21 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Mall Santas

THE NOERR PROGRAMS
THE NOERR PROGRAMS

Being a mall Santa might seem like a relatively easy job: Put a kid on your lap, ask them what they want for Christmas, pose for a quick photo, and send them on their merry way. But any Santa who’s done even one season at the mall will tell you the job takes dedication.

“There’s no harder job in all of Christmas than being the mall Santa,” says Paul Sheehan, who worked as a Santa at a mall in rural New Hampshire and is now in his 36th season as a professional Mr. Claus. “Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve at 3 pm, I had seen over 17,000 kids. Someone in a bigger city, they’re doing twice and three times that.”

But there’s a reason thousands of rotund, bearded men don the suit every year: While demanding, being Santa is also incredibly rewarding. We spoke with a few professional Kris Kringles about what it’s like being the season’s biggest celebrity.

1. THEY GO TO SANTA COLLEGE.

If you’ve ever perched on Santa’s knee at your local mall, there’s a good chance he was a graduate of Santa University, run by Noerr Programs Corporation, an events company that trains and distributes Santas to more than 278 major malls and shopping centers across the country. Each Noerr Santa has to pass a background check and undergo several rounds of interviews. And a real beard is required. “That’s part of the magic,” says Ruth Rosenquist, Noerr’s Director of PR.

Every August, Noerr hosts its Santa University in Arvada, Colorado, where hundreds of “gentlemen of great mirth and girth” gather for four days of training on everything from Santa ethics to how to ho-ho-ho. “It’s amazing to sit with all these guys in their red shirts and suspenders,” Rosenquist says. “You look up and you’re speaking to Santa. It’s the best audience in the world.” Watch a sneak peek below:

2. RULE #1: ALWAYS STAY IN CHARACTER.

If you’re wearing the red suit, you must behave like Santa at all times. This means having a jolly temperament and never snapping or yelling at a child, no matter how frustrated you may be.

“The most important thing they need to understand is that they are Santa and they always are to remain in character of Santa,” says Rosenquist. “They’re never to break that character.”

For some of the more professional St. Nicks, the white beard and big belly stays with them all year, so they have to be careful about how they’re representing the jolly old elf in public. This means being on one’s best behavior and fielding questions like, “Santa, what are you doing at the grocery store?”

Robert Hildreth, a professional Santa of 30 years, says he doesn’t drink when he goes out for dinner with his wife Carol Hildreth (a.k.a. Mrs. Claus), because he wants to be the model image of Santa for children. “You gotta watch what you say and do because the kids are looking at you,” he says.

But playing a convincing Santa all year round comes with its perks, like the occasional free meal. “We’ve had a couple incidents where we’ve gone into restaurants and the little ones notice us,” Carol explains. “He’ll go over and talk to them a bit and then when we go to pay the bill it’s already been taken care of.”

3. THEY KNOW WHERE THE MALL’S SECRET BATHROOMS ARE.

“I refuse to go to the public restroom if it’s at all avoidable,” says RG Holland, one of Noerr’s men in red. “The whole deal of being Santa, particularly at the mall, is when you’re dressed as Santa you have to stay in character and it’s kinda hard to be in a Santa suit staying in character in front of a urinal.”

In some malls, Santas have their own designated dressing area complete with a bathroom. And if not, they improvise. “I find the restroom in the mall that is the most obscure and private,” Holland says. “If I have trouble finding those, I find the nearest department store and use one of their restrooms that’s out of the way.”

4. THEY SECRETLY SWAP.

If a Santa needs to take a lunch break or his shift is ending, sometimes another one will step in without anyone noticing. “In the busiest of malls, we often set it up so there are two Santas and we try to match in terms of physical appearance so it’s not that obvious in mid-day when we swap,” says Holland. “We don’t want anyone saying ‘That’s not Santa!’ A lot of times even parents and especially kids, if they didn’t see us together, they wouldn’t know which was which.”

5. THEY GET A BODYGUARD.

According to Rosenquist, every Noerr Santa gets an escort when he leaves the set. This is supposed to discourage the mobs of fans from attacking him.

6. THERE’S A RIGHT WAY AND A WRONG WAY TO BLEACH A BEARD.

While some naturally-bearded Santas are blessed with snowy white bristles, others aren’t so lucky. In that case, bleaching is the best option, but only when it’s done gradually and with great care. “It’s gotta be done in stages,” says Rosenquist. “If you try to go snowy white all at once, you’ll burn your hair and it gets yellow.” Smart Santas begin the coloring process in October in preparation for the holiday season.

7. THE MONEY’S PRETTY GOOD.

Noerr doesn’t disclose how much it pays its actors, but according to Rosenquist, it’s a salaried position, and the rate can vary by location. Ed Warchol, president of Cherry Hill Photo, another Santa distributor, says his Santas earn “well into the five-figure range for just six weeks of work.”

8. AND SENIORITY HELPS.

The more experience a Santa has under his belt, the bigger his paycheck. “We always look for experience,” says Rosenquist. One 18-year veteran St. Nick said he could make $30,000 in one season.

For some comparison: according to a cheeky report from insurance information site Insure.com, the real Santa Claus would earn roughly $140,000 a year if he were compensated for all the work he does, including overseeing the toy factory and piloting the sleigh on Christmas Eve.

9. THEY MIGHT KNOW SIGN LANGUAGE.

Noerr teaches Santas-in-training key ASL gestures so they can communicate with deaf children. They’re also advised to learn basic Spanish. Rosenquist says the demand for Santas of different races and backgrounds is growing. “We are in a lot of markets that are heavily Hispanic, so having bilingual Santas is of supreme importance,” she says.

10. THERE’S A SECRET SANTA GREETING.

In public, Santas speak in code to one another as a show of camaraderie. “I’ll go up and ask him if he’s being good this year,” says Holland. “That’s a giveaway.” Or, if a Santa lookalike answers to “Brother In Red,” you know you’re talking to a St. Nick.

11. A ROUND BELLY IS NOT REQUIRED.

“You don’t necessarily have to have the belly full of jelly,” Rosenquist says. “We don’t measure our Santas by their waist, we measure them by their hearts.” Noerr’s training program actually includes a session on how to eat properly and avoid the health risks that come with being Santa-sized, like diabetes and heart disease. If Santa needs a bigger belly to be convincing, he can be “enhanced” with padding.

Some Santas also wear makeup to maintain a rosy glow. “Number 30 rouge for the cheeks and maybe a little touch on the nose to give him a little bit of weathered look,” one actor told This American Life.

12. CONDIMENTS ARE TO BE AVOIDED.

“If he’s presenting that day, it’s pretty much just water and sandwiches with no ketchup or mustard in them,” says Carol Hildreth. “Otherwise the beard gets dirty.” And nobody wants Santa all up in their face if he’s got bad breath, so good Santas keep breath mints on them at all times. Robert adds an extra special touch: His beard oil is peppermint-scented.

13. THEY HAVE TO STUDY.

“One of the things you have to have at your fingertips at all times is all the culture that goes with Santa,” says Sheehan. This goes way beyond being able to recite the names of Santa’s reindeer. Sheehan tries to keep up with every new movie or TV show in which Santa makes an appearance and memorize the plot so he’s not caught off guard by an inquisitive child. “You could be blown away by a new movie out this season that you haven’t seen yet, but the kid has like six times,” Sheehan explains. “They’re asking details about what happened in the movie and you don’t know what’s going on.”

Santa also has to know all the latest toys—after all, he makes them. “I go through the toy catalogues every year,” says Sheehan. “In a nutshell, it’s staying current. Like any dentist or doctor has to read professional journals, it’s the same with us but we have to stay up on everything that has to do with Christmas.”

14. “I’LL ASK MRS. CLAUS” IS CODE FOR “I DON’T WANT TO ANSWER THAT.”

Kids say the darndest things on Santa’s knee, and no amount of studying can prepare a Kris Kringle impersonator for all the odd questions or bizarre requests. You know you’ve stumped Santa when he brings up the wife.

“I blame a lot on Mrs. Claus,” says Holland. “If anything comes up that’s questionable, I say ‘I’ll have to check with Mrs. Claus about that.’ It really defuses a lot of skepticism.”

But Mrs. Claus does more than just take the blame for Santa’s shortcomings. She often helps shy kids feel more comfortable. “Sometimes the little ones are afraid of the big guy in the red suit and the beard but they’ll come to someone who looks like grandma,” says Carol Hildreth. “So they’ll sit on my lap and then talk to Santa.”

15. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO PROMISE.

One of the worst things a mall Santa can do is promise a child they’ll get what they want for Christmas. “If you promise stuff the parents can’t provide then it’s rough on them and it makes Santa look bad too,” says Holland.

Noerr coaches its Santas to deliver a message of hope, but to make no guarantees. “The most you can say is that you’ll try,” says Sheehan. “Even if I know you’ve bought it for them, I’m not gonna tell them that because god forbid the garage catches fire and the toys are gone.”

16. THEY HATE CRYING BABY PHOTOS.

But for some reason, parents love them. “Unfortunately some think that’s the thing to have,” Holland says. “I do everything I can to avoid them. Parents say it’s ok if they cry, but the crying picture is not any fun for the kid and it’s not any fun for Santa either.”

The best way to avoid a screaming, sobbing child is for parents to stay close, rather than shoving the kid in Santa’s lap and walking away. “Give the kids time to acclimate to Santa,” says Robert. “The child is scared and crying and screaming because they don’t know who you’re handing them off to. Please don’t throw your kids to us.”

“Some of these people slug their kids around like they’re 10 lb bags of potatoes,” says Sheehan. “I had a woman in the mall who almost tossed the child to me. She let go of the kid before I had a grip on the kid, then walked away and was wondering why the child was crying. Parents are the worst part of the whole thing of being Santa.”

17. THEY WISH YOU’D DO THE HEAVY LIFTING.

The constant up-and-down that comes with hoisting kids on and off your knees for 12 hours a day can cause all kinds of aches and pains. After their shifts, the older Santas are probably going home to ice their knees or put a heating pad on their backs.

“Like any business you go into there’s always something that wears out, some part of the anatomy that takes a beating,” says Sheehan. “For Santa it’s the knees and hips. By the end of the season, you’re really going to be hurting.”

If you want to make your local mall Santa happy, save him a little bit of effort by lifting your child onto his lap.

18. NOT EVERY SANTA CAN NAIL THE SIGNATURE LAUGH.

“Interestingly enough, there are some Santas who just can’t ho-ho-ho,” Rosenquist says. “We try to get them to do it but for some of them it’s just not their nature.”

19. KIDS’ TOY PREFERENCES ARE CHANGING.

The old standbys never change: Lots of boys want a fire truck and girls want an American Girl doll. But according to Sheehan, requests for gender-specific toys have fallen over the last two or three years. “So I will hear boys asking for an Easy Bake Oven and the girls will like LEGOs and the kinds of toys you can build something with,” he says. “There is a shift and transition there that’s happened in last couple years.”

20. THE PROFESSIONALS HAVE LIABILITY INSURANCE.

All it takes is one squirming child who falls off a knee and Santa could be liable for thousands of dollars in damages. As a precaution, the professionals carry their own insurance.

“We carry $2 million of liability insurance,” says Robert Hildreth. Luckily he’s a member of a Santa training and advocacy group called International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which helps him get a group rate on insurance. “We’ve never had to use it, but it’s nice to have it there,” he says.

21. IT’S ALL ABOUT BEING A GOOD LISTENER.

The most important part of a mall Santa’s job, according to Sheehan, is to lend an ear to kids who might be feeling lost. “Being with Santa might be the best thing that’s gonna happen to that kid all day,” he says. “I try to make it warm and affirming and raise them up. Everyone needs affirmation.”

Some kids ask for the impossible, like the return of a deceased family member or a reunion between divorced parents. “There are some things Santa can’t do, but we’ll pray with them,” Holland says. “Another thing I like to do is tell them that as long as they remember the person who’s gone, they’re still with them. You have to really philosophize with some of them and tell them stuff in a way that makes sense and that they will come away feeling like it’s gonna be ok. The parents get the pictures, the kids get the experience.”

All images via iStock unless noted.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images

Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”