For those who dress up as Santa Claus during the holiday season, taking on that role is akin to being a hero. Many Santas around town come from different work backgrounds.
For those who dress up as Santa Claus during the holiday season, taking on that role is akin to being a hero.
After all, it's the jolly, rosy-cheeked gentleman with the white beard who spreads joy and love during the season, delivering presents to children of the world in a single night.
That level of symbolic power translates to real dollars for Santa Claus performers near and far, including in the Portland metro area. Once the holiday season rolls around promptly after Halloween, St. Nicholas can be found making appearances at malls, businesses, parades and other goings on.
But where do they come from?
It turns out there's a variety of answers, depending on the Santa asked — that is if they're willing to divulge out-of-character details. Many are very dedicated to maintaining the illusion. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't track employment and wages of professional Santas, given the fleeting time of contract work.
Many Santas around town come from different work backgrounds, including through national photography companies. Macy's Santaland downtown gets its Santa through a New York City-based photo company called Freeze Frame. Other businesses might go so far as to procure a Santa through a Hollywood casting company.
However, Portland does have its very own Santa organization called Santa's Pack. It bills itself as Portland and Vancouver's "First and Oldest Santa Claus Club" and is a chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.
Dave Cardiff, of Vancouver, is the treasurer and has been in the club for 10 years. The club serves two purposes, he says. One, for those who dress up to get together and talk about being Santa, and two, a clearing house for Santa Clauses for hire.
The member list, published online, includes 28 Santas, three Mrs. Clauses, four Santa and Mrs. Clauses together, and one elf for hire.
"So people who search for Santa for hire will come upon our website and there is an information form — and that (data) will be sent to all Santas in the club," Cardiff says.
He says each individual Santa is a contractor who sets rates himself. Some of them shoot for the more commercial gigs, at big, busy malls "because they don't have to worry about getting clients." One member, he says, booked work at a mall in Hawaii, which paid for his room and travel.
That type of work doesn't interest Cardiff. He dislikes long days with long lines.
Santa mall work can actually lead to Santa burnout, and such was the case for Tom Epler, of Forest Grove, who now runs his own operation called Santa House. He's also a member of Santa's Pack.
Before that, he worked long days at Clackamas Town Center and at Washington Square in Portland.
"I got a little burned out. Just the hours and no breaks," he says. The schedule was nonstop from early November through Christmas, with one day off, on Thanksgiving Day.
"The thing about the mall is you got to run the children through. It's just bam-bam-bam," he says. "My favorite time at the mall was in November, because not a lot of people were coming in to get their pictures so there was a lot of time."
More time with each child is a job perk to some working Santas, and can be procured by doing home visits.
Home visits offer more pay, sometimes more than a $100 an hour, but if unwilling to work hard to find and retain clients, it can be a tougher route.
But it's one that's proven solid for Cardiff, who has gigs with families booked almost daily until Christmas ends.
"Probably 75 percent of my client base is people who I've been a Santa for in the previous year, which is an exciting part of the job because you get to see the households and see the kids grow," he says. That evening, he was headed to a home where "the kids are all 14, 15 and 16 years old, but when I started they were 4, 5 and 6."
However, he explains almost as a caveat, often only more affluent families can afford home visits. He was worried about a client the next evening "up in the hills" because of the pending bad weather.
"A person who pays for a Santa Claus for a home visit ... not every one of them are wealthy, OK, but a good portion of them are. Certainly middle class or above," he says, naming Lake Oswego and the hills of Vancouver.
Money is a point of contention for many around Christmas, and those with little means can afford neither the costly home visit price tag for Santa, nor the picture package price — sometimes more than $40 — at a mall or photography studio.
Knowing that many couldn't afford such luxuries was just another reason Epler began Santa House rather than continuing mall work. It's free of charge.
"There's so many things being charged now ... we want to make it more intimate and more quiet, and bring the special needs children to us," he says. A quiet, less chaotic setting allows for special needs children to spend as much time as they'd like with a Santa.
"I've heard stories through the association of a few who get into it because of the money and not because they want to help children. And I think that's the total wrong way to do it, but that's my opinion," Epler says.
Cardiff says he does about five to six free jobs a year, while he charges for the rest. One of his more prominent appearances is at the Providence Festival of Trees.
"It's kind of an enhancement to my retirement," says Cardiff, who's turning 72 in January.
When asked if numbers of Santas were dwindling, Cardiff didn't think so. He says the club recently picked up two new members.
Epler wasn't so sure.
"I heard they're calling all over trying to find Santas," he says, adding that the average age is in the 70s — and that many have diabetes and heart problems.
"I'm sorry, Santa's a jolly old fat man. Honestly, I wear a fat suit because I have diabetes too and I have to keep it under control," he says. "And America's not quite ready for a skinny Santa."
Santa's Pack meets four times a year and welcomes new members. There are annual dues and a required background check. Most Santas in the club are real-bearded, but it's not a requirement.
For more details, visit santaspack.com or call Santa Dave Cardiff at 360-852-0903. He says to wait until after Christmas due to his busy schedule, though.