By Tiffany Hsu
The season of big-bellied, white-bearded old men is upon us, and there seems to be more of them this Christmas than ever before.
"Santa Claus is in high demand this year," said Holly Valent, registrar for the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Michigan.
Some 113 St. Nick wannabes enrolled this year, she said. More than 40 students are already registered for the 2013 classes.
The training helps prepare Santas for an evolving Christmas industry.
Although "99 percent of the mall business is still Santa in a chair posing for pictures," more Father Christmases are being dispatched to tree lightings, charity events and other venues, said Tim Connaghan, president of the holiday events planning company Kringle Group.
"Lifestyle Santas," who amble around sites to boost the holiday ambience, are also seeing a boost, he said. Stand-alone stores and chains such as Bass Pro Shops are carving out space in their budgets for resident Santas.
"Most Santas keep busy," said Connaghan, who is scheduled to teach a course in April for which dozens of people have already signed up.
Four years ago, that was hardly the holly, jolly case. Kringles watched opportunities shrivel as malls lost major anchor stores such as Circuit City and Mervyn's. Holiday parties were toned down or cut out entirely. Santa actors were forced to accept smaller fees. And as shopping centers tried to widen their customer base, catering to more adults, children's visiting hours with Mr. Claus dwindled.
But after years of sour economic news, a protracted political campaign and months of bleak "fiscal cliff" talk, consumers looking for a pick-me-up have begun to shrug off downturn fatigue.
Cue the Santa comeback.
Over the roughly 35-day season, mall Clauses can earn as much as $15,000, while independent contractors performing at homes and special events can score from $7,000 to $20,000, said Susen Mesco of American Events & Promotions, which runs the Professional Santa Claus School in Denver.
But being the figurehead of Christmas isn't cheap or easy.
Expenses include dry cleaning for custom-made costumes, membership fees for Santa associations, marketing costs, beard-bleaching and insurance. Those playing St. Nick also must clear background checks by clients and, for some jobs, screen potential helpers such as elves or Mrs. Claus.