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The elite cabal of mall Santas making up to $20,000 every Christmas season

You don’t choose the Santa life. The Santa life chooses you.

Ed Taylor’s most famous role is basically the only one he’s played for years: Santa Claus.

In his YouTube reel, there’s a clip of Taylor as Santa on The Doctors high-fiving the audience, or taking a sip of Coca-Cola in a commercial, or canoodling with Gwen Stefani in the music video for “You Make It Feel Like Christmas.” A jealous Blake Shelton barges in; Stefani feigns abashment. Yet Santa is unflappable, as only Santa could be.

Santa Ed has been playing Santa Claus for 15 years. He refers to himself and Santas like him — men who earn top dollar playing Kris Kringle at swanky corporate events, holiday parties, and sporting events throughout the country — as “premier” Santas. He started as a volunteer, subbing as Santa for a friend who couldn’t make a gig. He quickly realized he had found his calling.

“There was a part of me that thought, ‘This is really about getting to be the best part of yourself,’” he told me. “The part of you that’s smiling and loving and caring — it focuses a light on that.” After attending an open call for a paid gig as a mall Santa in Los Angeles, he transitioned to paid Santa gigs, then to year-round Santa work.

Santa Ed Taylor.

An internet marketing consultant by training, Santa Ed regularly speaks in front of audiences of senior entrepreneurs looking to grow their own small businesses; he is skilled at public speaking and self-promotion, both of which have helped him build his brand. Since 2013, he has also run the Santa Claus Conservatory, an online training program for more than 2,300 aspiring premier Santas worldwide. At the Santa Claus Conservatory, Ed leads workshops and seminars on everything from beard whitening and care to the nuts and bolts of search engine optimization.

The goal of the school, Santa Ed says, is to train Santas to refine their looks, and their acting and marketing skills, to make themselves stand out in an increasingly saturated (or rather, Santu-rated) market.

But what actually constitutes a premier Santa is a bit tough to pin down. It’s kind of like the Supreme Court definition of pornography: You know one when you see one.

Because many Santas do so on a strictly volunteer basis, becoming a premier Santa has less to do with your hourly rate and more to do with capturing the big man’s spirit. Santa Rick, a former mediator and divorce arbiter who runs his own Santa school, Northern Lights Santa Academy, puts it thusly: “There’s two kinds of Santas: There are professional Santas and there are guys in red suits. And the difference for me is there are those who want to better themselves and learn and master the trade, and there are the others.”

A practicing Orthodox Jew, Rick has played Santa intermittently for the past 50 years, starting when he was 16. He was inspired to turn becoming Santa Claus into a full-time job eight years ago, after the death of his parents a few weeks apart. He grew a beard, as is customary in the Jewish tradition during the mourning period; after a little boy at Home Depot recognized him as Santa, Rick was touched by the sheer joy his mere presence inspired, and he decided to turn Santa Claus into a full-time job. “Many Santas, if not most, will agree with me: You don’t choose [becoming] Santa. Santa chooses you,” he says. These days, he’s the official Santa for the Atlanta Braves and Falcons.

Rates for professional Santa Clauses vary widely, depending on where you live and the type of gigs you take. Both Rick and Ed get Santa-related work in the offseason; as a Santa booking agent, Rick also helps other Santas book gigs year-round. (He can also procure anything Christmas-related, such as live reindeers or trackless trains, should you wish to throw a Yuletide-themed shindig in July.)

But the job is seasonal for most, which means there’s an inherent cap on how much you can make. “Most mall Santas make $5,000 to $15,000 a year,” says Rick. “Some make a little more. Very few are making over $25,000 a year. ... If you’re in it for the money, you’re gonna be disappointed.”

Those at the upper echelons of the Santa Claus hierarchy, however, can command hundreds of dollars per hour, particularly if they are selective about the jobs they book. While Santa Ed wouldn’t reveal how much he makes per year, he says he books about 100 jobs per year and charges $250 for the first half-hour, making him one of the more expensive and in-demand Santas in the Los Angeles area.

“In every community, you have your country clubs, your higher-end businesses. In LA, a lot of my work is Ellen and Jimmy Kimmel and cast and crew parties,” says Ed. “So what I do with our Santa Claus conservatory is train our Santas to be eligible for those things.” When Ed gets an inquiry from an employer looking to hire a Santa, he sends it out to his students via an email notification system; others book gigs through Santa booking agents like Rick, who will take a commission.

Becoming a professional Santa, however, takes far more than slapping on a beard and putting on a few pounds before the holiday season. For starters, it means a significant financial investment. Rick says buying a convincing Santa costume and Santa-related accoutrements typically costs at least $1,000: “I am a firm believer you have to look like Santa.” Designer beard sets, for instance, are typically made of human hair, which means they can cost anywhere from $1,800 to $2,500; while there are less expensive beard options made of, say, yak hair, the consensus in the Santa community is that they look cheap and unconvincing. (And don’t get Rick started on cotton or rayon beards.)

Men who are naturally blessed with bushy, voluminous beards will usually visit a salon to bleach them before the holiday rush, which can cost a few hundred dollars. Beard maintenance and grooming is also key, particularly if you struggle with patchy or uneven facial hair. “Sometimes you can get this mustache that grows over your lips and you might be a little off-putting, so we try to coach our students about that,” says Ed.

Santas are also usually responsible for the cost of their wardrobes. (The one exception: mall Santas, who are most often provided with a costume.) There’s the suit, which can cost between $1,200 and $1,800 to have custom-made; there’s also the boots, the buckles, and the belts, which can also cost hundreds of dollars, particularly if they’re made of real leather, which they probably should be. “Pleather droops down,” says Rick. “Santa wouldn’t wear that.”

All told, an aspiring premier Santa Claus can theoretically spend thousands before even booking their first gig. That’s not even taking into account travel costs, though some malls will foot the bill for travel and lodging. “Santas may make $7,000 a year or up to about $20,000 if they’re real high-end, which might sound like a lot over the course of five or six weeks, but if you look at wardrobe and travel and expenses, it’s not that much,” says Ed.

But of course, no one truly becomes Santa Claus for the money, or whatever additional perks or prestige may accompany the position. People become Santa Claus because it brings joy to others, during a time of the year that is stressful or isolating for many. While the idea that the suicide rate spikes during Christmas is little more than a myth, it is true that people report higher rates of anxiety and depression during the holiday season. It’s easy to see why: If Christmas is about being around your family and the people you love, and you don’t have either of those things, it can be a difficult time (although, to be fair, it can also be pretty rough even if you have both of those things, as any number of holiday hijinks movies can attest).

Premier Santas see it as their duty to spread holiday cheer to the people who need it most. “A good Santa will cry tears of sadness every year because they hear things and see things,” says Rick, who has visited dying people while dressed as Santa at their homes or at hospice. “And they will also cry tears of joy. Because you get it all, the best of the best and the worst of the worst.”

And for many, the ability to actually be Santa, not just a guy in a red suit — and to assume the many serious duties associated with the role — can be a form of compensation in itself. “A lot of guys do it for no pay,” says Santa Ed. “The guys who do it for pay, some of them really need and want the money, and it changes their lifestyle to make an extra $10,000 to $20,000 a year. But a lot of them are just like, ‘I just love being Santa! I can’t wait till Christmas comes again.’”

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