Not everyone can play Santa Claus for a living.
Sure, anyone can don a Santa hat, beard, and suit and invite parents to plop kids on their lap.
But to play a convincing Santa Claus that kids will forever cherish, and to make a living at it, you must become Santa Claus — and that process takes a lot of work.
For Jim Manning, a full-time children’s entertainer who has played Santa Jim in the Boston area for 13 years, learning how to become the perfect Father Christmas meant attending a couple of Santa Claus schools, picking up tricks of the trade from other Santas, and learning the nuances of the job through trial and error.
When he’s not making appearances at holiday parties dressed as the man in red or the guest of honour at the City of Boston Tree Lighting celebration, he keeps his skills sharp 11 months of the year as “Jungle Jim” of Jungle Jim’s of Boston.
This professional Santa understands the value of a top-notch beard — no straggly, wispy nonsense or anything that could easily get pulled off — and knows that keeping kids happy requires getting on their level.
And perhaps most importantly, to truly transform yourself into the magical elf, Manning tells Business Insider that you have to really love kids — and believe that it’s your job to be a beacon of hope and joy to them no matter what.
Below, Manning shares his personal journey of being a professional Santa Claus:
What exactly does a pro Santa do?
I've been a professional private-events Santa Claus for 13 years. Generally, there are two kinds of Santas -- mall Santas and private-event Santas. Mall Santas tend to be older gentlemen -- you get to sit in the mall, you might get the photo, and that's that.
But mostly what I do is corporate and private events. I'm the official Santa Claus for the city of Boston's tree lighting, so I do the tree lighting on TV. I was on the cover of the Red Sox Christmas card this year. Most of my work is generally one-hour visits in people's homes, corporate office parties, and they will have kids there, and sometimes it's just adults.
And I'm a younger Santa -- I'm only 40 -- and I'm very high-energy, so I tend to put on a little bit of a show: The Night Before Christmas, and caroling, and magic. A lot of people think being Santa Claus means just showing up, sitting on the couch, and letting kids sit in your lap. But what I do is a lot more.
What does your busy season look like?
The busy season is December, Thanksgiving to Christmas. We start receiving calls and emails in August to book events. Some people will book from the year before. But the real majority of the requests start coming in October and November. And a lot of last-minute requests come in too. The real season starts to ramp up after Thanksgiving.
The first week of December is more promotional work -- a lot of photo shoots. I did a photo shoot for Legal Sea Foods, where they had me as Santa Claus taking photos of their clam chowder or their lobster. Drug stores, car dealerships -- they will bring me in to set the tone for the season and whatnot.
Then toward the middle of December, that's when I start getting into more corporate parties, private parties. And then as we get closer to Christmas Eve, the majority of my events are parties in people's homes.
Christmas Eve is the busiest day. I'll do 10 appearances. This year, my first visit is at 11 a.m. and my last visit is scheduled for 9 p.m.
Most weekdays are two to three visits. Weekends are much busier. Sunday I did eight different visits. I'll have five or six days off somewhere in between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
How does it compare to what you do for the rest of the year?
December is the busiest month for my business. We will bring in about 30% of our income for Santa Boston/Jungle Jim's, my children's-entertainment business, during this time. For the rest of the year I'm doing balloon magic shows as Jungle Jim.
During the summer, as Jungle Jim, I'll do 150 performances, most in libraries.
The good thing about being Santa is I don't have as much prep work before an event. It takes me about a half-hour to get into the suit, but then I show up and I am Santa. Whereas with the magic shows and everything, they involve a lot of set up and prep work.
That being said, we devote a lot of man-hours in preparation for December. Pretty much October through December, I'd say 75% of our energy is devoted toward Santa Claus.
Describe Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve is the biggest day. I've got clients I've visited for 13 years now.
And everybody wants the same time -- they all want around 7 p.m. It's dark and the family's together and they have eaten, so that's the most popular time.
It's first come, first served, with preference given to my older clients.
I get as good a night's sleep as I can. For my 11 a.m. visit, I'll be leaving around 9:30. Christmas Eve visits are a little different. Most of my visits are usually about an hour. On Christmas Eve I only do 30-minute visits.
And I follow a kind of map and everybody's locked in. My visits are in and around Boston, and it takes me from the South Shore of Boston up to the North Shore and around.
When I get to the houses, I obviously bring presents in. One funny thing is, people actually think I'm a magic elf. I have the capacity to carry about 50 pounds, and I will get to places and they will have four bags and 200 pounds of presents. I'm like, I can't physically carry this many presents in.
Each visit I do a reading of 'The Night Before Christmas,' I do a little caroling, I do a little bit of magic. Then, of course, kids get to sit with me, take a photo, tell me what they want for Christmas (though it's Christmas Eve, so hopefully they have gotten me their list by then). And then I hand out presents.
It's fun. It's Christmas Eve. There's nothing better than a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve who's flipping out because Santa's visited her house.
How did you get into this?
In 2004, I started my company, Jungle Jim's. I'm a full-time children entertainer, so mostly I do balloon magic shows in libraries and schools. That first year a client asked me if I played Santa Claus. I had played Santa Claus once before, for a family friend, and it was a lot of fun -- and I said, 'Oh yeah.' Of course I didn't at that point. So I went on Craigslist and bought my first suit. They hired me, and then a few other people hired me, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh -- this is great!'
So I started getting really into it. Over the years I've added a lot more to the suit, from handmade belts to the wig and beard I have, which are from Switzerland and cost $750. It's definitely evolved. That year I grabbed the domain name SantaBoston.com, and that's really been what's sent a lot of the Santa Claus traffic to me.
How do you get clients?
The website presence has been important, and I've added social-media presence over the years. I'm now seeing direct social-media results -- people see me on Instagram and they're hiring me from that. But the website is still the No. 1 way people contact me.
And having a mobile-friendly website has been huge. My website wasn't mobile-friendly until about three years ago. Now about 78% of people look at my website on their phones or their iPads.
The content that goes on the website is important, too. There are a lot of Santa Clauses who have websites, and fortunately I've had a lot of them helping me in terms of what the site needs.
People want to see ... Do you look good as Santa? Do you seem trustworthy? And what are your prices? And you don't put your prices on your website, because that's just not something you do. But people want all that information, and they want it quickly, and they're going to decide whether to reach out to you from that.
What's the market like for a freelance Santa, and how does the job compare to a mall Santa?
I'm fortunate to be in the Boston market. It's an older area where there are a lot of kids, and there's this history of Santa Claus here. Like, Santa Claus has always lit the tree on the Boston Commons.
I don't know what other areas are like, although I talked to a great Santa Claus in Dallas and he keeps just as busy. But I like the market I'm in because I get to go all over New England. The majority of my events are within 25 miles of Boston, but it's a big market.
I like being a private-events Santa. I like the events themselves. For me it fits -- I'm high-energy and I really like putting on a show.
For mall Santas, there are advantages and disadvantages. No. 1, steady paycheck. No. 2, it starts the day after Halloween, so those guys are getting paid for eight weeks of work. You know where you're going to be, and you really just need to sit.
Malls tend to favour real-bearded Santas. I'm a designer-bearded Santa. And you'll notice I didn't say fake beard. I try not to take it too seriously, but I have a really beautiful beard. Not every Santa's real beard looks as good as the Santa in 'Miracle on 34th Street,' for example.
A little secret about mall Santas: They never stay in their area. Like the Burlington Massachusetts Santa -- he comes from Georgia. Another Santa from Boston goes out to Minnesota. The Cambridge Santa comes from Ohio. So they never like the Santas to be where they're from, because they don't want people recognising them, which makes perfect sense. But it can be very isolating to be a mall Santa. Also, I don't want to sit for 12 hours. Again, I'm a little younger -- maybe when I'm older that's what I'll want. But to me sitting for 12 hours, even with plenty of breaks, is not the ideal.
And I feel like I'm the Boston Santa. I walk down the street in full Santa, and everybody's honking and waving. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the attention and I enjoy playing that character. But for me the private events are more interesting. I get to do wedding proposals, which is really fun! The best is when the guy hands me the ring -- they will have me carry it in in my bag -- and they realise they're handing over a $10,000 ring to a stranger they have never met. One guy insisted on keeping my driver's licence. I'm like, 'I'm not stealing your ring, buddy!''
One place even flew me in by helicopter. I've ridden in fire trucks, horse and buggies, and of course the requisite reindeer -- very irritable animals, and they spit, just an FYI.
How's the pay?
Santa Claus prices range all over the place. I charge $499 for a visit, and I do upwards of 80 visits during the season. I'm on the very high end of what Santas charge. The majority of the guys charge half of that or less, which to me is disappointing -- I don't think they're charging what they're worth. But you get what you pay for.
I do get tips, but I don't really worry about the tips because I charge a price appropriate for me. It's very nice when I get a tip, but it's also very nice when people send me a thank-you note saying how great the experience was.
I've also got a lot of my own costs. This isn't a part-time thing for me -- this is my full-time gig. So I have an operations manager, and a lot of money goes into advertising and promotions.
I spend over a hundred dollars on gloves every year. My dry-cleaning bills are pretty expensive.
The gloves I wear are band gloves that have little grips on them. Why do they have grips on them? Because when I'm turning the pages of 'The Night Before Christmas' I don't have to fumble around. To me, details like this are super important.
The wigs and beards and mustaches? A friend of mine imports them from Switzerland. One wig, beard, mustache set costs me about $750, and I have five of them, which I've built up over the course of a few years.
The belt cost me $400 -- that was handmade from a leather maker in Montana, which a big, gold-brass buckle.
I spend over $300 a year on dry cleaning with all my suits. I've got five suits that I keep in regular rotation. So pretty much as soon as I wear a suit I'm dropping it off at the dry cleaners and I'm keeping them on a constant rotation because I want to look as fresh as possible.
Driving-wise, this year I'm driving 75 hours, probably over 3,000 miles. So there's gas, tolls, and so forth.
Then there's food. Normally I cook for myself and my wife, but I don't have time for the month of December, so I end up eating out a lot, doing take-out. I tried finding a meal-delivery service. But at the end of the day, it's a lot of grab-and-go.
I love talking about Santa. To me, it's the most interesting job in the world -- I get to be Santa Claus!
Where does your love of Santa and Christmas come from?
When I was a kid, Christmas was the greatest thing. My mum went all out decorating the house. The 'Chipmunks Christmas' record -- that's the indelible mark in my childhood memories of the Chipmunks playing, and the scratchy record, and decorating the tree, and people coming over, and Santa. When I was a kid, meeting Santa Claus was the best. You know, I grew up Catholic, so Santa was only a couple of pegs below God. He brought you presents and he was all full of joy. So Christmas played a very special part in my life.
To me, Santa Claus is so important. He brings toys, but it's bigger than that. Santa Claus reminds us to be kind to one another, he reminds us that it's love -- that's the important thing, that we're showing love for each other and for our family and friends.
Being Santa Claus, it gets me to share that joy of the season with all the people I interact with. When I go to a corporate part, they're hiring me to interact with everybody. But I don't just interact with the guests. I interact with the busboy and the valet and the random person who's sitting at the bar. I'm Santa for everybody, and it's very important that they know they're loved.
I just love it -- I love it! I've got just a few more days to go, and I'm kind of sad that it's almost done, though I am exhausted, too.
What do you do if a kid starts crying?
So the ages go like this:
Zero to 6 months, they're fine sitting with Santa. Babies might cry, but that has nothing to do with me. And those are the great, cute pictures.
Once they get to about eight months to about 2 1/2 years old, they don't want to see Santa. I'd say about 80% of the time, they will be upset or cry or whatnot. There are different techniques to use here. I try to encourage the parents not to force the child to sit on my lap. To me, the 2-year-old who won't get near me one year, if he has a positive experience with me, next year will hop right up on my lap.
Age 3, generally I'm pretty good at coaxing them to have a visit with Santa. Again, you don't have to sit on my knee -- you can sit to the side, we can both sit on the ground -- the most important thing is to keep the kids at their comfort level. And it's hard. Sometimes the parents really want that photo, but I strongly encourage parents not to force their kids to sit on Santa's lap. I think the most important thing is that they have a positive experience with Santa Claus.
And then the golden age is 4, 5, and 6. That's the age where they're super excited, they know who I am, they know what I do, and they're really glad to see Santa.
Once they get to 7 or 8, that's when they start to doubt whether or not I'm real, and I try to stay on their level.
One thing I do, especially with the older kids, I'll say, 'Instead of you sitting on my lap, let's stand back to back with our arms folded' -- I learned this at one of my Santa Claus schools. And it's great because it's this fun photo. Thirteen-year-old girls want nothing to do with me, so I say, 'Do you want a selfie?' or 'Do you want to put this on Snapchat?' The most important thing is that they have a positive experience with me, whatever that positive experience is.
What do you tell kids who don't believe?
Every year I meet some Jewish children, and they say, 'Santa Claus, I'm not Christian -- I'm Jewish.' And I say, 'Well, you know, I'm Santa Claus for everybody,' and then we sing the 'Dreidel' song.
The important thing is, you don't have to believe in me. My job is to bring joy. My job isn't to force them to believe with proof or anything like that.
Sometimes kids will come up and say, 'You're different from the other Santa Claus I saw,' and I'll say, 'Well, that was one of my helpers,' which is something I encourage all Santas to do. You're the real Santa, and everybody else is your helper, so as to not cause confusion.
It's really a case-by-case basis, but I try to stay on the kids' level as much as I can.
Do kids try to test you by pulling on your beard?
My beard is tied on in three different spots. It's really beautiful, and children under the age of 8 have a tough time distinguishing between my beard and a real beard. That being said, if someone wants to tug on the beard, they're very welcome to. If children do tug on it, which happens once every two or three visits, I give a little wince as if it actually hurts. It stays in place, and that's enough to seal the deal.
What are the most common things kids request from you?
It comes down to the age. If they're 3 years old, they're still grasping the concept of Santa Claus, so I steer them toward what kids that age usually like. If a little girl comes up with a 'Frozen' T-shirt, I'll ask, 'Who do you like better, Elsa or Anna?'
Once you get to the 5- and 6-year-olds, they're a little bit more specific. 'Star Wars' Legos are super popular with the boys this season. Pokémon cards are another thing that are popular with both boys and girls. The girls love the American Girl dolls. If they have an American Girl doll they ask for accessories. And I've gotten familiar with it, so I'll ask, 'Oh, are you looking for the kitchen set, or are you looking for one of the rockers?'
And of course video games tend to be very popular, too.
I never commit to any presents. You could have a child grab me by the shoulder and ask, 'Santa, will you bring me an X-box?' And I will say, 'We will see what we can do.' Because even if a parent is whispering in my ear 'We will definitely get them that toy,' I don't know that they're going to find it in the store, and I don't know that they're going to deliver. So I never commit to any single present.
I also get asked about pets a lot -- 'Can I have a puppy?' 'Can I have a kitty?' -- and I explain that, because it gets so cold on the sleigh, I don't bring animals with me. And that's a decision to make with Mummy and Daddy.
What's the weirdest thing a kid's asked for?
I get asked for all sorts of things. I had this little girl ask me for a unicorn that's playing an accordion while it eats spaghetti. Where did she come up with this?
What are some of the most common questions kids ask?
They always want to know about the reindeer, specifically Rudolph. They want to know if they're on the 'nice' list. Later in the season they will cross-reference seeing me -- 'Hey, do you remember when I saw you a couple of weeks ago' -- and I'll say 'Oh, yes!'
Children are often asking how I visit all those houses, how I determine who's on the nice list. And they always want to see my sleigh when I visit houses. I explain that I don't want to tire the reindeer out, so they're waiting for me at Logan Airport.
I took improv classes a couple of years ago, and one big thing you learn in improvisation is 'Yes, and.' So when I ask the kids, 'What's the name of my favourite reindeer?' and they say 'Bob!' I say, 'Yes, Bob is one of my favourite reindeer, and Rudolph.' I always try to answer in the affirmative, and a lot of it's listening to what the kids are saying.
What's a common misconception about the job?
Most people think you throw on a wig and a beard, you show up, you sit down, you do a couple of 'ho, ho, hos,' and then the kids come over and take a photo, you pass out presents, and that's that. For some guys, that is what they do, which is disappointing.
There's so much misconception about what goes into it. It takes me a half-hour to get into my suit. I'm wearing boots, special pants. I've got a cooling vest, which law-enforcement officers use to stay cool, because I'm playing Santa Claus for upwards of 10 hours. I've got the fat suit. I've got the belt, the wig, the beard. My eyebrows are painted. There's so much that goes into being Santa. I practice my 'ho, ho, hos.' I work on my character. I study videos. I watch the movies.
I think a misconception is that it's not a real job. And again, for some people it's not. But for me it's a very real thing.
Another misconception is that I'm an inanimate object. A lot of times parents will try to angle for the perfect photo, which I totally get. But they treat me as if I'm a statue, whereas I'm actually a really important tool to help you get that kid's photo.
I don't drink on duty. But I'll get to events and they will offer me something and the answer is no, because Santa's there to do a job. The age-old cliché of Santa stumbling out of a bar -- that's the antithesis of what I'm trying to do.
The other misconception is that I'm wearing a costume. The Easter Bunny wears a costume. Batman wears a costume. Santa wears a suit. And the reason there's a big difference is that, Santa is a magical, jolly elf, but he's also everybody's kind grandfather who happens to have thousands of elves who make toys. So it's not a costume -- it's a suit. It's a subtle difference, but it's very important.
What does it take to be Santa?
Anybody can put on a suit and become Santa, but most people shouldn't be Santa. You have to have a disposition for it, and you have to love kids. Not just the cute 4-year-olds who sit on your lap and give you a big smile, but you have to love the kid who's 2 years old and screaming and Mum looks like she's about to go nuts. You still have to love them and make sure they have a good experience.
You have to be a performer. Santa Claus puts on a show.
I've attended two different Santa Claus schools, and those were really good. But a lot of the education just comes from being Santa Claus.
Being a full-time children's entertainer, I know how to relate to kids year-round, and there are a lot of important child-management skills you learn there.
And then I like watching 'Miracle on 34th Street,' 'The Santa Claus' one and two. There are some good movies out there. Obviously not 'Bad Santa' -- that would not be a role model for Santa.
And a lot of it comes down to thinking, 'If I'm 6 years old, what would Santa be like?' And that's the character I try to portray.
Is it hard to keep up the jolly demeanour all the time?
There are definitely moments where I don't feel like I want to be as jolly. But it all comes down to playing a character. And Santa Claus would not get upset.
Ultimately, no, it's not hard, because I take it seriously and I've practiced it over the years, and I know why I do what I do. It's not hard for me, but it would be hard for most.
You also have to take care of yourself. I get a lot of rest. I'm drinking six to seven litres of water a day. I'm eating a balanced meal if I can.
And just remembering what a privilege it is to be Santa Claus allows me to keep it calm even when that mum is trying to force her child on your lap, even when you're at a party of all adults where alcohol is being served and folks start to get a little grabby with Santa Claus.
What is the weirdest thing that you've ever experienced on the job?
A couple of years ago, this little guy in a three-piece suit came up to me -- he couldn't have been more than 5 years old -- and I asked him what he'd like for Christmas. He said, 'Here, it's on my list Santa Claus,' as he hands me his Christmas list. I say, 'OK, well, what's No. 1 on your list,' and he says, 'Just read the list, Santa. I know you're going to take good care of me.'
I got home, I opened up his list, and there was a $5 bill taped to the list. He bribed Santa Claus! And I couldn't believe it. He was so confident. I felt like I was on the set of 'Goodfellas' or something.
What are annoying things you wish customers would stop doing? And what advice would you offer parents?
With the exception of very, very few really challenging kids, the kids are never usually the tough part. The tough part is often the parents.
Some parents treat me like an inanimate object, especially when their child is scared and they say, 'Oh, don't you want to sit with Santa?' The fact that you're ignoring me doesn't help. The mums who talk to me and then talk to their child, their child is 10 times more likely to visit with me than a mum who treats me as an inanimate object and shoves them on my lap.
Parents are also often so determined to get the photo that they miss the moment. Especially when a child's 3 or 4, those moments are gold. Give the phone or camera to somebody else and just watch your child. It's pretty darn sweet when they go from being scared of Santa to visiting with me to maybe even sitting on my knee.
And I can't tell you how many times I've coaxed that child up to visit with me, and they're just about to sit on my lap on their own when Mum or Dad swoops in and says, 'Take the picture. Other people are waiting.' Other people can wait. And now the child starts crying and fighting me and it's just all sorts of bad.
I'll read 'The Night Before Christmas' and the kids are all listening, and the parents are all talking so loud that the kids can't hear the story. Seriously guys? For five minutes go play on your phones in the other room if you don't want be present for this.
Sometimes people feel it's appropriate to put their hands on Santa Claus -- it's not. If you want to ask me if you can tug my beard you're very welcome to do so. If you're trying to do something that Mrs. Claus wouldn't like, then go visit another Santa who's OK with that kind of thing.
What are the best gigs to do as a Santa, and what are the hardest?
The best gigs involve smaller groups of children where I have plenty of time to spend with them. Yesterday I visited a 6-year old who broke his arm. He was sad and his aunt asked me to visit him. He was a little intimidated (Santa was in his living room, after all), but he had plenty of time to warm up to me. I like to have as much time as possible with the children.
Meeting children with illnesses is difficult, but it's also a privilege. I try to have as much of a professional detachment as possible and treat them as I would any other child. In my experience the last thing they want to focus on is their illness or ailment. So I focus on toys and sports and movies and whatever else they want to talk about.
The hardest gigs are when families have had a recent loss. Children will sometimes ask me to bring back a deceased relative or pet, and I have to explain that there's limits to what even I can do as Santa. I remind them that their loved ones are looking down on them from heaven, and that their family and friends are here for them as well.
And of course I do meet Grinches in this job, but they're not the norm. Often when people don't like Santa Claus it has something to do with their past experiences. I just try to give them as pleasant an experience as I can.
What has the job taught you?
Being Santa Claus has taught me the real spirit of Christmas, and it's not what you think it might be. Kids are always super excited about toys, but it's more than that. There is so much love at my visits. Families and friends come together, and everyone is excited. Children sense that, and it's a big part of their excitement this time of the year. I witness so much enthusiasm and joy. I get to be a part of people's memories, and that's not something I take lightly.
This job has also taught me that it's much easier to cross the street in downtown Boston dressed as Santa Claus than not -- no one wants to hit St. Nick in the crosswalk.
What is your most memorable moment on the job?
It's hard to pick one: helping two gentlemen propose to their future wives and being there for that incredibly special moment. The first time I ran on stage to light the Christmas tree on the Boston Common and had thousands of people cheering my arrival. Or holding a child on my lap who'd been battling cancer and trying to keep my emotions in check.
The holidays can be a tough time of year for people, and this year has been especially trying for many. What's your message to people reading this?
At the end of the day, with everything going on, I still see the same love and joy at my visits. Kids are excited to see Santa. Parents are excited for the happiness in their children's eyes. Our job on this planet is to fill the darkness with as much light as we can. Santa Claus is a facilitator of that light. He represents the best in all of us. We need to lean on each other even more so now. It still comes down to loving each other as much as we can.
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