It’s that time of year: a jolly coterie of heavyset men are making money by fixing white beards to their faces, doling out gifts and bellowing ‘ho ho ho’.
We spoke to two Santa schools and agencies — Contraband and The Ministry of Fun — to understand how the money flows and learn the inner-workings of being a Santa-for-hire.
After today, Courier Weekly will be off for a fortnight. Usual business will resume on 12 January.
Hiring a professional Santa can cost anywhere between £300-400 for a four-hour session, according to Contraband. The more believable the Santa, the higher the fee.
The Ministry of Fun says that grotto jobs pay more than festive pantomimes.
The gigs require a bit of financial outlay. The going rate for a quality outfit — beard, wig, suit – is up to £2,000. Some agencies provide an outfit for the season, but the trustee is liable for any damage caused.
Some pro-bono Santa-ing also takes place each year, with services provided free of charge to hospitals, hospices and other charitable organisations.
And while the rates can be lucrative, there are few specific protections for this type of work. Attempts have been made to unionise. This story of a rift between members of a now-defunct scandal-prone Santa union — the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas — is a fascinating listen from This American Life.
Throughout November and December, The Ministry of Fun says it gets over 800 individual bookings.
Most Santas expect to be sent out to grottos in shopping centres and department stores. Other common jobs include corporate Christmas parties and switching on Christmas lights.
There are also opportunities to feature in TV adverts, which can pay in the thousands.
The Ministry of Fun has been running its Santa academy since 1998. It trains up to 40 Santas every year in east London.
The agency starts accepting applications in January/February, with auditions in August. Training begins in October, ready for Santas to hop on the festive circuit in November.
The training is rigorous, with one-on-one sessions and group work, in which candidates swap difficult kid stories and role-play potentially awkward scenarios with The Ministry of Fun’s staff.
The coursework involves learning how to speak to children without shattering the illusion.
Outside of the festive season, most Santas-for-hire work as actors, although retired teachers and accountants are also on the books at The Ministry of Fun.
The agency and Santa training academy says it has one Santa on its books, Frank, a former robber. Although he receives positive reviews for his work, he finds it hard to get bookings. This is in part because he doesn’t meet CRB standards as a result of his former career.
Only one of the 10 Santas on Contraband’s books has his own fluffy white beard. The rest will don a wig.
Increased professionalisation of Santas is placing a strain on some grotto operators.
Totally Tipi, an events company based in Yorkshire, says it tried running a grotto with a Santa last year, but the additional cost made it difficult. This year, it has opted for a ‘hygge’ theme instead.
One common question posed to Santas by children is how they access modern homes, which don’t always have functional chimneys. For that, a ‘magic key’ has been invented, which provides access through the front door.