How a Professional Santa Does Money
Weekends from Thanksgiving through Christmas are the busiest time of the year for Bernard, a 63-year-old retired school teacher with a natural white beard and a custom-made Santa suit.
After attending Santa school four years ago, the professional Santa got his start with a part-time gig at the sprawling King of Prussia Mall outside of Philadelphia and has since gone freelance, working everything from Breakfasts with Santa to a QVC promotional.
I talked to Bernard about how he manages the stresses of Santa work, his seasonal goals, and how the dry cleaning expenses add up.
How long have you been a Santa?
Professionally, this will be my fourth season.
You say professionally; were you doing it non-professionally before that?
Prior to that, I’ve always had a white beard and I would just do it for family, a few friends, and also for a small church for their Breakfast with Santa.
What led to you doing it as an actual gig?
My family was always telling me that I should pursue this further, so for my 60th birthday they all chipped in and sent me to the [Charles W. Howard] Santa Claus School, which is one of the biggest and oldest Santa Claus schools in the country.
How much did that cost?
The tuition was approximately $400, if memory serves me right. It’s a three-day session that usually takes place in October.
What did you learn there?
Mainly, how to maintain my look, beard and makeup and how to handle children. But if there’s one thing I learned there, it’s to be the best Santa you can be, as opposed to being the best Santa in the world. That’s what I usually go by, to be the best I can be.
There’s a few hundred Santa Clauses there and some come back each and every year so you have that fellowship, and there’s an awful lot of learning that goes on just communicating with other Santas. Here in the Pennsylvania area, we call ourselves the Santa Gathering. Each September we meet in Lancaster and it’s also a two or three-day thing where we have our little sessions. In early January we meet at a diner somewhere and have lunch and talk about how the season went.
How do you find gigs?
I’m next to the King of Prussia Mall, the second largest mall in the country. There’s many times I would go over there and look at the Santa and think to myself, I can do that. And then there used to be rumors of Santa Clauses that worked there for that six-week stretch earning $30,000 a year, plus they put them up in a hotel. So that was my first job, I was a part-time evening Santa, approximately from Black Friday to Christmas Eve, which added up to 100 hours.
That was a good experience for me, a month or so after completing Santa Claus school. The pay is nowhere near $30,000. It was very low—it was less than $20/hour. I decided to accept it because I considered it my internship. I learned a lot, spending 100 hours with over 1,000 kids.
The following year they called me and asked if I would like to be Santa again and I said sure, if you give me $100/hour. They said okay, hung up, and then I never heard from them. So I went out on my own with the goal of earning at least as much or more in than 100 hours I spent at the mall.
GigSalad is a free place to put your talents, so I put my ad on there and in 2015 I made approximately four times as much as I made at the mall in half the time. Over the past two years I have had plenty of repeat clients.
What kind of gigs do you do?
They vary. They go from anything from private homes where I come in and there will be a Christmas party going on and the parents want pictures with the kids. I always sing a few songs, I think it’s very important, another thing I learned at Santa Claus school, it brings the spirit out. Then of course there’s Breakfast with Santas at a handful of restaurants in the area, like a large chain restaurant, Maggiano’s. And I also do many corporate events. It might be a breakfast, dinner or at a nice nightclub or country club.
I do a lot of business with photography studios. It goes anywhere from regular snapshots with a camera at home up to photography studios and larger functions. I recently did a commercial for a small cable TV company in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and this past summer I was the Santa for QVC. QVC has their Christmas in July promotion, and I was the one who came out and said Merry Christmas.
I also do a little bit of volunteer work for a police district who needed a Santa to come to low-income school. They buy toys for these kids, so my wife and I went down.
What are the rates like?
The rates are up to $250/hour, with the average being $125/hour or so.
It depends on whether it’s before or after Thanksgiving, on a Saturday or Sunday in December, whether a function has 300 people, and I have to take into consideration travel time. I come up with a fair fee, that’s the way I look at it. Some people take it instantly and other people I never hear from them.
How much do you earn on average in a season?
Approximately $8,000–$9,000. Most of the that comes from the weekends.
Do you have any kind of financial goal you’re trying to hit in the season?
If anything, my goal this year is I’m trying to keep my travel time down. Last year there were a couple functions where I was 45 minutes late because they’re so far away. Travel time takes away from Santa time.
What are your expenses like?
That’s the big thing. You can buy Santa suits online and at various stores and they go anywhere from $100 to $500. Most of the time I would order something online and it would be too big here or the back is too short or the belt doesn’t fit right. I would normally send them back. I wound up having two custom suits made by a seamstress who does wedding dresses.
I get plenty of compliments. My first suit was $1,400, and my second was around that price. Everything fits well and you get all the different little bells and whistles. You feel more comfortable and confident is what it comes to down to.
Dry cleaning is expensive and the first time I had my suit cleaned some of the color ran from the red onto the fur. Then of course there’s the shirts. I sweat, of course, so I have dozens of shirts. They can be expensive. I bought some shirts from J. Peterman because it’s a nice looking shirt and it passes for a Santa shirt. They were about $28/piece and I have other shirts that are maybe worn by waiters that are more like $13 or $14/piece. The thing I like is a banded collar versus a regular shirt collar, otherwise it messes up your beard every time you turn your neck.
The leather belt could easily run you $100 and the fancy buckle another $50 or $70. White gloves can be inexpensive but shipping is expensive so you get a dozen gloves for $20 but shipping is $15. And then there’s the liability insurance, which is $250/year.
Is tipping standard?
I do get tips, so if they’re paying by check there might be a $20 bill or $50 bill slipped in there. It’s not frequent, but it happens occasionally.
And you do gigs with your wife as Mrs. Claus as well?
Two years ago, she went to same Santa Claus school, and I attended once again. She goes out with me on a few different occasions. She has a custom-made dress that matches my suit, that was another $800 or so. Lately, there’s a little bit more demand for Mrs. Claus.
Do you find it stressful to fit in so much of your work in a short amount of time?
The biggest thing I worry about is snow. Lately I’ve been very lucky. For the most part in the Philadelphia area it’s pretty mild winters.
Some of the stress comes from having five or six gigs lined up in a course of a day or so and trying to make sure that you’re there on time. Last year I left center city Philly and had to go 30 miles and I somehow calculated that I could probably make it there in 30 minutes and it took me one-and-a-half hours to get there, and then the next appointment is behind.
Do you have a holiday budget for you and your family?
I generally spend more on charities and giving to others than I do on my own close loved ones is what it comes down to. It’s hard for me to say whether my budget is $100 or $800, I don’t look at it as a budget. If it’s something someone would like I’ll get it for them.
Any tips for people interested in getting into Santa work?
If anything, definitely go to a school. And if you’re really serious about it, definitely get yourself a custom-made suit.
Spoken like a true Santa. To learn more about Bernard, visit his website at KingofPrussiaSanta.
Heather Vandenengel is a freelance writer based in Montreal. She still needs to do her Christmas shopping.
This piece is part of The Billfold’s Holidays and Money series.
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