Life Behind the Beard: Professional Santas Tell All About Their Jobs

It takes a special kind of man to step into that suit

Photo: Courtesy Susan Mesco

Have you ever seen a mall Santa out in the wild and thought, “What’s that like? How does a person step into the shoes of one of the most beloved fixtures of the popular consciousness for one month each year?”

Even if you haven’t, we have.

In the market for a Santa but don’t know where to look? Head to GigMasters. Home to clowns, balloon artists, hypnotists and yes, Santas (more than 460 of them!), GigMasters has connected vendors with the talent they need for northwards of 200,000 events. So, who better to connect us with a Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Richard Simoneaux is a full-time security guard from New Orleans. He met his wife, Sally, more than 40 years ago when he was asked to play Santa at a local daycare. Theirs is a story to warm even the Grinch’s heart: Married for 40 years, they perform together as Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

PEOPLE spoke to Richard, who gave the real dirt on being Kris Kringle.

What’s the best advice you’d give to an incoming Santa?
Be prepared for anything. Be prepared to have your hair pulled; be prepared to get kicked. I was even spit on once. But you also need to be prepared to get hugged a lot and hear the kids tell you how much they love you. I always melt when I hear that.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get into the store-Santa game?
Grow a real beard! There are even certain companies that only hire real-beard Santas. For that reason, many Santas are retired men who are able to grow a great beard.

What’s the strangest request you’ve ever gotten as a Santa?
We get a lot of kids requesting a baby brother or sister. If that isn’t a tough delivery, I don’t know what is!

Do you think people can tell you’re a Santa, even when you’re off-duty? Do you project Santa-ness?
No, never as a Santa. I’ve been picked out as a clown, but never as a Santa Claus. My real job is being a serious security officer who carries a gun and everything, so when people find out I’m a clown and Santa, they are always surprised.

What does Santa want for Christmas this year?
A cruise on a Carnival cruise ship! Mrs. Claus wants that, too.

Susen Mesco runs American Events and Promotions and is the founder and director of the Professional Santa Claus School of Denver, Colorado, where people from as far as Italy and South Africa have come to study the art of the Claus. She’s been featured in the films Becoming Santa and Men in Red Suits, both of which focused on the store/mall Santa profession. She spoke to PEOPLE about running her Santa-cademy and playing Mrs. Claus.

How did you get started?
I own a special events and souvenir photo company and was asked by two large Colorado malls to provide their Santa operations in 1983. I thought, “This can’t be so hard,” so I got some elf and Santa suits, and I opened for business. I went to five other malls to see their Santas, and what I saw was pathetic. The children were crying, parents were upset, Santas were bored and the elves had zero customer service abilities. I went back to my office and wrote a comprehensive manual (which has been an ever-evolving masterpiece). By 1985, I was running all but two of Denver’s metro shopping center Santa programs.

What’s the best advice you’d give to an incoming Santa?
Some of the most expensively dressed Santas with perfect, real beards can lack the sincerity of heart and compassion to think about the children and their needs. It’s important to listen to and connect with the children.

What’s your best story from your time as Mrs. Claus?
In 1986, during a large free party for children who were placed in foster homes due to serious domestic violence in their family homes, I met a delightful little girl, maybe four years old, named Hazel. All night long she followed me around. At the end of the night, Hazel begged and insisted in every way possible that she be allowed to return to the North Pole with Santa and I. I told her I was very sorry and would love to take her, but that there was no room in the sleigh, to which she responded that she would sit on my lap and be good all the way. She also said she would help me in the kitchen, make all the elves’ beds, and wouldn’t eat much.

When it was clear that she could not come back to the North Pole with me, she asked me to wait while she went over to the craft table and made me a gift: A cheap glass ornament ball, covered with white school glue then rolled in a bowl of green glitter. She brought it back to me, with glue and glitter covering her hands and running down her arms, and she hugged me. I told her I loved her and that I would put her ornament on the tree at the North Pole in the Claus family living room so we would remember her.

I have washed my Mrs. Claus outfit hundreds of times since 1986, but in two places the green glitter has never washed away. It always reminds me why I do this every season.

Also, one of my Santas, Dan Davidson – who had attended Santa School for eight straight years – was working the Parade of Lights in Boulder once. When he was stepping down from his float, a reporter on live TV turned on the camera lights, shoved a microphone at him and said, “Santa, when is a good time to tell the children you aren’t real?” Dan looked straight in to the camera and said, “Why would we ever lie to the children?”

What’s your favorite thing about working with Santas?
The wonder in children’s eyes that reminds us all to be more tuned into the magic that can happen when we have, believe in, and share our hopes and dreams.

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