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.
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.
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.
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.