mud santa
Image: Angela Cash

YES, THAT’S A REAL BEARD. And it belongs to 51-year-old Vancouverite Robert Figley, “Santa” to most. But Figley is no shabby mall version: This Santa-for-hire heads the Washington/Oregon chapter of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, a 1,700-strong international elite of Christmas professionals. Each January, Figley trims his moneymaker down to stubble, then spends 11 months growing it back to storybook proportions—optimally between 8 and 10 inches long. Whitening shampoo imparts a snowy sheen, and Figley won’t leave the house until he’s waxed and twirled his mustache to perfection. “Santas are very vain,” he confesses.

Of course, successful Santahood takes more than a talent for primping. Like a moisture-wicking Santa suit to keep sweat at bay inside the toasty ensemble. He must also defend against kids’ coughs, sneezes and wheezes. “Face it—we’re all fat old men!” says Figley. “When you put a kid with whooping cough on our laps, that’s like throwing a grenade at us.” And if you think visiting millions of homes in one night is impressive, try maneuvering a minivan through holiday traffic to make your next appearance on time.

Not that playing Santa doesn’t have its perks. The work might be seasonal, but it’s also lucrative: Figley collects up to $300 an hour at some gigs. Then there’s his celebrity status, the requisite cartoon-watching to keep up with kid culture and, of course, all the milk and cookies he can eat.