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So, you want to be Santa? Here's how to avoid rookie mistakes

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Santa Larry Jefferson shapes his beard .
Santa Larry Jefferson shapes his beard before the beginning of his shift at The Santa Experience at the Mall of America.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Santa Claus is coming to town again, preceded by a corps of brother Santas helping out around Minnesota. Most have decades of experience and tricks of the trade to ensure kids don't hate their trip across Santa's lap. 

Santa Larry, also known as Larry Jefferson, began playing Santa about two decades ago when his brother could not get his kids to the mall to see Saint Nick.

"I said, 'Hey, don't worry about it. I saw a Santa Claus suit in Walmart for $29.99. I'm going to buy that Santa suit and I'm coming to you all's house and I'm going to be Santa Claus,'" he said.

Santa Larry Jefferson combs his beard as he prepares for photo shoots.
Santa Larry Jefferson combs his beard as he prepares for photo shoots inside The Santa Experience.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Santa Larry is from Dallas, but has an annual gig at the Mall of America's Santa Experience. 

The job can be tiring.

Over eight hours, Santa Larry may hoist as many as 150 youths onto his lap. And he spends a lot of time on the floor playing with kids to win their trust. That can be quite a workout for a 60-something Santa.

And the children themselves can be a challenge, especially the little ones who fear the big guy and run away or cry. 

"Some parents want that picture whether or not their child is smiling," he said. "And so, you know, I'm holding the baby and he is crying. And they're saying, 'Hang on Santa. Hang on to him, Santa.'"

Santa Larry Jefferson stands for a portrait.
Santa Larry Jefferson stands for a portrait inside The Santa Experience.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But, he claims a 90 percent success rate in chasing away the tears of crying kids.

Santa Larry is a traditionalist, with wire-frame glasses, a prolific white beard and hearty laugh. But he's not out of central casting.

"I'm happy to be an African-American Santa Claus," he said "There's not that many African-American Santa Clauses. And so, I'm kind of distinguishable."

There's a shortage of Santas, especially Santas of color, Jefferson said.

Tiny replicas of Santa Larry Jefferson sit on a shelf.
Tiny replicas of Santa Larry Jefferson sit on a shelf inside The Santa Experience inside the Mall of America.
Evan Frost | MPR News

There have been some new recruits of late, though. Santa Reg — Reginald Wright — is one. He is a sergeant with the University of St. Thomas public safety department and made his professional debut last week at the age of 52 at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. He has long played Santa for his eight children, nine grandchildren and 23 nieces and nephews.

"I love young folk and I love kids," he said. "Somebody's got to do some positive in this world, man. A lot of people just go about their daily grind and they don't show love to one another. Every now and then, you got to show a little love."

But most Santas are not newbies. Santa Sid — Sid Fletcher — has been doing the gig for about a half-century. He first donned the big red suit when he was a teenager visiting hospitals. The work can be wearing now that he's in his 60s. Fletcher draws a lot of energy from the children, but "the first couple of weeks, I do a lot more Advil than the average person would," he said. 

Experience has given him the wisdom to know what a smart Santa should and should not do.

The veteran Santa said he won't chastise children, even if parents come seeking that. He dispenses a lot of praise, telling kids they're cool, cool, cool. But he makes no promises about gifts. He just acknowledges kids' wishes.

"I don't say, 'Yes I will,' or 'I can.'  I've even had parents tell me that they're going to give the kids an animal. I don't go there," he said.

That's so he doesn't risk disappointing anyone. After all, what if Santa lied to a child?

And for those kids who think they're too old to get a photo with Santa, he has a sign that says, "This is forced fun." 

"If the parents are dragging them here, I'll have them hold that sign. You should see the smile on those kids' faces. And the parents are laughing like crazy," he said.

Santas have their own niches, too. For Kurt Martell, it's as Santa the troubadour. He sings Christmas songs and accompanies himself on guitar.

Kurt Martell plays Jingle Bells on guitar as three brothers sing along.
Kurt Martell, who plays Santa Claus, plays "Jingle Bells" on guitar as brothers Finn, Declan and Ronan Moore sing along at Cabela's in Woodbury.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

Martell's been decking the halls at Cabela's outdoor gear store in Woodbury lately.

Santa Joe — Joseph Courtemanche — is the Vikings' Santa.  

"I have two purple Santa suits for the Minnesota Vikings. I've been their Santa for over a decade," he said.

Courtemanche said Santas that go pro usually do so in their 40s, when they naturally develop a Santa-like build. On his website, Santa Joe notes he started out as an assistant elf in the year 800 and moved up to assistant Santa in 1580.

Obviously, there's more to the job than just sitting there in a red suit with kids on your knee. Santas who want to assist Kris Kringle professionally have to study. They sharpen their skills and knowledge at Santa schools and conventions. Senior Santas tutor about everything from wearing cologne to child psychology.   

Santa Larry Jefferson dons his Santa belt.
Santa Larry Jefferson dons his Santa belt as he gets ready for his shift at The Santa Experience.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The most dedicated Minnesota Santas join North Star Santas

The fraternal group has more than 100 members. The rules are simple: real beard, criminal background check, liability insurance. 

There's an optional oath but guaranteed brotherhood, said Santa Carlucci — Carl Immediato.

"We check on each other's health. We check on each other's capability to perform," he said.

Immediato is a long-time member of the group. He's in the Santa Claus Hall of Fame and more of a businessman than most of his comrades in red. He offers one-stop shopping for a complete Santa entertainment package.

"Face painters, balloonists, piano players, carolers, caterers, photographers," he said. But that's not all. He also has real, live reindeer, of course. And a red car with reindeer antlers, too.

Still, Immediato laments that he's part of a dying breed. 

"Most of the Santas are baby boomers," he said. "And we are dying. And unfortunately, the young guys and not coming into the group. So, we're really starting to strain with the ability to get good quality people."

But some do hear the call. 

Thirty-six-year-old professional actor Brant Miller is in his third year as Santa. Being Santa is the best job, he said, and people are genuinely good. 

"Having kids come in and see you and think you're magic — it makes me feel better. Kids turn the corner and their eyes light up. I just feel a sense of like, OK everything's good in the world."