Memo to All Off-Duty Santas: Check Your Online Posts Once, Twice

Being Mr. Kringle Isn't Just a Seasonal Gig;

Fine Points of Image and Bladder Control


ARVADA, Colo.—It's not easy being Santa. Especially during the off-season.

While the winter gig requires Kringles to plop crying tots on their laps for as many as 50 straight days, the most dedicated Nicks hone their craft year-round. Pressure to be the best jolly old elf has spawned an array of Santa summer conferences—from Denver to Denmark—as well as schools offering instruction and inspiration.

"There are so many wannabe Santas out there," says James Heichelbech, a retired health-care executive who has portrayed Santa for 57 years. "A professional Santa is altogether different."

Serious Santas maintain a full, woolly beard, stay in chimney-hopping shape and are generally mindful of their alter-ego at all times. They must learn to be comfortable cruising the local beauty-supply store. And above all, they need to adhere to Santa-esque etiquette. That means being nice, not naughty, lest unflattering images of them appear online.

The Few. The Proud. The Jolly.


Noerr Programs Corp.

Santas posed for a group photo at the Noerr Programs Corp. conference.

·                     More photos and interactive graphics

Jim Fletcher, a Cypress, Texas-based Santa and 73-year-old retired product quality engineer for Caterpillar Inc., CAT -0.06%is so vigilant about preserving Santa's image that he always asks for his favorite Shiner Bock dark beer to be served in a soda glass at restaurants. "Most of the Santas I know are keenly aware of inappropriate situations," he said.

Spreading the jolly gospel has become something of its own industry. Veteran Santa Tim Connaghan, a retired fundraiser who has donned Santa's suit since 1969, teaches two-day courses in cities across the U.S. The Santa Oath Foundation, started by Phillip Wenz, the full-time Santa at Santa's Village Azoosment Park near Chicago, attracts 400 to 600 Santas to its annual conference and workshop.

In July, Santas from across the globe convene for the World Santa Congress at Denmark's Dyrehavsbakken amusement park, to socialize and share tips on being a superb Santa.

Then there is the four-day "Santa University," held each July in the Denver suburb of Arvada, Colo. Hosted by the Noerr Programs Corp., which places Santas in roughly 265 U.S. malls and other big venues, it is a boot camp of sorts. Except the boots that turn up have fluffy white cuffs.

Earlier this summer, Noerr drew 76 Santas to Arvada from as far as the Philippines and as near as 2 miles down the road. The Santas assembled at the Arvada Fire Protection District's training center to glean advice from their employer and their peers. Among the weighty subjects discussed: the importance of keeping a low profile in an age of digital media.



James Heichelbech

"There may be 100 cameras on you at any moment," said James Chamney, a 73-year-old General Motors retiree who portrays Santa at the Miami International Mall in Doral, Fla. "And everyone is waiting to catch that photo of Santa doing something he's not supposed to."

Mr. Connaghan recalled how a picture taken of him and 11 other Santas in Skagway, Alaska, caused a stir back in 2011. The Santas, vacationing on a cruise, had posed for a group picture on the stairway of a local saloon, with female employees in tow. At the time, Mr. Connaghan figured it was a rather benign thing to do.

As it turns out, the saloon promotes its early-1900s history as a brothel, and the waitresses were clad in suggestive period attire. The photos ended up on the website—an online blog that describes its mission as "restoring honor, dignity & respect to a man of faith." Some commenters saw red.

"People in the general public hold Santa to a high level of image and prestige," said Mr. Connaghan.

Last Christmas season, shoppers posted dozens of angry comments on the Facebook page of Northgate Shopping Centre in Tasmania, Australia. Their gripe: that a Santa at the mall had dozed off while on duty.

The Santa in question, whose name is Christopher Gaul, denies that he had a drowsy spell. The mall's general manager said he didn't witness the alleged napping and intends to bring back Mr. Gaul this holiday season.

Noerr's media-relations specialist, Ruth Rosenquist, urged Santas to check twice any online comments to ensure they are appropriate. "Once it's out there, it's out there, Santa," she warned.

There are other, on-the-job issues to deal with—like handling ever pricier gift requests. Danny Rogers, a 67-year-old Fort Collins, Colo., resident who plays Santa at Burlington Mall in Burlington, Mass., said kids' demands are getting more complicated. "I don't get very many calls for Tinkertoys or a Mr. Potato Head," Mr. Rogers said.

Rather than frown upon a wish for an iPad or PlayStation, Santas at the Noerr conference were encouraged to say something like, "I'll see what I can do."

Other general topics covered included physical health, introductory lessons in Spanish and sign language—and of course, beard whitening.

Dozens of Santas watched intently as Michael Wilkinson, a 61-year-old retired computer network manager, mixed together a concoction from eight bottles of bleaches, lotions and powders. He then methodically applied the blue potion to his beard with a special brush and rubber gloves. "You need to get to know where the nearest Sally Beauty Supply is," he advised, referring to the big beauty retailer.

Lecturing on basic ethics was Mr. Heichelbech, an 83-year-old from Arcadia, Fla. Tips aren't to be accepted, he said, and respectable Santas arrive early to work and don't give up the throne until every child is heard.

Health experts enlisted by Noerr counseled the Santas on foods to be avoided during the season lest they cause bad breath or gas. (Chief culprits: onions, peppers, garlic, fish, coffee and broccoli.) They also advised the Santas on the importance of getting their bladders in shape several months prior to the holidays. Drinking lots of water leading up to the season, they said, will not only keep them hydrated, but also help them to take fewer bathroom breaks.

R.G. Holland, a 67-year-old Santa from Inverness, Fla., said he learned at Noerr's 2012 gathering about how to stay cool in his Santa suit. The advice: Buy a special vest with eight pockets to hold cooler packs. Said Mr. Holland: "It helps so much to have another trick in my bag."