Everybody these days seem to have an interest group. Businesses have the chambers of commerce, workers have unions, politicians have political parties.

Even Santas.

The Orange County-based Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS), is a national organization of 800 men with big, white — and real — beards, who don red suits each December and vow to maintain a positive image of Santa.

“We’re dedicated to helping existing and potential Santas to be the best Santas they can be,” said FORBS President Ron Robertson of La Habra.

Members meet monthly except during the busy months of November and December to share tips on how to answer difficult questions from the little folks who climb upon their laps, like “How did you meet the elves?” or “Why do you come down the chimney?”

The elves, according to Santa Ron, introduced themselves after seeing Santa struggling with a big bag of toys and signed on to help.

The chimney business takes longer to explain to children who have never seen snow, but Robertson said real bearded Santas are patient and do their best.

And of course, membership requires a real beard, not that children are encouraged to confirm credibility by yanking it.

Then there are the other issues handled by the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, like insurance and background checks. Like so many other public figures these days, Santa needs help to protect himself from lawsuits.

Santas also must promote themselves. Many, like Robertson, have agents and websites.

The Politics and Economics of Being Santa

Art Brown has been mayor of Buena Park five times and will run for the City Council again in 2012. He’s also a real bearded Santa.

Eleven years ago one of his friends needed a Santa for a preschool party, and since then he’s been hoisting children onto his knee at schools, charity events and other gatherings each December.

But recession has made his job tougher.

“I don’t get as many requests for big-ticket items. Most kids know their parents can’t afford them,” he said.

This year one preschooler told him, “I don’t need anything, but my mother needs a diaper bag” for a new baby.

Robertson reports similar experiences. “A number of children this year are saying ‘I don’t want anything. Give something to someone else,’” he said.

The economy also has taken its toll on Santa’s income. The biggest hit has been a sharp reduction in the number of corporate parties, several Santas reported.

While Orange County malls generally pay between $18 and $30 an hour, a Santa can charge $150 to work a private party and hand out gifts, said Bob Callahan, a Santa from Garden Grove and vice president of the Orange County FORBS chapter.

“I had several huge corporate parties [but] they just had so many people laid off they felt they couldn’t justify the cost,” he said.

Even so, the Santas reported they’re very busy this year, booked up each weekend, many weekdays and, of course, scheduled to move from event to event on their busiest night, Christmas Eve. Christmas Day also is hectic.

The Fighting Santas

FORBS was founded in 2007 after members of an earlier national group, the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, failed to heed their own admonition to “better not fight” and ended up in an old-fashioned row.

News accounts at the time attributed the falling-out to a series of internal disputes that included accusations of unethical business deals, bylaw violations and conduct unbecoming a Santa.

When Clement Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas” 189 years ago, he didn’t have to include verses about St. Nick needing liability insurance or a background check.

Today Art Brown carries $2 million in liability insurance just in case anything happens. And as part of the insurance screening process, he had a background check to make sure he wasn’t a child molester or convicted of other crimes.

It’s one of the reasons the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas exists. In today’s world, entertainers, even real bearded entertainers, who are in close contact with the public, especially children, need those protections.

Most Santas aren’t rich, and “one lawsuit can wipe [Santas’ assets] all out. That’s the age we live in,” Robertson said.

And like other moral leaders in the community, such as school principals and members of the clergy, Santas must always be on their best behavior. In May or June a Santa in civilian dress may “see a small child [and] … all of a sudden their eyes light up” in recognition: “There’s Santa!”

“Nobody wants to see Santa stumbling out of a bar anytime of the year,” Robertson said.

Brown and others said there always is something for Santa to learn. He said he and others have read books on the history of Santa and even graduated from the “very intensive” two-day course offered by the University of Santa Claus.

Rule No. 1: Whenever a picture is being taken of Santa with children, “both hands must always appear in each picture.”

And be ready to hear more than just a Christmas list.

“My grandma’s sick. She has pneumonia,” one child told Brown.

“Well, she’s going to get better,” he assured the child.

“But she’s got cancer too.”

Or the woman who tearfully “asked if I could get her husband back from Mexico. I said, ‘I’ll pray for you, but that’s about all you can do.’ “

Said Robertson, “There’s always something to learn and hopefully always give something back — if nothing else, a little love.”

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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