The most expensive Santa in Boston walked into the bathroom of his Cambridge apartment to begin getting ready for an appearance at the company holiday party for an investment management firm.
Getting ready is a relative term for Jim Manning, for he’s spent fifteen years building up the reputation that has made him the most sought-after high-end Santa in the game, and he spends every month of the year preparing for December. This includes taking improv comedy classes so he can better react when children hit him with tricky questions, and hours studying the hot toys, for Santa must know his toys. Especially when he’s charging $700 an hour.
Manning was, at this moment in his small bathroom, a 43-year-old man with large friendly eyes, a medium belly (he’s recently joined an Orangetheory gym to reduce the ol’ bowl of jelly), and thinning hair that is just completing its transition to gray. On his face was an intentionally wispy moustache that is there because it gives his fake mustache a good base to adhere to, and a trim goatee that is there so he doesn’t just have a wispy mustache.
The purpose of his mustache is just one of the many things that his clients will never know, but is part of his never-ending preparations to wear “the suit,” which he considers a calling and treats with sacred respect. “Santa is never about you, it’s about the children,” he likes to say.
The end product is a Santa that is in such high demand that he is able to command double what his competitors charge in the private event market.
“I know that $700 an hour sounds like a lot, but if people understood the amount of work that goes into it, and how much of my yearly income it must account for, they would realize it’s not an easy buck,” he said.
Here’s what goes into it: After gargling some mouthwash — “Santa can’t have bad breath,” he says — he painted his eyebrows silver, then left the bathroom and put on a specially made cooling vest, which he stuffed with ice packs from his freezer. “Santa runs hot,” he said.
The cooling vest is soon covered by a fat suit, because Manning says he likes “a nice plump Santa Claus.”
Next come the big red velvet pants, part of a custom-made $700 suit. He owns five Santa suits, so he can cycle them through the dry cleaners and always have a spare in his car. He carries spares of every piece of his Santa gear in case disaster strikes.
He applies his fake mustache using toupee tape (he finds it holds better than glue), and contorts his face in the mirror to make sure it’s on solid. After that he puts on his beard, which costs $750 and is made out of yak fur. It is held on with straps that go over his head, and, in his opinion, looks better, and more Santa-like, than a real beard (a requirement for mall Santas).
“Nothing against the real-bearded Santas,” he said, “but I think it’s more special if Santa shows up in December and no other time, so I don’t want to have to walk around all year with a bushy white beard on my face.”
The first time Manning put on the bushy beard was 15 years ago, after a trip to Australia. There, in the Outback, he made a rudimentary balloon animal for some children who had never seen one before, and realized he was good with kids.
When he returned to Boston, he began working as a kids entertainer, the magician Jungle Jim, and it was one of his clients who first put in his head the idea of playing Santa Claus.
“I put on that suit, and it’s kind of hard to explain what happened, but it just felt natural,” he said. His first year, he did 13 appearances. The next year, that doubled. He now does about 50 appearances a year, and turns down far more, with most of his business made up of repeat clients, who start booking him in January. (One of those clients is the City of Boston, for which he serves, for free, as the “official Santa” who presides over the tree lighting on Boston Common.)
Nearly ready to head out the door, Manning puts on his coat, the wide leather belt he had made by a guy in Montana because he didn’t like the off-the-shelf Santa belts, and his Santa hat. Then he grabs his gloves, spectacles and cellphone, before pausing in a large mirror to give himself one last look. The transformation is remarkable but, he says, he does not yet feel like Santa. That only happens when he speaks to a child.
He heads for his sleigh – a Honda CR-V with a quarter-million miles on it – and battles his way through the thick of evening traffic, headed toward a skyscraper near South Station, where he is to entertain the employees’ children at the holiday party.
With so many gigs to get to, he spends a lot of time driving around as Santa – he’ll go through five audiobooks making his December rounds – and, fun fact, driving around as Santa is kind of awesome. People smile. They take photos. Everyone lets him cut in front of them, and he thanks them by rolling down his window and informing them that they’re on Santa’s nice list. It’s downright merry, which is fortunate because he says he can’t arrive at an appearance all stressed out from traffic.
“It’s not just some part you’re playing,” he says. “If I’m off, it can completely change a child’s view of Santa Claus.”
He parks in the basement garage, takes the elevator up to the 23rd floor, and gives himself one last once-over in the mirrored doors. Everything looks good. The doors open.
“And now I’m Santa,” he says.
His shoulders go back and his belly goes out and his voice lowers an octave or two as he bellows “Ho, ho, ho,” marching toward two dozen children who quickly begin to lose their minds.
Quickly, he manages to take charge of the room in a soft way, commanding the kids attention in a practiced way he says comes from two decades as a children’s performer and nearly 1,000 appearances in the suit. It is a full-scale performance, with a reading of “The Night Before Christmas” – marching band gloves are the only white gloves he’s discovered that have enough grip to turn a page – and the obligatory trips to Santa’s knee, taking the kids one-by-one but involving all of them at the same time.
If they freeze on his knee and can’t remember what they want for Christmas – something he estimates happens a good 40 percent of the time – he has tricks to draw it out of them, such as asking what they were for Halloween, which often triggers something. He has answers for the tough questions – he took the elevator because the magic that makes his sleigh fly only works on Christmas Eve – and then it happened, one of those moments you can’t prepare for.
A young girl told him she wanted her friend to be able to walk again. There are some things, he told her quietly, that not even Santa can do, but that he would keep her friend in his thoughts.
These are the situations only a Santa knows, Manning says. Children do not speak to him like they would an adult; they speak to him as Santa, and that can often involve emotional confiding.
Recently, he missed two calls from an unknown number. He called back, thinking it was a client, but the woman who answered did not know what he was talking about when he said it was Santa Jim.
Manning asked if she had children. A couple times a year, Manning will get calls from kids who find his number on his website, santaboston.com, and ring him up because, for whatever reason, they just need to talk to Santa. The woman figured out it was her six-year-old son who had called, and apologized. Manning told her not to worry, and asked if he still wanted to talk to Santa. He did.
They had a fairly typical conversation. Have you been a good boy? What do you want for Christmas?
When they hung up, the mother texted to thank Manning, and to tell him something he didn’t know. Earlier that day, that boy had buried his father. And when he came home from the funeral, he wanted to talk to Santa.