many appearances for free for charities.
Yes, the beard is real
Not everyone is cut out to be Santa.
“You have to love children, and you have to have a jolly face that smiles most of the time,” Callahan says.
And that’s not always easy.
“Not all the children are angels, so you have to be able to deal with spoiled kids and still be able to go, ‘Ho, ho, ho,'” he says. “And you have to believe in your own heart, because some kids will challenge you and say you aren’t really Santa. You have to really believe in yourself that you are Santa.”
Santa also has to maintain a merry smile when moms see his real beard and urge their little ones to test it out.
“It’s so amazing how many moms say, ‘Go ahead, he’s really Santa. Pull his beard!'” Callahan says.
Says Erwin: “The factor that great Santas seem to have in common is their ability to appreciate the entire thing from the child’s perspective, from the hope and joy to the wonder and awe, from the fears of the youngest kids to the doubts of the older.”
It also takes practice to get the “ho-ho-ho” just right.
“You can’t be too loud or you’ll scare the heck out of a little kid,” Callahan says. “But you have to be jovial and loud enough so they can hear you.”