Tim Connaghan has been dressing up as Santa since the Nixon years — and now spends most of his time coaching hopeful amateurs on how to go pro. Through his traveling seminars at the International University of Santa Claus, Connaghan has graduated more than 1,900 Santas, and is considered the top authority on Santa Inc., from proper fashion and hygiene to how to answer kids’ tricky questions. With Santas at peak deployment this week, Mindflash called up Connaghan to explain more about his training regimen, career tips, and how to know when a Santa in training just doesn’t have the right stuff.
How did you get into the business?
I’ve been a Santa since 1970, starting in college for three years at a Bullock’s, a department store in Lakewood, California. The next 30 or so years I worked as a professional fundraiser, but I continued to dress up for family and friends. Then when I retired I decided to become a full-time Santa and Santa trainer.
How did you make the transition to pro trainer?
I started growing a beard and wrote a book on my Santa experiences, along with interviews with other Santas. Then I started a Santa training program called the International University of Santa Claus.
What were the first training sessions like?
In 2003, a Santa friend of mine asked me to write few chapters on the work of Santa for a book he was writing. It was then I realized there wasn’t a whole lot out there on the topic. I rented a classroom to lead a training session for a day. It was very well received,about 60 people attended, then I got a call from someone in Atlanta who heard about the training and wanted me to teach a group there too. Since then, I’ve done trainings every summer in about 10 cities across the U.S. with somewhere between 20 to 50 people at each. I also started Santa cruises every summer, which include a training session while we are at sea. We’ve been to Alaska, the Caribbean and this year we are going to Europe for the World Congress of Santa Claus in Copenhagen.
It sounds like that first session led to travel opportunities?
Yeah, most Santas can’t afford to travel across the country to attend training, so I travel to them – I go where the Santas are.
How much does your training course cost — and what can an entry-level Santa expect to make after they’ve completed it?
The two-day course is $239. As far as pay is concerned, there are three different types. First is volunteers — the most wonderful, warm-fuzzy thing you can do. Next is the guys who do malls who typically make $8,000 to 12,000 each season, depending on where they are located and what their schedule is. Then there are the event Santas, who do evening or weekend parties and generally make $100 to 175 for a one hour party. They can be paid a little more if they do special things, like singing or magic tricks.
Do you have any DIY training materials for people who can’t attend the sessions?
Over the last few years I took the first hour of my training and did a Ustream video so people anywhere can watch it online. I also recorded all 16 hours of my two-day training course and created a DVD. It shows video of my training and the PowerPoint presentation at the same time. Usually once someone gets the DVD, they decide they want to attend an in-person training too. I’ve also thought about doing an online training in the future.
What do you consider the top three requirements of the job?
First is the appearance. You have to be clean and neat — get a suit that is not too baggy and keep your whole appearance high quality. You can’t have a beard that smells like 16,000 people have worn it. Next, you will have a lot of bosses when you’re on the job as Santa – the children, their parents, the photographers, and the person who hired you, all looking for you to serve a different purpose. What it all comes down to is that your number one priority is the children. Finally, you’re going to get a lot of difficult questions from children. You can’t promise them anything, but at the same time you never want to tell them no. Always let them know that Santa loves them and change the subject, ask what they want for Christmas.
What are some telltale signs that someone just doesn't have what it takes?
Some people decide to be Santa for the money and come to my school, but then do things like curse every three or four words, which means they need to learn to change or that they just aren’t cut out for it. When you’re Santa it’s got to be in your heart, believe me, you can’t turn it on or off. People also change over time, so some have decided to retake the training every few years to really ingrain the material. I’ve had people come up to four times over the years.
>>See related post: What it Takes to be a Mall Santa.