Santa Wars: The Not-So-Merry Face-Off Between Dueling Santa Claus Unions

VladOrlov/iStock via Getty Images
VladOrlov/iStock via Getty Images

The Santa-on-Santa violence first erupted in January 2008. That’s when Santa Claus performer Santa Ric Erwin crashed a meeting of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, or AORBS, a nonprofit union dedicated to furthering the interests of Santas on the West Coast, advising them on everything from costumes to bookings.

Erwin was an AORBS member, though one on thin ice owing to personality clashes with new president and fellow Santa Nicholas Trolli. During the meeting at Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel in Buena Park, California, Jeff Germann—Trolli’s second-Santa-in-command—stepped in front of Erwin, who was attempting to videotape the meeting for Santas who couldn’t make it. Declaring Erwin an uninvited guest, Germann allegedly used his elbow to push Erwin up against the wall. (Trolli would later state Erwin was the aggressor.) Security escorted Erwin out.

Such is the life of professional Santa Clauses, who have seen their ranks rise in recent years with accompanying trade unions that ostensibly seek to provide benefits but can sometimes wind up butting beards over policies and conduct. To fraternize with other Santas can sometimes mean choosing sides.

Santas United

It’s believed the very first Santa union was formed in 1937, when department store Santas organized the Benevolent Order of Santa Claus. The group wanted to perpetuate a strong image of genteel Santas for store appearances, which were then the biggest opportunities for performers. Not long after, in 1941, Hollywood makeup artist Max Factor set up guidelines for a universal Santa “look," including a bulbous red nose and beard. By having consistency, kids wouldn’t be needlessly confused by Santas who opted for different clothing or trimmed whiskers.

The Santas, now uniform in appearance, were looking to organize. In 1969, another group, the Brotherhood of Father Christmas and Santa Claus, filed paperwork to be recognized as a union working for the rights of both Santas and elves in the UK, though there’s no evidence it endured for long. It wasn’t until Santa Tom Hartsfield created the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas in 1995 that a Santa faction emerged as a powerful and influential assembly.

fotohunter/iStock via Getty Images

Hartsfield struck upon the idea for AORBS after being part of a commercial for the Otto Versand (later renamed the Otto Group) mail-order company. Paired with nine other Santas for the shoot, Hartsfield realized there was an opportunity for performers to have representation that could assist them in everything from grooming tips to bookings. AORBS caught on, and by 2003, more than 700 Santas were arriving at meetings.

A slightly overwhelmed Hartsfield received help in the form of Santa Tim Connaghan, who took over as the union’s coordinator and shortly became president. (It should be noted that most unionized Santas prefer to be addressed as “Santa” along with their first name as a show of respect.) Connaghan organized Santa meet-ups and helped AORBS become a full-fledged nonprofit by 2007—one with more than 700 members paying $20 annually.

But not everyone felt Connaghan was doing right by the Santas. According to a 2013 exposé in OC Weekly, new board of directors member Santa Nicholas Trolli voiced complaints that Connaghan had a conflict of interest because he also ran a Santa Claus booking agency and had a company, Kringle Group, of his own. Connaghan had even signed a movie deal that would cover the events of the 2006 AORBS convention along with his own life story. Members believed Connaghan was looking to profit at the expense of the union; Connaghan maintained AORBS would have profited if the movie had ever been made.

The Kringles Crumble

A Claus coup ensued. To avoid Santa dissent, Connaghan agreed to step down as president. Quickly, Trolli stepped in as his replacement. With his lieutenant, Santa Jeff Germann, Trolli took the proverbial reins, dismissing Hartsfield as director and forging AORBS Inc. as a company in Kentucky with himself and Germann as officers. The move left Santa Ric Erwin concerned about Trolli's motivations. The Knott's Berry Farm fracas ensued, and the sniping continued on Elf Net and other Santa discussion boards, with members lobbing virtual insults at one another. Soon, Santas who had grown tired of the drama began looking for alternative organizations.

Tijana87/iStock via Getty Images

Eventually, AORBS Inc. was the subject of complaints of improper accounting, and Pennsylvania's Charitable Organizations Bureau (where the organization was now based) handed down a cease-and-desist order in July 2008, charging them with soliciting unregistered charitable contributions.

AORBS soon dissolved, and the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, or FORBS, arrived in its wake. Founded by Erwin and other disgruntled AORBS members in 2008 and based in California, FORBS conducts background checks for more than 400 Santas in the union, carries insurance for any mishaps related to personal appearances, and mandates that members maintain real beards. The same holds true for the other major Santa union, the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, or IBRBS, which represents Santas on a global scale.

Let There Be Peace

Much of the Santa sniping has fallen by the wayside, though the edict that Santas have a real beard sometimes invites controversy. Connaghan, who founded the International University of Santa Claus, believes a Santa with an itchy fake beard fails to preserve the illusion; others think ostracizing those lacking a lush beard might be discriminatory.

There are no easy answers. For now, Santas at local stores and booked for personal appearances have the option of union backing. And yes, both elves and Mrs. Clauses are eligible for associate membership.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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The 50 Most Searched Halloween Costumes on Google

Dinosaur costumes are far from extinct.
Dinosaur costumes are far from extinct.
Vlad Fonsark, Pexels

If you’re assuming everyone else at your Zoom Halloween party will come up with creative costumes, leaving you to fly under the radar as the only witch in attendance, you might want to rethink your plan. According to Frightgeist, a Google-run seasonal site that analyzes Google Trends data, witch is the most searched Halloween costume this year.

That’s up from last year, when it was edged out of the top spot by It. The second chapter of the film had just premiered in September 2019, and it seems Pennywise’s popularity has ebbed a bit since then—on this latest list, It plummeted to 23rd. But as Spirit Halloween recently told us, scary clown costumes are always in high demand; and clown is the fifth most searched term on Google. Other film and television releases from last year have also faded from memory. In 2019, Stranger Things came in 13th place (season three had hit Netflix in July) and Toy Story charted at 17th (Toy Story 4 had hit theaters in March), but neither term made this year’s list.

In general, Frightgeist’s breakdown is a mix of specific pop culture influences and generic characters. Spider-Man, Batman, and Wonder Woman all made the top 35, for example, but so did superhero. Some people aren’t interested in playing the hero at all: Harley Quinn and the Joker landed at numbers three and 30, respectively, and devil came in eighth place (though angel beat that by two spots).

As usual, you’ll probably see plenty of costumes from a galaxy far, far away. Star Wars is the 28th most searched costume term, and both Yoda and Baby Yoda made the list, too. Others are taking inspiration from classic Halloween films, like Beetlejuice (1988) and Hocus Pocus (1993).

See the top 50 below, and explore Frightgeist’s full list—including results from your area—here.

  1. Witch
  1. Dinosaur
  1. Harley Quinn
  1. Rabbit
  1. Clown
  1. Angel
  1. Fortnite
  1. Devil
  1. Ninja
  1. Spider-Man
  1. Cowboy
  1. Doll
  1. Zombie
  1. Pumpkin
  1. Purge
  1. Pirate
  1. Cheerleader
  1. Fairy
  1. Vampire
  1. Chucky
  1. Bear
  1. Superhero
  1. It
  1. Mermaid
  1. Skeleton
  1. 1980s
  1. Batman
  1. Star Wars
  1. Unicorn
  1. Joker
  1. Wonder Woman
  1. Powerpuff Girls
  1. Princess
  1. Ghost
  1. Dragon
  1. Beetlejuice
  1. Hocus Pocus
  1. Spider
  1. Cowgirl
  1. Descendants
  1. Power Rangers
  1. Monsters, Inc.
  1. Yoda
  1. Tinker Bell
  1. Lion
  1. Minnie Mouse
  1. Baby Yoda
  1. Gray Wolf
  1. Minecraft
  1. Cop