It’s the middle of summer and the 10-story atrium at the Chateau on the Lake hotel is filled with Santas.
They are slow-moving spots of cotton-topped crimson along the railings of the upper floors. They crowd the glass-walled elevators, rising and falling in rushes of red, white, and green. They are at the bar, by the pool, and in long lines for the buffet. A few are planning to meet later for milk and cookies near the spa. Outside, in 90-degree temperatures, Santas compete in tug-of-war and footraces. At night, they dance in their Santa casual cocktail outfits on a twilight steamboat cruise.
And everywhere, there’s the sound of jingles. Not short, hard rings that might signal a passing sleigh, but the slow, rolling sound of bells on the shoes of old men walking carefully and heavily.
The average age of a Mr. Claus at Discover Santa 2016 is 62.5. Billed as the World’s Largest Santa Convention, the five-day celebration and trade show has drawn 750 Santa Claus impersonators from all over the United States to Branson, Missouri, a town in the Ozark Mountains that’s essentially like Las Vegas but with country music in place of gambling. Here, between the stifling humidity of southern Missouri and the air-conditioning of hotels, the Santas meet with vendors to talk about makeup, beard care, marketing, websites, and North Pole workshop sets—anything that can make them the best Santas possible. Because the life of a professional Santa isn’t easy … and it doesn’t come cheap.
The professional Santa industry is growing to outfit a larger, more organized community of aging baby boomers who are linked by the Internet and tasked with delivering increasingly cutting-edge performances. At Discover Santa, attendees are given an agenda book that reads like a Santa Sky Mall, packed with gear that includes the Santa Oath Belt Buckle, $55; a service that makes websites for practicing Santas, $369 and up; and Planet Santa Cooling Vests, $199 on sale.
“Most of these guys are never going to get back what they spend,” says Santa Mike Pulattie while watching a fashion show at the convention. A basic, quality Santa suit can run $600. Pulattie, a retired Texas high school coach who only does charity events, counts himself among those who won’t see a return on their yuletide investments. But he says there’s a magic moment when a kid looks at him and really sees the myth turned man, and that instant of innocence and awe is incentive enough for Pulattie to stick with the seasonal job.
For some of the attendees, being Santa is an encore to a successful career in another field. One Santa I met was a retired Navy pilot; another was an active Catholic priest. Others have aged into the role. After all, there is really only one job for which white haired, chubby, bearded, older white men—99 percent of the Santas at the convention are white—are uniquely qualified. For others, like my brother Pat, it runs in the family.
Our grandfather Howard Meehan was a professional Santa in the 1940s at North Pole Colorado, a Christmas-themed amusement park. Pat himself has spent 34 years “in the suit,” and has held the Santa job at an upscale mall in Louisville, Kentucky, for the past 25 years.