I'm the healthy version of Santa

He's the real deal.

Professional Santa Claus Rob Hoffman boasts a long white beard, wire-rimmed glasses riding low on his nose, and a deep, bellowing "Ho! Ho! Ho!".

The 71-year-old hails from Maine, in the north-eastern region of the US, and has been as a store Santa every Christmas season for the past 10 years.

You could say the retired airline pilot fell into the job by accident.

"I stopped shaving, and my beard came out white. My friends started suggesting that I consider the role of Santa," says the grandfather of two, whose bright blue eyes crinkle when he grins.

Although there are schools around the world dedicated to training men how to walk, talk and sit like Santa, Mr Hoffman never attended one.

But he is sure of one thing: An authentic beard separates "real" Santas from the fakes.

"Tug on this, and it won't come off," he says, referring to his facial hair, which is white with a slight tinge of blonde.

In case you are wondering if his beard gets treated to a plethora of conditioners to keep it in tip-top shape, the answer is "no".

He beams with pride when this reporter asks about his get-up. While some Santas may put on sneakers or street shoes, this Santa's footwear are thick, high-cut boots, made in Texas.

The crimson-coloured velvet which his costume is largely made out of comes from Germany, he points out. He gets a new costume made every two to three years.

His get-up is so convincing that his own grandchildren often do not recognise him.

"Sometimes they come back home and tell me, 'we saw Santa at the party!' without realising that it was me," says the man with a hearty laugh.

As a store Santa, his role is to take photos with shoppers at malls and to make small talk with children.

While he declines to say how much he makes, a Chicago-based website states that on weekdays, it costs US$150 (S$188) for the first hour and US$75 for subsequent hours.

On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, it can go up to US$300 an hour.

The most enjoyable part of the process is seeing the reactions that children have towards him.

"Some kids are really frightened, they're usually the two- to three-year-olds. I don't ever force them to come close, but sometimes, I take my white gloves off and tell them, 'hey, I'm a real human'," he says.

This Santa, who sports a row of loud bells on his left wrist, says the job season begins in November and can be so hectic he puts in nine to 10 hours a day for almost two months.

There are job hazards, too. "There will be a couple of enthusiastic kids who leap onto your lap, and you've just got to be careful where they land," he advises wryly.

Getting an uppercut from a child's bobbing head is also part of the job's risk.

"You could be holding them with their faces towards the camera, and they'll suddenly jerk backwards. You just have to have quick reflexes," he explains.

Then there are parents who insist their children get into a photo with Santa, despite them kicking and screaming in fear.

In these situations, Mr Hoffman does not say much nor insist that the children have their way. "I usually just let the elves - the helpers - who are sometimes with me handle it," he says.

Enjoying the company of children is a key requirement of the job, he says, but that is not all. Mr Hoffman takes his role so seriously he sometimes checks out the catalogues of toy stores to keep himself up to date with the latest playthings in town.

It is so that conversation with the children can flow better, he explains. It also helps to have witty and humorous answers to a wide range of comments people pose Santa.

Mr Hoffman, who does not sport a large paunch, says adults always remark that he has to "bulk up". "I tell them I'm the healthy version of Santa."

He is also a hit with adult women.

When this reporter was at Robinsons department store at Raffles City to see Mr Hoffman at work, two women were waiting in line for a photo with him, gamely putting his arms around them to pose for a photo.

"I'll keep at this job for as long as I can," he says with a smile.

Secrets of the trade

1. Wear a red T-shirt before putting on your costume. The extra lining cuts down on cleaning, since it can get very warm inside and you can start perspiring.

2. Always keep a pack of gum with you and drink lots of water. There is nothing more unattractive than a Santa with bad breath.

3. Start growing your beard around summer. It will reach the right length by the time Christmas rolls around.


Get The New Paper for more stories.