When Stan Dale rented a Santa Claus costume one Christmas Eve to “goof” on some friends, he had no idea that his Santa identity would become permanent.
Fifteen years later, the retired 67-year-old resident of Scottsdale is better known as “Stanta,” and is in such demand for holiday season, he’s been booked solid for Santa appearances since early October.
For Dale, and many other Santa Claus stand-ins who spend hours posing for photos and bringing holiday cheer to Christmas parties, being Santa Claus isn’t just a job, but a way of life. Dale is a self-taught Santa Claus, and has spent years picking up Santa skills through experience and observation. But oftentimes, Santas go through rigorous training, including attending a Santa University, as well as have to meet a lengthy list of qualifications and skills to wear a giant, red suit.
And the compensation can pay exceptionally well.
Dale would not say how much he makes, but he said he it is enough cash to take a nice vacation every year.
This year, he said he might visit Italy or Egypt.
One Phoenix-based company known as Santa Claus & Company lists its Santa rates as $200 per hour for the first two hours, and $175 per hour for every hour after.
Ruth Rosenquist, director of PR and cause marketing for Noerr Programs Corporation, a company that provides Santa photo experiences to clients around the country, said the most important thing for a Santa Claus is that it must be a calling.
“It’s not a profession to them,” Rosenquist said. “It’s something they feel compelled to do. It has to be part of their DNA.”
The corporation hosts a four-day Santa University every year in Colorado, she added, where Santas learn skills ranging from ethics and social media, to frequently asked questions by children, how to deal with pets, take the best photo and even sign language and bilingual cues.
In addition to these skills, Santas contracted by the corporation must go through a background check, have a real beard, and meet a list of on-the job-requirements, including never promising anything to a child, maintaining a jolly attitude and upbeat energy level, and even details such as the proper placement of glasses on their noses.
Rosenquist says with so many digital aspects taking over the holidays, such as online shopping, she considers Santa Claus as once of the last few physical manifestations of the holidays.
“We consider Santa the holiday anchor,” she said. “Or the magnet for the mall.”
But in order to be Santa, it really takes a unique individual, Rosenquist said. They must be able to relate well to children, and express the heart of Santa.
For those who make the cut, the job can prove to be a rewarding experience.
Dale said some of his best experiences have been making children happy. One of his favorite memories was helping a U.S. soldier who had just come home from Iraq to surprise his children.
Once in Costa Rica during his off-season, he said he took a wrong turn and found himself at a stoplight outside a school with children swarming his truck yelling “Papa Noel!”
“You go out and you do your thing on Christmas Eve and you’re driving home and it’s 1 to 2 in the morning and it finally dawns on you, ‘wow, I made a lot of people happy’,” Dale said.
Santa Claus season continues now through Christmas Eve.
Alison Dorf is a reporter at Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org