The beard is real: 10 things you didn’t know about being a professional Santa

We talked to three Atlanta Santas about what it’s really like—from stiff competition to how much that suit costs

We all know Santa makes his list and checks it twice, but being a professional Santa is about more than just asking children what they want for Christmas. For starters, the beard, suit, and attitude need to be real. We spoke to three local Kris Kringles about 10 unexpected parts of their job. 

The Real Black Santa
D. Sinclair, aka the Real Black Santa

Photograph courtesy of The Real Black Santa

Meet the Santas:
16 years ago, D. Sinclair, 53, was at an insurance license renewal course taught by a mall Santa. Black Santas were in demand, according to the teacher, so Sinclair started growing out his beard that May and looking for gigs. Now he’s one of a dozen or so black Santas in the country and runs his own company, the Real Black Santa.

Rick Rosenthal has been donning the red suit since 1968, most recently at the Westside Provisions District. He claims to be hundreds of years old and given his longevity in this ever-shifting business, he might as well be.

Tom Olson Ponce City Market Santa
Tom Olson

Photograph courtesy of Jamestown

Tom Olson, 75, has always loved the holiday season but never intended to be Santa until a five-year-old girl spotted him at a mall several years ago. “She stopped in her tracks, looked at me, and whispered to her mother, ‘Is that Santa?’” Olson says. “Her mother invited me to speak with them, so I started talking to her about Christmas and all the fun I had with my reindeer.” He’s been Santa for seven years since. Today he works at Ponce City Market.

1. The suit is an investment. A cheap suit starts at $100, but most quality get-ups cost at least $600. If it’s custom, be prepared to pay. “I have spent thousands on my Santa wardrobe,” says Rosenthal. And that’s before the boots and bells.

2. The beard is the real deal. All three Father Christmases sport their whiskers year-round, but Olson doesn’t start growing his out until July. “Kids want to pull it and see if it’s real, so it needs to be real,” Sinclair says.

3. It’s hard to keep a regular job when you’re Santa. Taking two months off a year doesn’t work with most schedules, and the look can be considered unprofessional. “A lot of companies don’t want to hire a guy with big beard,” Sinclair says. That’s why many St. Nicks are self-employed. Olson is a credit card processing specialist who also runs a personal car service. Sinclair used to work in marketing but now drives Uber.

4. It’s a year-round industry. Rosenthal runs a Santa school, Northern Lights Santa Academy, which offers fall and spring classes on history, getting in shape for the season, and character development.

5. The business is as competitive as any other. “There’s a lot of infighting in the Santa world because everyone wants to be the number one Santa,” Sinclair says. “I try to stay away from that. It’s about the kids.”

6. The mall isn’t where the money is anymore. “Malls are going way of dodo now that people are ordering everything online,” says Sinclair, who hasn’t worked in a mall since 2013. Now he does private and corporate events for places like Cox and Metro PCS. The new setting lets him do more than a rushed photo opp, but offer cookies and milk, crafts, or magic tricks.

7. It can be a lucrative side hustle. For two months of work, Sinclair can net $28,000.

8. Santa’s list is getting more high tech every year. Sinclair says requests have gone from Pokémon cards to iPads. “Every so often, I get one kid who just wants some books, and when that happens, it’s heaven,” he says.

9. The chair is sometimes a therapist’s couch. “People inherently trust Santa, and they will share things with Santa that they don’t share with other people,” says Rosenthal. “It can be heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking.”

10. The kids are the most important thing. “It is an enormous responsibility to be Santa, but it comes with enormous rewards,” Rosenthal says. “As Santa, you will cry and laugh every season from the experiences you have with both children and adults.” Olson agrees. “I enjoy being Santa because I love children, Christmas, and it is the happiest time of year.”