This is the season where carrying a few extra years and pounds might actually help those mid-lifers in the job market -- especially if they are willing to wear a red suit and have their "ho-ho-ho's" down.
Holiday mall Santas are in seasonal demand, and while perhaps not a career path job, it's one that can add a little holiday jingle to your pocket. Moreover, if Santas are to be believed, you'll receive enough joy to carry you through the rocky economic times of the rest of the year.
Bob Eaton, 62, is Santa at the Mall of America -- the country's largest shopping mall -- which makes him a Santa rock star. Eaton is a construction supervisor who lives in the Boston area and relocates to Minnesota each year. He got into the Santa business about eight years ago when the construction industry first started to tank. The naturally white-bearded Eaton says he earns wages comparable to his union construction job for doning the Santa suit. "But that's not why I do it," he said. "Sure it's nice to have some income when the construction business is slow, but for me, it's more about the joy I get from sitting in the [Santa] chair. That lasts me all year long. I love it."
The job has its hazards -- from beard-pulling to stressed-out mothers who sometimes forget their good manners when speaking to Santa. But "I love talking with the kids and watching everyone get in the holiday spirit," Eaton said. "All the hugs, all those good wishes -- carry me through the rest of the year."
Eaton, widowed with three grown children, began this year's stint in early November and works from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., with longer hours starting after Thanksgiving and no days off until Christmas. He poses for thousands of photos and is provided with a hair and beard stylist: "Can't be unkempt, you know." Eaton takes his job seriously and is never seen out of "proper Santa attire." He wears a crisp Renaissance-looking white shirt and his Santa hat even when he goes to the convenience store.
"I always bump into children, and how would it be for Santa to not be dressed as Santa?" he asks in a Santa voice. "I've had children tell me they know I'm the real Santa because of the boots I wear. Children notice these things, you know."
By the way, that's not a beer belly on Santa. "That's my cookie chest," said Santa Bob Eaton. "Santas love cookies."
Mall of America's Santa is one of the most-coveted Santa spots in the country. While Eaton declined to be specific about his Santa salary, mall Santas can earn from $10,000 to $50,000 for the 40-day shopping season. They are also provided with hotel accommodations, use of a rental car and relocation expenses to the job site (presumably from as far away as the North Pole).
Mall of America also has Santa Sid -- that's code for Santa In Disguise -- but he's their by-appointment-only Santa and has held court in the "private Santa suite" for the past 20 years. His clientele often flies in to see him each year, said a mall spokesman, who added that the two Santas are never seen together and Santa Syd must enter and exit by a separate entrance to eliminate the risk of blowing his cover.
While some shopping centers, hospitals and communities take care of hiring their own local Santas, much of the industry is served by a few photography companies that bid on multiple shopping center contracts and provide the Santas. Sepia Photos of Texas, one of the largest firms, only hires naturally bearded Santas. All employees are screened and background checked. From their job description: "A jolly, natural bearded, white gloved, polished, well-groomed, custom-suited Santa, who is patient, has a great attitude, loves kids, and has a heart for the past."
There is also a University of Santa Claus, run by Cherry Hill Photo Enterprises of Cherry Hill, N.J., that provides training for all Santas. Santas are taught to never promise anything, show a bad mood or be in a big hurry. The Santa Do's list includes the reminder to bathe daily and use deodorant and to "keep a twinkle in your eye."
One of the nice things about being a Santa is that unlike a lot of other jobs, you "dont age out," said Bob Dunn, 75, of Dover, Del. Dunn has been a Santa for the past eight years -- the last three under contract to Sepia Photos -- and assigned to the Sooner Mall in Norman, Okla. Starting on Black Friday, he will be bouncing kids on his lap and posing for photos from 10 am to 1 p.m., 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. from 8 p.m. He works a 10-hour day with two hours off for meal breaks.
Dunn was included in about 17,000 photos taken last year, and while he said only the top Santas in the country are pulling down $50,000, his paycheck "sure beats minimum wage," adding "and this is a heck of a lot more fun."
Dunn was a packer of clam products in the Delaware seafood business but says it was the recession that retired him. His wife is joining him in Oklahoma this year, but only for the first few weeks. He predicts she'll be bored hanging around the hotel all day while he's in the Santa chair. The youngest of his four kids is 52. "My children would tell you I'm America's least-likely Santa," he said.
But given that he keeps getting asked back, we doubt it. Dunn admits he has a knack for putting frightened kids at ease. "The job is pure joy," Dunn said. "For 46 weeks out of the year, you're just another old man with a white beard, but for that six-week period, you're Santa Claus!" he said. Can't beat that.
Is there any part of the job he could do without? Note from Santa to Moms: Please check diapers before you put the baby on Santa's lap.