Some educators are feeling particularly jolly this holiday season. They go by the name Santa Claus.
The exact number of educators who work as Santa or Mrs. Claus during the holiday season is as mysterious as why Rudolph’s nose shines so bright. But there are more than a few.
After all, the jobs have some commonalities: Teachers and Santa both enjoy being around children. They both carry around a grading pen to mark students as naughty or nice, passing or failing. They also both know how to work in stressful conditions, whether it’s a school with large numbers of staff vacancies or a toy workshop right before Christmas Eve.
And, practically speaking, teachers have some time off during Santa’s busiest time of year. According to new federal data, 17 percent of teachers work a second job outside the school system—and being Santa can pay well. A mall Santa makes an average of about $30 an hour, according to a PayScale study, while freelance Santas, who come to holiday parties and other events, often make around $150 an hour.
But as anyone who’s ever seen a Christmas movie knows, the real magic of the job isn’t the paycheck. Educators who moonlight as Kris Kringle say that they love seeing children’s eyes light up. They love being such a core part of their community. And they love getting to see the wide range of the human experience—from newborn babies at hospitals to the elderly in nursing homes who may be celebrating their last Christmas.
“I like meeting new people,” said Kurt Martell, a retired high school special education paraprofessional in Minnesota who works as Santa. “I like to find out about kids and how they’re doing, how their school year is going. I listen to the kids’ lists and stuff, but I’m more interested in how their year has been in school, in their family.
“I’ll talk to them about keeping their room picked up, cleaning up the kitchen, keeping toys off the floor. ... It’s just fun to watch them react to me.”
For many Santas and Mrs. Clauses, this work is a way of life.
“I remembered that as a young kid, I had an uncle who did Santa, and I think that it’s just kind of a tradition that I wanted to follow,” said David Babin, a 7th and 8th grade music teacher at Merrimack Middle School in southern New Hampshire who has volunteered as Santa for the past 25 years. “Being in the house where the Rotary [Club] Santa showed up for several Christmas Eves, I just probably assumed that at some point, that was going to be me.”
Classroom experience is daily rehearsal for performance as Santa
Veteran Santas advise those who are just starting out to take an improv class so they learn how to think quick on their feet while performing, said Walter Bizon, a chemistry teacher who works as Santa. But he didn’t need it, he said—teaching already gave him that skill set.
“Every day in the classroom is like improv,” said Bizon, who taught high school in Chicopee, Mass., for 27 years and recently retired to teach at the local college. “You have to be flexible, go where the questions are going, be ready to field some unusual questions at times, and then just keep it as fluid as you can. Being in a classroom definitely helped me as a Santa Claus—all the good teaching practices, the wait times, things like that are all very, very important.”
Educators say their experience managing a classroom helps them command students’ attention as Santa. Also, many Santas do more than listen to children’s wish lists. Some sing, play instruments, or read books.
Diana Greenleaf has been the Mrs. Claus to her husband’s Santa for the past dozen or so years. Up until last year, she also worked as a K-8 media specialist in Windham, N.H., schools. Through her work as a school librarian, she became familiar with Christmas literature and was able to pick out some compelling stories to read as Mrs. Claus.
“I feel like we do a pretty good job sharing those books with the kids, rather than just reading them,” she said. “There’s techniques that you can use to help the kids get more out of the story.”
A lot of work goes into being Santa
There are many professional associations for Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and their helpers, including elves. The world’s largest, IBRBS, formerly known as the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, boasts more than 2,000 members. (Yes, you need a real beard to be a full member.) There are also regional associations across the United States, including the Palm Tree Santas in Florida and the Lone Star Santas in Texas.
The groups provide training and support on everything from how to embody Santa and Mrs. Claus, how to answer questions from inquisitive children, and how to manage the business side of the job. Some of them also provide background checks and group insurance, a necessity for working Santas. Santa Camp, a summer school for holiday performers run by the New England Santa Society, is featured in a new documentary on HBO Max.
After Bizon graduated from the International University of Santa Claus, the world’s largest Santa’s school, he hung his diploma on his classroom wall, alongside his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
He told his students: “Even if you’re not going on to college, you’re still going to have to have some sort of training, no matter what job you choose—whether it’s military or a car mechanic, expect to go back for training if you want to be the best.”
After all, embodying Santa Claus takes a lot of effort. The red suits with white fur lining cost hundreds of dollars, and the authenticity of the beard is a big source of debate in the community. A high-quality fake beard that looks like it’s out of a storybook can cost thousands of dollars, but some purists say even that isn’t enough.
“When you wear the fake imitation [beard], you’re always concerned about children grabbing on you and pulling it,” Martell said.
Having a real beard does require bleaching it regularly so it’s snowy white. Bizon started growing his beard out in 2012, and eventually decided to bleach it white. The decision caused a stir at school.
“I left on a Thursday with brown hair, and when I came in on Monday, everything was white,” he said. Students were lining up outside of his classroom door to catch a glimpse. And everyone wanted to know why he did it.
“We talked about how when you have a job, sometimes you have to do things to be the best you can be,” Bizon said.
What happens when educators run into their students as Santa?
For elementary teachers, one of the perils of moonlighting as Santa or Mrs. Claus is the risk of running into a child in their class while dressed in red.
Bizon’s wife is an elementary teacher, and she also performs as his Mrs. Claus at the local police department. But this year, some of the children of police officers are in her class.
“So she’s out because she’s afraid they’ll recognize her,” Bizon said. “She has to be very careful of that.”
Greenleaf has had a few close calls seeing some of her students in the wild.
Once, she performed at a library event for children with disabilities, and her picture ended up in the local newspaper. “One of the children that I happened to have who was in 3rd grade at the time saw the picture in the paper and questioned her mother about it,” she said.
Another time, Greenleaf went to a library event for preschool children, but one of the volunteers working had brought her daughters—one of whom happened to be Greenleaf’s student. “My heart kind of sank,” she said. “She knew right away that it was me. You just go with the flow. ... I would say, ‘I’m here helping Santa.’”
The older the grades taught, the less dicey those interactions become. Bizon, who taught high school, even recruited some of his students to be elves during the city’s tree lighting. Every year, students would volunteer, and he’d have them write essays about why they wanted to participate. Then he’d train the students in some of the tips and tricks of the trade.
“I’m a big believer that when you work in a school, you work in a school community,” he said.
Santas and educators have one more thing in common the closer it gets to Christmas: They’re ready for a break. That goes double for those who do both.
“I enjoy my work at the school, and I enjoy my work on the Christmas season,” Bizon said. “And I enjoy my day after Christmas when I get to rest.”