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Here comes Santa Camp

  • Lenny Stratton, of Shelburne, Massachusetts holds up his end of a stringed sleigh at the New England Santa Society's "Santa Camp" at the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center on Aug. 25-27. (Staff photo by Ben Conant / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript). Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Dave Callender of Keene participates in a team-building exercise at The New England Santa Academy’s “Santa Camp” at the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • The New England Santa Academy's "Santa Camp" took place at the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center on Aug. 25-27, 2017. (Staff photo by Ben Conant / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript). Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The New England Santa Academy's "Santa Camp" took place at the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center on Aug. 25-27, 2017. (Staff photo by Ben Conant / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript). Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Dan Greenleaf, left, president of the New England Santa Society, and Ralph Noon, Santa Camp co-organizer, discuss logistics. Staff photo by Ben Conant



Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, August 30, 2017

 

Ralph Noon sat in a chair in the middle of a circle of a dozen Santas in a conference room at the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center in Greenfield.

Noon, a graduate of the International University of Santa Claus, was teaching a class titled “Who is Santa?” for beginning Santa Clauses – men, mostly over 60, looking to break into an industry that faces a lack of supply every November to December.

Noon, who is from Amesbury, Mass., and a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, shared tips on when to hand out the gifts to kids at a private party (at the end), why Santas should trim their nosehairs (kids look right up at them) and where to put your hands in photos with children (“Your hands need to be visible, on the shoulder or someplace appropriate”).

Noon also recommended paying $5 for a background check like he has, since clients often ask for one.

“I’ve had to use it a few times, and the time that I had to use it I got myself a $1,200 job because I had that paper in the file,” Noon said. “So was the $5 investment worth it?”

The eager students, who shelled out up to $380 for two nights lodging, meals and course fees and materials, jotted down notes in their three-ring binders. Each Santa hoping to learn something different, perfect their craft, market themselves better or build their network.

There were games and jokes, but this was more of a business conference than a fantasy camp. There are more gigs than Santas during the holidays and if a Santa picks the right jobs, he can make tens of thousands of dollars.

The business of being Santa

Last season (the Santas refer to years as seasons), Dan Greenleaf worked 95 gigs. He had just one day off from mid-November to Christmas.

“The issue is: You have a short season. It’s really Thanksgiving to Christmas. Three weekends. And everybody wants their parties on the same day,” Greenleaf said. “There is a shortage, I always have my cards with me.”

Greenleaf took out a card that had the words “Would you like to be Santa?” written on it, along with the web address of the Facebook page of the New England Santa Society, which Greenleaf started, mostly because he felt bad turning away people who called him each season asking him to work their parties.

“I was like, this is dumb in terms of customer service,” Greenleaf said. “I know, because of the association, who’s who. I know who’s good and I can match them up well.”

Like the recipients of Greenleaf’s cards, most Santas are found through networking.

Last season, Ray Ericson went up to the hired Santa Claus at a gun club function in Northfield, Conn. The white-bearded Ericson, clad in a red flannel shirt and Santa Claus hat, put his arm around Santa for a photo.

“(Santa) says immediately, ‘Do you happen to have your business card?’ ” Ericson said.

Ericson looked at him blankly.

“You play Santa, don’t you?” the Santa said to Ericson ”Well we have a shortage of Santa Clauses, you know.”

The man told Ericson that between November and December, he made $28,000 as Santa, working seven days a week.

Ericson’s jaw dropped.

“I was just looking at him, like, really?” he said.

Ericson talked to his wife Lucy. They decided to go full Claus. They looked around and saw an ad for Santa Camp and signed up.

The Santa lifestyle

Greenleaf taught an advanced class Friday and shared stories of gigs gone wrong, like when a Santa was hired for an hour-long house party and was expected to serve as a babysitter.

“Even in our own community, there is such a broad range of attitudes about what Santa should be and how Santa should act and what he should do. You’re going out there trying to find clients and they’ve got their own expectations,” Greenleaf said.

The advanced Santas shared other stories, mindful of a reporter in the room. The discussion turned to the lifestyle of a real-bearded Santa. All of the men who attended Santa Camp had white beards and wore red or Christmas-sy outfits. Some of them had Santa murals on their trucks and vanity license plates such as “-CLAUS” and “MYSLRD.”

“As we do Santa more too, we start to appreciate it more how careful we are about what we say and do,” Greenleaf said. “We all know when you drive a car that says ‘I’m Santa’ you can’t be flipping off people who cut you off.”

Most of the men live the Santa lifestyle, working tirelessly doing dozens of gigs from November to December. And in the off months, they keep their beards long and white, and their pocket full of wooden nickels for curious children they see in public.

“When you put that red suit on, that’s what changes, you become Santa,” said Dick Marshall, who has been a professional Santa since he closed his workshop in Hooksett where he (and more than a hundred volunteers) used to make wooden toys for needy children. “You are no longer who you were ordinarily walking along the street, you are Santa, and that continues throughout the year for most of us who have real beards. We don’t lose the persona during the year, it’s there all the time.”

The Santa lifestyle doesn’t come cheap. Some of the real-bearded Santas at Santa Camp started with designer beards made of yak hair. Fake beards can run north of $1,000 – one of the major expenses involved in the Santa lifestyle.

“Coming in with a garbage bag full of toys doesn’t quite cut it,” Greenleaf said. “All this stuff makes it magical. It makes it special.”

Noon said he’s spent $1,100 on his suit, $1,000 on his boots and $350 on his belt.

“When you have that belt on, it says you are Santa,” Noon said.

The light within yourself

On Friday, Noon issued a warning to those hoping to capitalize on their white beards and their little round bellies.

“You need to have a belief of Christmas in your heart,” Noon said. “You don’t go any say this to people, but Santa is really love. It’s the purest of things you can do for somebody else. Santa is a gift-giver, he gives unconditionally…

“If you don’t have the light within yourself, you really can’t be Santa. You want to just show up, make some money and sit in a chair, you’ll dry out very quickly.”