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.

A man dressed as Santa Claus is pictured holding up a bag of gifts
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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.

A man dressed as Santa Claus is pictured reading a piece of paper
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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.

Run! IHOP Is Giving Away Free Pancakes for National Pancake Day

What better way to celebrate National Pancake Day than with a free stack of IHOP's signature buttermilk pancakes?
What better way to celebrate National Pancake Day than with a free stack of IHOP's signature buttermilk pancakes?
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If ever there were a day to forgo that container of leftovers in the fridge and treat yourself to breakfast for dinner, it’s today: IHOP is celebrating National Pancake Day by giving each customer a free short stack of buttermilk pancakes. The dine-in deal is available at participating locations from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.—but the hours can vary, so you might want to confirm with your local IHOP before heading there.

While a pile of hot, syrup-soaked pancakes is definitely a good enough incentive to visit IHOP immediately, it’s not the only one. IHOP is also hosting a sweepstakes that offers thousands of instant-win prizes across all locations, and you can only enter by scanning the QR code on your table at IHOP. One lucky carb-loader will win the grand prize—pancakes for life—and other rewards include everything from $500 IHOP gift cards to IHOP merchandise like blankets, watches, duffel bags, customizable jackets, and even bikes.

The pan-tastic event is all in the spirit of charity, and IHOP is hoping to raise more than $4 million for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, Shriners Hospitals for Children, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society—you can donate online here. According to a press release, IHOP has contributed more than $30 million to its charity partners since beginning its National Pancake Day celebrations in 2006.

“IHOP launched its National Pancake Day event 15 years ago as a way to celebrate the best food ever—pancakes—and put a purpose behind the day by partnering with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and other charities to help kids in our communities,” Stephanie Peterson, IHOP’s executive director of communications, said in the release.

If you can’t make it to IHOP to claim your free short stack today, you can always celebrate National Pancake Day with a tall stack of homemade pancakes—find out how to make them extra fluffy here.

Why Do People Toss Beads During Mardi Gras?

Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images
Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images

Each year, more than 1 million people descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras, an organized parade of debauchery and alcohol-induced torpor that may be the closest thing modern civilization has to the excesses of ancient Rome. Saturating the scene on Bourbon Street are plastic beads, handed or tossed to partygoers as a kind of currency. Some bare their breasts or offer booze in exchange for the tokens; others catch them in the air and wear the layers around their necks. Roughly 25 million pounds of beads are in circulation annually, making them as much a part of the Fat Tuesday celebration as sugary cocktails and King Cake.

Traditions and rituals can be hard to pin down, but Mardi Gras historians believe the idea of distributing trinkets began in the 1870s or 1880s, several hundred years after French settlers introduced the celebration to Louisiana in the 1600s. Party organizers—known locally as krewes—handed out baubles and other shiny objects to revelers to help commemorate the occasion. Some of them threw chocolate-covered almonds. They were joined by more mischievous attendees, who threw dirt or flour on people in an effort to stir up a little bit of trouble.

Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops.

Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display "bead lust," or a penchant for shiny objects. It's one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap plastic.

Photo of a well-dressed bulldog celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The early beads were made of glass before more efficient production methods overseas led to an influx of plastic beads in the 1960s. Unlike some of the more organic predecessors, these beads have come under criticism for being a source of health problems and pollution. Made from petroleum, they often harbor lead that seeps into the soil and rubs off on hands. (One estimate puts the lead deposit after a Mardi Gras celebration at 4000 pounds.) In 2017, New Orleans paid $7 million in clean-up costs to remove discarded beads from drain basins. In 2018, they installed gutter guards to prevent the necklaces from getting into the system in the first place. Meanwhile, scientists have been working to create an even more eco-friendly version of the beads—like a biodegradable version made from microalgae.

Environmental hazards aside, the beads of Mardi Gras have become as much a holiday staple as Christmas stockings or Thanksgiving turkeys. But the passion and desperate need for them is only temporary; in 2018, 46 tons of the beads were removed from just five blocks of the main parade route on Charles Street. And no bacchanal should leave that much bad juju behind.

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