Angel, a 13-year-old Ocherese, sits in for a portrait with Santa Claus during the Pet Pictures with Santa fundraiser at the Vanderburgh Humane Society Nov. 11, 2013. DENNY SIMMONS/COURIER & PRESS ARCHIVES
Angel, a 13-year-old Ocherese, sits in for a portrait with Santa Claus during the Pet Pictures with Santa fundraiser at the Vanderburgh Humane Society Nov. 11, 2013. DENNY SIMMONS/COURIER & PRESS ARCHIVES
EVANSVILLE — If the central conceit of Christmas is that Santa Claus exists, then for those few weeks Jeff Townsend can't. He can't break the magic spell he and other professional Santas have worked so long and so skillfully to weave.

So no, sorry, Darmstadt resident Townsend said after leaving the set of his latest Santa gig near Chicago. He can't talk about inhabiting the jolly old elf without an OK from the photography company that employs him. And Marlton, N.J.-based Cherry Hill Programs said no. It wouldn't do for children to see Santa as a real person.

Not shattering the illusion is how Cherry Hill makes its Christmas bread, but it is also appreciated by parents such as Blake and Brittany Maurer. The Maurers have three young children, and they want to protect their belief in Santa for as long as possible. They already have "a special little letter" for the moment it's not, Brittany Maurer said.

"She’s just awestruck by the idea of Santa," Brittany said of 4-year-old daughter, Charlotte. "Whenever we talk about Santa, Charlotte gets really excited. It’s very magical."

The Maurers are pulling out all the stops to keep the magic going in their Evansville home for Charlotte, her 2-year-old sister, Lettie, and toddler brother, Ezekiel.

The house doesn't have a chimney, so they leave a decorative key on the front door knob for Santa. They leave out milk and cookies. They sprinkle oats and sprinkles and glitter on their lawn so the reindeer have something to eat while Santa drops off his gifts. Elf on the Shelf? They've got one.

It all seems to be working for Charlotte, who forthrightly admitted she loves Santa.

"When he gives us gifts, it's a lot of neat things!" the youngster caroled.

What does it take to be a professional Santa Claus?

The Maurers have taken their children to professional Santas and to volunteer Santas, and they can't see any difference. But ask any of the myriad non-profit organizations, conservatories, conferences or training academies that recruit, train and book events for Kris Kringles: A real Santa isn't just some guy who puts on a suit.

These groups, with names such as International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas and Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, typically provide Santas with access to services such as Christmas performer liability insurance in exchange for annual dues. They contract with investigative firms to do pre-employment criminal background and sex offender checks.

Real Beard Santas of America LLC, a New York City-area association, recruits, trains and supplies Santas for corporate events run by professional planners, public ceremonies and private parties. Its Santas are paid by commission.

The job skills of a professional Santa can include acting and singing, said Harkins, who has appeared in commercials, television, theater, print ads and movies. But more often it's coaxing smiles from children while encouraging them to think of others at Christmastime, gently dissuading them from asking for long-term gifts such as puppies and kittens and responding appropriately when they broach subjects more serious than a bratty older brother or sister.

Santa has to do it all while convincingly rocking a snowy white beard and velvet red suit — and it shouldn't be the kind of suit Santa can buy on ebay, either.

"A genuine professional Santa does not use what are called 'boot covers,'" Harkins said. "He has genuine leather boots that shine and look good. He doesn't have the cheap plastic belt — he has a leather belt. Then there's the buckle, which has to be a genuine brass buckle. You have to have good quality cotton gloves."

Harkins said the whole ensemble costs a Santa a minimum of $1,000. Minimum.

Some Santas get paid more than others. According to ZipRecruiter, as of Nov. 15 a mall Santa's average hourly pay nationwide was $19. It was $12 in Eastland Mall's zip code.

Mitch Allen, founder of HireSanta.com, which has a nationwide database of thousands of Santa Clauses that can be booked for events, told USA TODAY last year that mall Santa with "a real beard, real belly, real laugh,'' can make between $5,000 and $10,000 working through November and December.

Santas who graduate to higher-profile appearances — the kind with whom Harkins works — can rake in much more. Harkins said he knows Santas who make $300 an hour.

They call him Santa — and nothing else

It is likely Townsend's face that most local residents conjure when they think of St. Nick. He has been Santa at Eastland Mall, off and on, for more than two decades. He has donated his services at the Vanderburgh Humane Society's annual Pet Pictures with Santa event for nearly as long. VHS estimates almost 250 people showed up this year.

When a 3-year-old girl saw Townsend eating alone in costume at a local Bob Evans restaurant and joined him in 2014, ABC News produced a story about it.

The following year, photos of Townsend as Santa went viral when a 6-month-old boy fell asleep while waiting to visit him at Eastland Mall and he posed asleep with the boy while holding a copy of The Night Before Christmas. USA Today and other national news outlets did stories about that.

But none of the heartwarming news stories mentioned Townsend himself, and few outside the circle of friends and supporters who dot his public, Santa-centric Facebook page and the people with whom he works seem to know he's a professional St. Nick.

"If you see him off-season, he’ll roll up here in the summertime on his Harley, with all his Harley gear on and his beard and his hair is not white or anything, and you hardly recognize him," said Kendall Paul, the Humane Society's CEO. "He's a great guy."

Paul steadfastly calls Townsend "Santa," saying she too wants to keep the magic alive. Townsend volunteered his services some 20 years ago when he was pulling a shift as Santa at Eastland Mall and the Humane Society was doing its pet pictures event there with a volunteer Santa, she said.

"So now, instead of having the amateur volunteer Santas, we have Santa Claus do all of our shifts," Paul said.

Paul said Townsend never breaks character, comes to gigs armed with peppermints, books and other tools of the trade and consistently sells kids on the notion that they really are in the presence of Santa Claus.

There aren't many other professional Santas in the Evansville area. Hoosier Santas, a Facebook page for about 200 professionals in Indiana, said it was aware of just one. It wasn't Townsend. A nationwide shortage of Santas doesn't help.

Townsend brings enough professionalism and enough — well, extra — to Pet Pictures with Santa that VHS sets it for the first full weekend of November just to accommodate his engagements at Christmastime.

"He always has that twinkle in his eye — he really does," Paul said. "You can tell in photographs. He brings that magic every time, and he doesn't come out of that."

Being Santa Claus can be emotionally wrenching

The job isn't all posing with cute kids, Joe Harkins said. He recalls one boy asking Santa for a gun so he could kill the cops who took daddy away. A girl with bruises on her face asked for a police car outside her house to stop mommy and her boyfriend from hitting her and each other.

Harkins has had terminally ill children ask if they are going to die. Santa has to find a way to explain — gently, sensitively — that he only brings toys. He guides children to others who can help. And he has to do it all without letting anyone see the wheels turn. 

"At the end of a day in which you have seen 199 children non-stop, the 200th child that approaches you has to be greeted with the same energy, the same genuine interest, the same caring, the same patience, the same love as you did the first child," Harkins said.

"That's the hard part of the job. That's when you find out if somebody is a real Santa or just a guy in a red suit."

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