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Santa Claus

It's business as usual for this merrymaker

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For most of the year, Gary Casey works as a courier, braving Atlanta's highways to deliver important packages. But from Thanksgiving to Christmas, he transforms himself into the most famous deliveryman of all -- Santa Claus.

Casey is the founder of SantaAtlanta.com, a website that books personal appearances of Old Saint Nick for private events, about 75 appearances per season at corporate and family parties. Casey started the company in 1994 with one Santa -- himself. The company has grown to employ six Santas and three Mrs. Clauses, along with some photographers and elves.

The job requires a great deal of preparation, including an investment in costumes and extensive hair and make-up work. Having mastered his roles as merrymaker and Internet entrepreneur, Casey wants to expand the operation to serve a wider geographical area.

Before becoming Santa, Casey worked for 17 years in hotel restaurant management. He worked as a food industry headhunter, giving sales and marketing people the gift of job placement, before going to work for Executive Courier in 1990.

How did you get started in this line of work?

I got tired of nicking myself while shaving, so I quit shaving. About six months later I looked like Santa Claus. That first year I had one party. I went out and started doing my own marketing and advertising, got a mailing list and went all the way up to about 30 parties. I do all the typing, I send out all the invoices and all the consultations and handle all the confusion.

How much of the year does the Santa business keep you busy?

I do have a regular job, but all year I'm doing the marketing and getting ready for the mail-outs and putting advertising together for different publications. I would say it takes probably three or four hours in the evenings. I'm a courier for Executive Courier and work eight to 10 hours a day. From Thanksgiving out, I don't work as a courier. I'm strictly Santa Claus.

How do you know if we've been good or bad?

My elves know. They have it in their database of all the children of the world. If they're bad they get coal in their stockings. It's a tough life out there. You've got to be good.

How do you get all the way around the world on Christmas Eve?

The sleigh is all set up by Georgia Tech. They upgrade it every year. We're just fast.

What does it take to be a Santa?

Basically a good personality, a person that loves children and doesn't mind adults that sit on his knee or pull his beard. You've got to be flexible. It's not just a matter of sitting there and being Santa Claus, you have to be able to mix with all the people involved.

What kind of education and skills do you need for the job?

We do go through a little bit of training. It's important that you keep your hands in view all the time and that you don't drink on the job or eat on the job, for that matter. If we get our beards messed up and our uniforms all messed up, it looks pretty bad with ketchup running down your beard. It's not that difficult, but we've got to keep everything aboveboard.

What's the dress code for the job?

You've got to have a real beard. There are no phony beards at SantaAtlanta. We go through a lot at the hairdressers. It takes six hours to get our hair stripped and toned and bleached out. My hair's a lot more salt and pepper, so it does require getting it stripped and toned. The costume starts at about $400. I've got two costumes and a bunch of vests. Every Santa Claus does things differently. It's all a matter of what you're comfortable with. There's no set rule that you've got to be a Coca-Cola Santa Claus. As long as you've got the appearance, that's what counts.

Why don't you work in shopping malls?

The bottom line on the job is you've got to have fun. I hate being bored. I hate long gigs where you have four or five hours and you're sitting in a chair waiting for something to happen. That's why I chose not to be a mall Santa Claus. There you're either bored to death or you're getting clobbered by 600 kids.

What unusual things have happened on the job?

Some of the kids have very sad questions. One little girl wanted her mother and father to stop fighting. One time I had five sets of triplets hit me all in one day, and I found out they all came from the same neighborhood.

Do the adults react any differently than the kids?

The adults are the same way as the kids, the adults that want to have fun. You get stuck-up adults that don't think Santa Claus exists anymore, but he does exist in the minds of a lot of people.

How much do visits from Santa cost?

The rate is $200 an hour for businesses, and families are $150 an hour. There's a discount for multiple hours.

What's the best perk of doing this job?

I don't have to work eight hours. I can make plenty of money in three. I take off Thanksgiving to Christmas, and I probably only work 40 hours during that whole time. It's a lot easier than it's made out to be.

What's the most challenging part of the job?

Having 100 adults sit on your lap in one night. If you're in a good chair and put your knee at the right height, and they sit on the end of your knee, it's fine. If they try to get up closer to your body you can get killed.

Would you keep doing this if you won the lottery?

Absolutely. If I win the lottery I'm going to put it into a foundation for children and then I'll head up the foundation, and I'll still be Santa Claus. I'd do something to help the kids out, particularly the kids of divorce. They're the most torn kids you talk to. There's a lot of hurt going on.

What are your goals for the Santa gig?

I want it to get bigger and get more Santa Clauses involved in it. I'd like to have about 20 Santa Clauses and 300 or 400 jobs a year. I may take it national. This is five or six years down the road.

What are kids asking Santa for this year?

PlayStation 2 is No. 1. I don't know if my elves are making enough of them, but it's No. 1. The scooters are probably No. 2, for the boys particularly. Girls are asking for American Girl [books and dolls] and Barbies. The older girls are asking for clothes, CDs and CD players.

What's your favorite movie about Santa Claus?

The Miracle on 34th Street in black and white. They let you know that Santa Claus is really there. Even the U.S. Post Office validated it.

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