Playing Santa takes training, dedication

LAWRENCEVILLE - Santas take note: A fake beard and cheap red suit won't do anymore.

Once a seasonal gig, playing Santa is a year round job that takes practice and attention to detail.

For many, it is an art. Schools devoted to teaching the finer points of playing St. Nick are enrolling students each year, such as the International University of Santa Claus and the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School.

Authenticity is important. About 650 members have joined the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, including at least 22 from Georgia.

Pay is also going up. Some Santas are offered thousands of dollars to make appearances across the country. They can use a company car and receive a per diem.

Although the International Council of Shopping Centers says the average is about $8,000 per season, some Santas can make nearly $15,000 in a season.

In recent years, playing Santa has become more theatrical, said Ruth Rosenquist, a spokesman for the Noerr Program, a talent company that supplies Santas locally to the Mall of Georgia and Gwinnett Place.

Although many Santas have taken their craft seriously for years, there is a more widespread emphasis on the authentic performance and the nostalgia for a time gone by.

"It stems from the love of the traditional and the particular need people feel to connect to the tradition of Christmas," Rosenquist said. "It especially picked up after 9/11. The crisis brought people together again, and there was a renewed importance on these things."