But she knows the kiddies want their Santas with snowy beards. And she appreciates the extra $4,000 to $6,000 that Parks will pocket in appearances over the next several weekends. Mostly, she understands how much he enjoys getting his Kringle on.
“He loves it,” she said as the beautician crimped foil over her husband’s tresses. “It’s like he becomes Santa for a few weeks.”
Parks is one of a growing number of office workers, teachers and retirees — mostly on the stout side, usually bearded — who work up a little Santa sideline each year at this time. They have discovered that a certain body type mixed with an air of benevolent wisdom — profundity plus rotundity — can mean a month of lucrative holiday gigs, most of them starting this weekend.
Freelance Santas form the irregular Yuletide army that deploys to the countless company parties, home gatherings, and school and nursing home events that fill December. Not for them the workaday, full-time grind of the mall Santa. These are Santas on the move.
“I’ve already got more than 90 events lined up,” said Dale Parris, 65, a retired Marine master gunnery sergeant from Stafford who has just started his yearly holiday hopscotch around Northern Virginia, Richmond and the Tidewater. He travels with Mrs. Claus (his wife, Trish), and at $135 to $175 an hour, they often clear $12,000 a season.
“I don’t sit in a chair at the mall,” said Parris, who weighs in at a jolly 270 pounds and estimates he has invested more than $3,500 in his costumes. “A typical mall Santa is employed by a photo company, and they’re not making money on photos if you talk to a child for more than a few seconds. I like to spend time with each kid.”
Parris, who is a member of multiple Santa guilds, said the number of local freelance Santas has boomed in recent years thanks to social media and the ease of advertising on entertainment-booking sites like GigSalad and SantaForHire. He now has more than 100 freelance Santas on his local e-mail list.
He’s even been known to recruit them, accosting pear-shaped, bearded men at Wal-Marts and gas stations. “You ever thought of being Santa?” he’ll ask. “Sometimes, it’s ‘Hell, no, I don’t even like kids. Why do people keep asking me that?’ ”
Of course, there’s more to being Santa than sporting a belly and sprouting a beard. Parks started getting into character a month before his date with peroxide. He’s been listening to Christmas music for weeks on his morning commute from Silver Spring to Lockheed Martin in Arlington County. He got a flu shot, had his velvet suit cleaned and stocked up on children’s books to fill his satchel. He’s read “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas” over and over, fixing it in his memory.