Behind the Beard: The Business of Santa
Perhaps you remember the first time you sat on Santa's lap as a child, if your family was into that sort of thing. Maybe you can recall clearly the nervous anticipation you felt in line, the awe you felt as you approached Santa Claus, in the flesh, and the joy you felt at the chance to tell the man himself what you wanted for Christmas. As an adult, you might have a different view of the man in red than you did as the child clutching the candy cane Santa gave you after the picture was snapped. You might wonder where these Santas come from and who sends them out into the world. We spoke with David Mickelson, VP of Arthur and Associates, a leading Seattle Santa company, to get the inside scoop on Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. Settle in with some milk and cookies and read on to find out how this company spreads Christmas cheer.
Jolly Old Saint Nicholas
Santa Claus is one of the world's most recognized figures. Regardless of your age and religious beliefs, you likely know that the man in the red suit with the white beard is one of the most important players in the holiday season. After Thanksgiving, when hoards of Santas flood the public, smiling for pictures in malls and ringing bells on street corners, you might wonder where these Santas come from.
The Pictures with Santa tradition began in Seattle in 1943, when Art French, a local photographer, opened a storefront photography studio in a Frederick and Nelson department store. French is known as being the first photographer to photograph a child sitting on Santa's lap. For the last 30 years, Arthur and Associates has run a successful business in Santa and Easter Bunny photography in the Pacific Northwest.
"This business is much more than just snapping photos. We are about creating an experience that is special and magical for families," Mickelson explains. "We work hard to develop a relationship, even for just five minutes, and we believe that shows in our photography," he says.
Pictures with Santa is a tradition that features prominently in the holiday celebrations of many families. Because this tradition is so important to so many, Arthur and Associates (A&A) takes their business very seriously. From upgrading their equipment every season to finding the perfect people to portray the "Santa character", A&A prides themselves on creating the perfect holiday memory for each family who enters Santa's workshop.
Here Comes Santa Claus
Who are the Santa characters A&A sends out into Seattle and the surrounding areas? "Most of the Santas are fully retired. Many do this because they love doing it; we have a lot of retired teachers who miss being with children. And spending time with children is a large part of why this job is so fun," says Mickelson.
Being a Santa is a seasonal gig, usually lasting between eight to 10 weeks. Many of A&A Santas return every year. What kind of person makes the best Santa? "You want the personality to match the occasion: smiling, happy,
cheerful," explains Mickelson. "We have 40-50 characters who can fill the role of Santa. The vast majority are natural bearded gentleman. Some argue that the full, high-quality theatrical beard is preferred but most people like santa with a real beard."
Preserving the Magic
Discretion is a huge part of what A&A does. There is extensive training involved with being a Santa. You have to preserve the magic of the holidays, Mickelson stresses. "There’s
only one real Santa; you can crush a child’s imagination by having two santas in
one place. I saw a newspaper photo with 4 santas and wondered how, 'Can you
dare do that,'" he says.
Santa needs to be prepared for anything, though the most important thing? "Santa must NOT promise anything," cautions Mickelson. "Kids have no filter for what they ask Santa to bring them. 'Why can’t my dad get a job, why did Mom die, etc.' The key there is to focus on the fact that Santa loves them, wants the best for them — and while he can't promise everything, he can promise to love you," says Mickelson.
And what about the children who are teetering on the edge of belief? "The mystery and the fantasy and the magical nature of Christmas and Santa Claus allows for there to be some fun. 'How do you get through the chimney, stop time, do it all in one night.' Santa has freedom for how he chooses to answer. We just try to train them for the most common questions," finishes Mickelson.
Spreading Christmas Cheer
Are you interested in being a Santa or one of his elves? I asked Dave when interested applicants should start to apply. "For
helpers, we start seeing applications in September and October. We like to get
things settled in the first half of October, giving us time to plan, assemble handbooks, and schedule training
meetings. You should apply towards the end of summer and early fall," he says.The company meets with each Santa individually. Most Santas seek out the job, though Dave said he's not above asking a complete stranger with the right beard if he is interested in the role.
Mickelson loves what he does. To bring Santa to children, to be part of so many families' holiday traditions makes him feel like he's accomplishing something great. "You
are creating and fostering the magic of Christmas and of Santa Claus. You can see the joy and magic in the faces of the children and parents. It’s a feel-good business."
And it's a business with generations of repeat customers, up to four generations of families getting their pictures taken.
remember lying on the floor under the Christmas tree, staring into shiny bulbs
that were mirror like, dreaming of Santa and… you don’t forget those feelings," sighs Mickelson. "Maybe I’m a big cheeseball but I don’t forget those feelings. Hopefully we
create something similar for families."
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(Photo courtesy of Arthur and Associates, www.santaphotos.com)