Brian Marchetti has arrived at Chick-fil-A, and the first thing he must do is park where nobody will see him.
Over the past month, the 50-year-old Baltimorean has undergone a fantastic transformation. His beard, typically short and brownish-gray, is now 7 inches long and white as snow; his business attire has been swapped for a red, fur-lined suit and black boots; small reading glasses perch on the bridge of his nose.
A safe distance from the crowd, he steps out of his minivan and slides open the side door, revealing an array of props: Christmas books, music boxes, wooden toys, six red satin sacks, an array of 60 hats, a faux mailbox, elf costumes. Tonight’s gig — one of about 110 that Marchetti will work this holiday season — is a simple meet-and-greet, and won’t be requiring any of the bells and whistles.
Marchetti bursts into the restaurant with Pavarottian bravado, his arms outstretched above his red cap — and in an instant, he is besieged by children, iPhone flashes, and starry-eyed adults hungry for the ether of youth.
This is life as a professional Santa Claus: a complete physical and mental metamorphosis, rates as high as $350 an hour, and a taste of being the most beloved person in a room of 150 kids. But donning the suit comes with tremendous social responsibility — and every now and then, a little pee.
The professional Santa Claus business
Marchetti is one of thousands of men from all around the United States who make a living as a professional Santa Claus around the holiday season.
It is an odd troupe, consisting largely of overweight retirees in their 50s or 60s, most of whom sport a luscious beard and embrace the jovial spirit of the character year-round. They gather on internet forums like ClausNet and discuss topics like how to answer difficult questions from children (i.e., “Why does Santa have to be obese?”), or how to build a birchwood sleigh that can support 250 pounds. They are ex-police officers, attorneys, professors, and construction foremen — but their past lives are of little importance once they don the red suit.
There are those Santas who vie for mall gigs each season, which tend to pay between $6,000 and $15,000 for 40 consecutive days of six-hour shifts. And then there are those like Marchetti, who willingly choose to act as independent businessmen, working the secondary circuit of corporate events, home visits, office parties, and restaurant meet-and-greets.
These Santas market themselves on online booking platforms, extolling virtues like “best real beard West of the Mississippi” and “jolly, fat, and ready for action.” They charge anywhere from $100 to $350 an hour, and during the prime season — generally from the day after Thanksgiving to early January — can earn upward of $20,000.
According to data from booking site GigSalad, there are more than 1,200 professional Santas in operation, and they are distributed pretty evenly throughout the country.
Marchetti, one of at least 16 Santas in Maryland, worked 85 gigs over 40 days last year. This year, demand went up: He estimates he’ll finish the season with around 110.
His jobs range in scope from parties at all-adult karaoke bars, to appearances at fast food restaurants, to private home visits in wealthy suburban enclaves. The day I talked to him, he’d already worked two events by 6:30 pm, and was sitting in a parking lot waiting for his third to begin.
“There’s a lot of waiting around between jobs,” he says. “But if I have a four-hour period free and I’m in the suit, I’ll go brighten someone’s day for free. Every Christmas morning, I work a homeless shelter and pass out gifts. There is always volunteer work.”
Based in Eastern Baltimore — a primarily blue-collar, economically depressed area where there isn’t much disposable income going around — Marchetti often travels several hours to DC or Virginia for paying gigs.
He cites a noticeable difference between how children in poor areas and those in upscale areas react to his services. “When you’re in an environment that’s economically depressed, children seem to not be as communicative, not as reactive, and not as comfortable,” he says. “They have lower expectations.”
So, he must do his best to be as convincing as possible.
Brian Marchetti’s second life began five years ago, when a friend asked him to dress as Santa for her children on Christmas Eve. “After that,” he says, “I realized I’d found my calling.”
Aesthetically, Marchetti fits the bill. He’s a big guy with bright blue eyes, and has had the ability to grow a thick beard since he was in high school. After 20 years as a car dealership owner and part-time volunteer at a child sexual abuse nonprofit, he’s developed a gentile rapport with people.
The first order of business any Santa faces, says Marchetti, is finding a good suit.
A Santa outfit can be had for around $100 off the shelf of a Party City superstore. But to play the role convincingly — well enough for people to pay you — requires something a bit more exceptional. Marchetti’s, acquired through a friend, is custom-made and worth an estimated $1,200. With the boots, hat, sash, and gloves, his whole rig clocks in at 39.6 pounds.
Beard management is also crucial: Every year, Marchetti endures a multi-day bleaching process to make it pure white.
“This year, I spent about 25 hours in the salon,” he says. “I’ve been back to the salon twice, and I’ll probably go back at the end of this week to get touched up.” The first time he ever had the process done, the chemical burn from the bleaching paste left his cheeks bleeding for four days.
But appearance is only a small component of what makes a great Santa. The real magic is manifested through body language, disposition, and a keen ability to read people.
What it takes to be a phenomenal Santa
Ed Taylor (Santa Ed), a semi-retired professional speaker and marketer, got his start seven years ago as a volunteer Santa in Ashland, Oregon. Today, he is one of the most successful Santas in the business. His gigs this year have included the cast party for the Ellen DeGeneres Show, private events with the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Rams, and company parties at Facebook and Pinterest. On his website, he reports earnings in excess of $100,000 per year.
Taylor pivoted his success into an online school — the Santa Claus Conservatory — where he charges Santas-in-training $197 for a series of courses covering such topics as “Santa for children with special needs” and “How to video chat.” So far, 900 Santas have signed up.
In his program, Taylor offers several tips for being an exceptional Santa.
For starters, one needs to master the ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’ — Santa’s signature bird call. “A lot of Santas are too staccato,” he says. “You’ve got to relax into it, and just let it be a part of your laugh.” Voice dynamics, in general, are of the utmost importance: One needs to be grand and bold when entering the room, but soft and gentle when in close proximity to children.
It is crucial for a Santa to be well-versed in both storytelling and Santa mythology. That means memorizing not only Christmas carols and poems, but the lore of the character: what the North Pole is like, how he hires elves, what he feeds the reindeer.
Body language, hand gestures in particular, are also a sensitive issue. “There’s also often an awkwardness with what we do with our hands,” says Taylor. “A Santa should flail his hands around during a grand entry, but be a bit gentler when sitting with a child.”
Marchetti know this struggle well. “We Santas have to be very careful about how we handle children,” he says. “The last thing I would never want a child to say to their parent is, ‘I don't like the way Santa touched me.’”
“Parents raise their children to not interact with strangers, not take candy from strangers, to always be cautious,” he adds. “Then, they take them into a room, throw them onto my lap, and I give them a candy cane. I always have to make sure it’s the child’s decision to come to me, and not the parents.’”
Above all else though, a good Santa plays the role year-round — even when he’s outside of the suit.
A year-round persona
After playing Santa a few times, Taylor realized he was a different man when wearing the suit than he was in everyday life. It brought out his love and compassion — parts of himself he didn’t typically express in his public life before.
“Now, I try to be him every day,” he says. “If traffic is backed up in LA, with horns honking and people screaming, I think ‘How would Santa handle this?’ It was a huge evolution in mental attitude.”
Taylor maintains his beard year-round, typically sports a red shirt, and drives around the city in a little red car with ‘N-POLE’ on the license plate. He is constantly stopped and asked for photos at grocery stores, gas stations, and in parks in the heat of summer.
Even without the suits, many of these men still look like Santa post-Christmas. After all, being Santa comes with the year-round social responsibility to spread joy, they say. But there are also certain benefits to the attention they get for it.
“When you have the image going all the time, it builds more business,” says Marchetti. “I carry business cards with me wherever I go. And when a kid comes up to me in a store, their parent gets one.”
Several of the professional Santas I spoke with resonated sentiments of method actors: Through the process of repeatedly playing a role, they mentally and physically adopted the traits of their character, until the lines distinguishing their real lives from Santa were unrecognizably blurred.
“I became Santa after a few years of playing him,” an Arkansas professional by the name of Santa Willie told me. “Now, when Christmas comes and I put the suit on, nothing changes. It’s just me.”
Hard work, pee, and touching moments
For all of the job’s allure, being Santa is not the easiest way to make money.
“What people don’t realize is how much hard work it is to be a Santa,” says Mitchell Allen, an internet advertiser who brands himself as one of the premier Kris Kringles in all of Texas. “It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing.”
The day we connected, he left his house at 6 am and didn’t return home until 10 pm. For the duration of that time, he had to be high-energy, attentive, and relentlessly in character.
Allen maintains his energy throughout the day by grabbing protein shakes between gigs — always out of the sight of children. The worst thing that could happen, he says, is a small child catching a glimpse of him off-duty, downing a cheeseburger in the parking lot of a Carl’s Jr.
He has two children of his own; only one of them knows about his father’s secret life, and he is often enlisted to help Santa get into costume without being spotted by other kids.
In recent years, Allen began encountering a common problem in the professional Santa community: He had dozens of Saturday booking requests, and not enough time work them all. Instead of losing the business, he recruited other Santas to fill the spots for a cut of the profit. Today, he runs manages a small group of Santas — one of whom is currently working a gig in China.
Another perennial concern among Santas is the possibility of a lap-sitter “making a mess” in action. “I’ve handled children, I’ve handled pets, I’ve handled adults in diapers,” says Allen. “And I have been fortunate in that I’ve never had an accident.”
Others, like 72-year-old ex-realtor Santa Willie, have not been so lucky.
“Last year, at an elementary school visit, a little boy was on my lap telling me about the scooter he wanted,” says Willie. “In the middle of his sentence, he stopped and looked up at me with these big, scared eyes. Then, I felt the warm rush of pee on my leg.”
But the truly warming moments mitigate the misery of unwanted bodily fluids.
“A man once sat on my lap and whispered, ‘I’m 50 years old, and I’ve never done this before,’” says Marchetti. “If that’s not a Santa moment, I’m not sure why I do this at all.”