Real Santas keep the beard year-round

Children pull on Santa's beard to test his authenticity

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: Oh, ho ho ho, he is everywhere you look -- on television, at the mall, at your Christmas party. Of course, I'm talking about Santa Claus. And here's a spoiler warning for parents: We are about to go behind the beard to learn about the real life motivation of a real bearded Santa. Monica Brady-Myerov reports.


Monica Brady-Myerov: From November 1st to December 25, life is very, very busy for Jonathan Meath.

Jonathan Meath (as Santa): Wanna hop up?

Boy: Can I have a pink Nintendo DS?

Meath (as Santa): A pink Nintendo DS? Yes.

Meath is one of an estimated 2,400 working Santas with a real white beard and curly mustache. I caught up with him at a mall in suburban Boston.

Meath: It's a big commitment, 24/7, maintaining the hair style and the jolly bowl of jelly takes considerable work.

He decided to portray Santa about three years ago, after his beard went white and children would stop him on the street to ask him for presents. And this Santa doesn't just work for milk and cookies. He earns as much as $10,000 for an extended engagement in "the chair," as it's called. Some bring down up to $40,000 a year.

Employers, such as Alex Attia of The Charles Hotel, are willing to pay more for authenticity because kids are discerning customers.

Alex Attia: If they have an inkling that maybe this is not Santa, they come to me and they ask me, "Is that the real one?" With this one, they're not going to ask a question. I know that.

Real bearded santas like to get together in the off season and talk about beard care and red suiting cleaning. One group of Northeast Santas is run by George Martin, who I reached on what he calls his "sleigh phone" as he was heading to a senior center.

George Martin: You know, you hear about the grumpy mall Santa, but I don't know any. Everybody is pretty much on the same mind set. We all really enjoy what we're doing, otherwise why do it?

To the practical businessman, though, it might not make sense to make yourself look like Santa year-round. But Meath says:

Meath: To the businessman, that brings joy to his bottom line, that equates joy with value -- its immeasurable.

In the offseason, Meath produces children's television shows and sings jazz. And of course, he has a Christmas album.

Meath (as Santa): Kids, will you help Santa and the elves with this song?

Kids: Sure, Santa!

In Boston, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov for Marketplace.

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