The Santa Index 2014: Santa's job worth almost $140,000
Between tracking who's naughty and nice, refereeing reindeer games and running the world's largest toy factory, Santa has no time for salary negotiations.
So we're pleased to find that he's due another bump in pay this year.
According to the annual Insure.com Santa Index, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics wage data, St. Nick's salary should be $139,924 in 2014 -- up more than $2,000 from last year's estimated pay of $137,795.
Estimating how much it would cost to replace someone's income or the unpaid work he or she does for the family is a key step in determining how much life insurance to buy. Although Santa doesn't need any coverage – because he'll live forever -- we make the annual calculation anyway. We use a pre-set list of tasks and match them to occupations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, then calculate his total wages for the year. (See the full chart of tasks and wages below.)
Most of Santa's pay comes from his duties as industrial engineer managing the North Pole toy factory. At eight hours a day 364 days a year, that comes to $116,742. Other tasks, like cookie tasting and auditing -- including checking the list twice -- demand fewer hours.
How much should Santa get paid?
A recent survey commissioned by Insure.com found that of 1,000 adults only 16 percent think that a salary of about $140,000 is about right, saying Santa should earn between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. Most respondents fell into two groups with wide disagreement -- 29 percent said Santa should earn $1.8 billion a year (roughly $1 for every child under age 15 in the world) and 29 percent said he shouldn't earn anything at all. (Another 9 percent said over $200,000 a year, and 17 percent said under $100,000 a year.)
Given the holiday season, Santa was unavailable for comment at the North Pole, so we turned to "Santa" Bob Callahan, president of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, a trade group based in Garden Grove, Calif., and "Singin' Santa" Ric Erwin, the group's vice president.
As a historical figure, St. Nicholas was a philanthropist, Erwin points out. "Not only was he quite unconcerned with earning a salary, he was actively engaged in giving his wealth away." And as a folkloric figure, he'd have little use for a salary, Erwin says. "What would he spend it on -- and where?"
Stepping into his role playing Santa, Callahan says: "My needs are all met, and I have the best job in the world. A salary would not add to the joys in my life."
If being the actual Santa is the best job in the world, then portraying him is a close second.
"It's just so much fun when the kids come up and there's the magic of Christmas," Callahan says. "They believe in you, and they just adore you. It's absolutely amazing."
Neither Callahan nor Erwin set out to become professional Santas; it just kind of happened. Friends from a camping group asked Callahan to play Santa one year in the 1970s, and then he donned the suit again years later when he had grandkids. Pretty soon he was playing Santa for various groups, and requests for appearances grew. A retired machinist and supervisor in the aerospace industry, Callahan started doing professional Santa gigs in 2001.
Erwin, who says he has a computer science degree "older than the Internet," donned a red suit for the first time when his wife's work colleagues wanted a Santa to deliver donations during the holidays. Someone had an old Santa suit in an attic, and Erwin's wife quipped, "Well I know where there's a fat guy with nothing better to do on a Saturday morning!"
Recalls Erwin: "I had a mustache and beard, but they were too short and the wrong color, so I had to cover them with the costume wig and beard that came with the suit. I was horrible, but you'd never have thought so, from the way those kids responded . . . I was hooked!"
Malls, boardrooms and Hollywood studios
How much did Santa spend on your family in 2013?
How much SHOULD Santa spend on gifts for your family?
Although Santa at the North Pole may not earn a salary, professional Santas do.
Mall Santas in Southern California can make between $6,000 and $8,000 during the holiday season, Erwin says. "But doing so often requires them to work hundreds of hours."
Corporate, private or municipal events pay more per hour, but the events don't last as long as work shifts at the mall. Pay depends on the client list. Erwin says he typically earns between $8,000 and $10,000 for 60 to 90 hours of performing. He also does film work, but says with the time he spends traveling to auditions and call-backs, "Most years it seems I'm spending $1 for every two or three I earn."
Most professional Santas also do many appearances for free for charities.
Yes, the beard is real
Not everyone is cut out to be Santa.
"You have to love children, and you have to have a jolly face that smiles most of the time," Callahan says.
And that's not always easy.
"Not all the children are angels, so you have to be able to deal with spoiled kids and still be able to go, 'Ho, ho, ho,'" he says. "And you have to believe in your own heart because some kids will challenge you and say you aren't really Santa. You have to really believe in yourself that you are Santa."
Santa also has to maintain a merry smile when moms see his real beard and urge their little ones to test it out.
"It's so amazing how many moms say, 'Go ahead, he's really Santa. Pull his beard!'" Callahan says.
Says Erwin: "The factor that great Santas seem to have in common is their ability to appreciate the entire thing from the child's perspective -- from the hope and joy to the wonder and awe, from the fears of the youngest kids to the doubts of the older."
It also takes practice to get the “Ho-ho-ho” just right.
"You can't be too loud or you'll scare the heck out of a little kid," Callahan says. "But you have to be jovial and loud enough so they can hear you."
Secrets of the Santa trade
Although the heart is what matters most, aesthetic details count.
"Having admitted that my very first Santa appearance was with a 'designer' beard (as they're politely referred to in the industry), I can't dis them now," Erwin says.
But having a real beard is clearly important. He says organizations like the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas and others improve the quality of the holidays for everyone. Most real bearded Santas have their hair, beard, mustache and eyebrows bleached each holiday season. "I usually need four treatments in November and December," Erwin says.
A good outfit doesn't come cheap. This year Callahan upgraded to a new $850 suit, his fifth. The boots cost $400 and the belt was $280. Getting the right accessories isn't easy -- try finding a decent 5-inch-wide black belt.
The biggest challenge during the holiday season is scheduling, Callahan says. "You want to be sure you don't promise to be in two places at once."
The Santa Index 2014
|Santa's Job||BLS Occupation Title||Hours/ day||Days/ year||Hours/ Year||Mean hourly
|Running the workshop||
|Professional shopper||Sales and Related Workers, All Other||8||15||120||$16.50||$1,980|
|Wrapper of gifts||Packers and Packagers, Hand
|Labor negotiator (with the elves)||Labor Relations Specialists||0.5||365||182.5||$27.20||$4,964|
|Letter reader||Correspondence Clerks||1||100||100||$17.22||$1,722|
|Talking to kids in the mall||Customer Service Representatives||8||21||168||$16.04||$2,695|
|Investigator (knows if you've been good or bad)||Private Detectives and Investigators||1||30||30||$25.91||$777|
|List checker (checking it twice)||Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks||1||30||30||$17.91||$537|
|Taking care of reindeer||Farm Workers, Farm, Ranch, and Aquacultural Animals||1||365||365||$11.91||$4,347|
|Snow plow driver||Highway Maintenance Workers||0.5||360||180||$17.78||$3,200|
|Sleigh pilot||Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers||10||1||10||$62.31||$623|
|Chimney sweep||Building Cleaning Workers, All Other
|Cookie taster||Agricultural Inspectors
|Gift distributor||Shipping, Receiving, and Traffic Clerks||10||1||10||$14.93||$149|
|Announcer ("Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!")||Public Address System and Other Announcers||0.01||1||0.01||$18.60||$0|
|Total Santa salary for 2014: $139,924|
Consumer opinions are based on an online-panel survey commissioned by Insure.com of 895 adults who said that Santa visits their houses. The survey was fielded in September 2014. The Santa Index is based on a pre-set list of tasks and hours; tasks are then matched to occupations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to find the average wages.
More from Barbara Marquand here