Mall Santa 101: The making of the perfect Mr. Claus

shopping mall santa
No fake beards here.

Spoiler alert: Santa Claus isn't real. But some people go to great lengths to make you think he is alive and well in your local mall.

A number of companies are tasked with finding the perfect Santa -- making sure they can walk the walk, talk the talk and assure screaming kids that they'll get what they ask for. One of them is Cherry Hill Photo, based in New Jersey. The company employs about 400 Santas across 300 different malls in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.

It doesn't mess around when it comes to finding Mr. Right Claus. All of the company's Santas must have real beards, real bellies, and must be ready to don the big red suit for six weeks every year.

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It's not easy to recruit several hundred Santa doppelgangers each year, but Cherry Hill Photo has perfected a method since its founding in 1961, according to its president, Ed Warchol.

"Most of the Santas come back year after year, but we also get referrals, most of which come from one Santa referring another guy who looks like Santa," he said.

His employees also get finders fees if they rope in a look alike, and even Warchol approaches people who would be right for the job. "I was somewhere the other night where I was ready to go up to a man who had a beautiful white beard."

Since the men must be old enough to pass for Old Saint Nick, most of them are retired, and can therefore afford to spend a month and a half ho ho ho-ing each year.

And they're paid far more than a lump of coal to do so. Warchol wouldn't say exactly how much his Santas make, since no two Santas earn the same amount, but they're making well into the five-figure range for just six weeks of work. The more realistic a guy looks and the better he is with kids, the more money he can make, Warchol said.

"The goal is to find people that a parent will say, 'that guy at this mall looks like Santa and he was good with little Joey,'" Warchol said. "If a Santa has both of those qualifications, he starts to get a following and he becomes a local celebrity, and so they get paid based on that."

What $4k in Christmas lights looks like
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Those newer to the trade attend what Warchol has dubbed "Santa University," a two-day crash course where new Clauses on the block learn how to put on their suits and get a lesson on the season's most popular toys. They're also taught to answer some of the more common questions they're likely to be asked, like where they go when they leave the mall and who their favorite reindeer is.

After graduating from the program, they're dispatched to different malls across North America, placing Santas based on where Cherry Hill Photo thinks they will be the right fit for the community.

Cherry Hill Photo also staffs Santa's helpers, who Warchol said he hires based on how outgoing and willing to comfort children they are, because let's face it: lot of kids are terrified of Santa.

The company also brings photographers in to snap the traditional screaming child photo to sell to sentimental parents. Despite the presence of cell phones -- and with them the ability for parents to take a quick photo and avoid paying for a professional one -- Warchol said his company sells more prints than ever today.

"It's because people don't print photos anymore, so it's become a special thing," he said. "The value of a good quality, beautiful image made on high-end printers and paper to give to your mother and father or aunt and uncle has gone up."

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