Being Santa: 7 men share tales from behind the red suit

Story highlights

  • Being Santa means being part of a special fraternity and magical, storied tradition
  • It also can mean wet infants, screaming toddlers and drunken women demanding sex
  • Whether its a full-on career or a seasonal gig, professional Santas all have stories
  • Men from around the country share what inspired them and tales from behind their red suits
For at least one, it became a star-studded lifestyle, replete with million-dollar jewels, agents and a beard insured for six figures. For some it was a calling, heard as early as age 4 or inherited from elders. For others it began for kicks, a one-time silly gig they got roped into and then loved.
The men who professionally put on the red suit are part of a special fraternity. They usher in a season, spreading cheer and appearing in family photos. They inspire magical thinking, offer hope and keep innocence alive. They stand, bellies out, as proud representatives of a storied tradition.
And while their work is usually jolly and sometimes moving, it comes with its challenges -- wet infants, tantrum-throwing toddlers and drunken women demanding sex, to name a few.
But there are also unexpected questions and impossible-to-meet wish lists. A little boy, for example, asked one Santa if he had a penis. Many children ask Santa to bring back dead grandparents or pets. Others offer lists the length of Santa's arm that include pricey items like iPads, and Santa's job is to manage expectations. Santa also must protect his reputation and the concerns of parents, which is one reason many veterans teach that a Santa must show his hands at all times.
Atop parade floats, in malls or at children's hospitals, they represent one idolized, universally adored character -- so they keep their personal stories to themselves. But these Santas have plenty to say when they're not working. CNN interviewed Santas from north, south, east and west to bring you tales from behind the red suit.
The informer
Not many people answer the phone while washing yak-hair beards, mustaches and wigs. But Phillip Wenz, who rotates through eight of these $1,500 combos, does. For this year-round Santa, who's never had another career, hair-accessory hygiene is just part of the job.
Wenz, 49, was only 4 when he first put on a makeshift red suit, snuck out of the house, strolled into an unsuspecting neighbor's home and, reaching into a pillow case, began passing out candy canes. The shtick stuck. That year, and in the 24 years that followed, he made rounds at the small rural Illinois hospitals where his father worked as CEO. By fifth grade, he was bringing cheer to preschools and nursing homes. At 14, he was in his first parade, and two years later he wrote a term paper about his Santa-life ambitions. He got a D.
Starting at 4, Phillip Wenz knew he wanted to be Santa. He's living his dream.
Now, 200 days a year, he's living the dream. Heck, he's the only living member so far in the Santa Claus Hall of Fame. Take that, you D-giving teacher.
Beyond the parades, parties, media appearances, ad gigs and more, he's been THE Santa at Santa's Village theme park in East Dundee, Illinois. He's also worked as a consultant for St. Nicholas Development in the creation of Santa's Candy Castle in, where else, Santa Claus, Indiana -- "the Vatican" of Santadom, Wenz says. He penned the Santa Claus Oath and created a foundation to preserve Santa sanctity. He's the Santa others point to for history lessons.
He rattles off the names of giants and mentors who came before him -- legends like Jim Yellig, who was "the face of Santa Claus, Indiana, for 54 years" and helped Wenz on the term paper that earned him a D. And one can't forget Charles W. Howard, the longtime Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade fixture and founder of the first Santa school. Or, Don Goers, who inspired Wenz when he sat upon the man's knee in 1966.
He gives quick tutorials on Santa's jolly journey, which dates back centuries to the giving spirit of St. Nicholas of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). St. Nicholas entered popular culture in the 1800s, appearing, for example, in the still-popular poem "The Night before Christmas." Santa as a live character began making appearances some 170 years ago.
Wenz says it was in 1841 in Philadelphia that Santa reportedly made his first visit to a dry goods store. In 1887, the first Santa Claus Parade wound through Peoria, Illinois. In 1890, Santa plopped down for visitors in a Brockton, Massachusetts, department store.
Next to Wenz's home in Crescent City, Illinois, a 2,200-square-foot building houses Santa-related research materials, props and memorabilia.
The dedication to his career has come with sacrifice. He's only shared Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with his daughter Holly (yes, Holly -- who's married to-- brace yourself -- a Nicholas) five times in 23 years.
Wenz says there have probably been only four men with full-time careers in his field "in the history of Santa Clauses." CNN's calls to the North Pole to confirm this were not returned.
The copyrighted one
What do Elizabeth Taylor, John Travolta and Kim Kardashian have in common? They've all taken a seat in Brady White's lap.
But so, he says, have Eva Gabor, Courteney Cox, Barbra Streisand and countless others. Once, White had Charles Bronson on one knee and Pee Wee Herman on the other.
Such is life for the Santa to the Stars © -- please don't forget the copyright.
Brady White never imagined meeting Sylvester Stallone when he first, out of desperation, became Santa.
But his glamorous life (he was once featured on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous") isn't simply about appearing at chichi private parties and greeting stars and their children at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He counts among his longtime clients high-end retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Cartier.
It's for this reason that one of his agents might call, when he's at his second home in southern Italy, to tell him he's needed for a mountaintop catalog shoot in Colorado.
White, whose other home is in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, won't reveal his age or how much earns, but he does say, "People can work six months and not make what I make in four hours."
It wasn't always like this for him, and he doesn't forget where he came from. Mixed in with the money-making work, he dons the red suit for charities and children's hospitals.
White first entered the Santa game about three decades ago out of desperation. He was an unemployed actor in Los Angeles and nine months behind in his rent when he took a job as a mall Santa in Beverly Hills. That season the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner polled children to find the best Santa around. Guess who won?
The day after his win, two agents sought him out at the mall. Grow a real beard, they said, and he could make $5,000 an appearance. He stopped shaving almost immediately.
"The following July, I was standing in the Swiss Alps with a beautiful young lady wearing white chinchilla for an ad for Neiman Marcus," he says. "That photo made the inside cover of Vanity Fair. Literally, overnight, my life changed."
That beard is now insured for six figures. He has close to 60 Santa outfits -- including a dyed-red mink suit (which he admits has fallen out of favor), a gold sequin suit for Vegas and a black velvet version adorned with Swarovski crystals.
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