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It’s Not Jolly, It’s A Job: Pro Santas Say It’s More Than Just The Beard

Charity workers dressed as Santa Claus wave to pedestrians in New York. Professional Santas say it's not an easy job, and it's not just as simple as putting on a beard.

Scott Calkin, aka Cape Cod Santa, shows his diploma from the International University of Santa Claus.

WARNING:The following story contains Santa information that may not be suitable for younger listeners.

So, you're considering becoming a Santa -- getting a suit, throwing on a beard -- after all, how hard could it be?

"Being a good Santa Claus, it's a calling," says Santa Jim Manning, aka Boston Santa.

Manning has been playing Santa for about a decade, doing mostly home visits. He says the first thing you're going to need to do is figure out is what kind of Santa you're going to be.

"There's real-bearded and there's designer-bearded," he says. "Mine is a designer beard. A lot of people refer to them as fake beards, but we don't like to call them that, just because it really is a designer beard or a fashion beard."

Manning says it's more than just the beard that makes the Santa. In his case, it's also about $1,500 worth of gear wigs, beards, mustaches and a fat suit that takes hours to put on.

Manning says you've got to be part actor and part child whisperer. Even if you manage to master the shy kids, the terrified kids, the drunken adults -- he says an improv class really helps there -- the Santa is in the details. Even something as simple as singing "Jingle Bells" could trip you up.

"The kids don't know the second verse," he says. "The adults know the second verse, but once the kids stop singing, the adults all realize all of a sudden it's just them and me and singing. So I end up doing a solo version of this song -- which makes it look like Santa is all about the attention."

The Santa Elite

In the stratified Santa community, however, even if you're a hit with the crowd, you may not be completely accepted within the Santa society elite.

"It's seems to me like some of the other real-bearded guys ... really feel like by having a real beard that that puts them a step above the designer-bearded Santas, which I don't agree with," Manning says.

Of course, not all real-bearded Santas feel so superior.

"Just like every human being is unique, each Santa is unique," says Santa Scott Calkin, aka Cape Cod Santa. He is one of the illustrious real-bearded Santas.

"My beard is registered with a national beard registry," Calkin says.

Calkin also belongs to International Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, to the Society of Santas and the New England Society of Santas.

Calkin says if you want to be a Santa, and you're serious, he doesn't care if you have a real beard or a designer beard. He says you should be fully educated and be able to recite the historic Santa lore, as well as know all the names of the reindeer. At the end of the day, however, he says there are parts you can't learn.

I think you have to have that special place in your heart that distinguishes you from being a person with a beard and being Santa with a beard," he says.

The Burden Of Being Santa

And if you don't think carefully before you suit up, you could find yourself not so jolly.

"I'm a radio Santa, and I hate it," says Santa Bob Parkis.

For one night a year, Parkis takes calls from children on the air. He remembers one call from a little girl that made him particularly uncomfortable.

"In ending, she said to me, 'I love you, Santa.' I really hate being a kind of a god," Parkis says. "It's an artificial construct, and yet here's the real emotion coming from the kids.

The responsibility of being a Santa is too great, says Parkis. A lesson to all who would be Santa: Think carefully before you grow (or buy) that beard and don that red cap.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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