They come to Joyce Beisel's salon as regular men with plump bellies and long, stringy hair. But in four to eight hours, she transforms them into their fantasy - a jolly white-haired Santa ready to ascend to a gilded throne at a shopping mall or to hand out gifts at a Christmas party.
For 30 years, Santas have traveled from all over the country, and perhaps as far as the North Pole, to sit in Beisel's swivel chair and let her work her magic with a concoction of bleach and dye, scissors and a blow dryer. It is a complicated, time-consuming process, but Beisel has it down to a science, giving each Santa, and sometimes Mrs. Claus, a treatment that makes them appear authentic.
For these men, as well as thousands of others around the country, being Santa Claus is not just a seasonal job. It is a lifestyle.
Getting the perfect look is a major part of the persona, but it also includes intensive training, criminal background checks and perfecting an attitude that they are not simply men but an immortal.
The proliferation of shopping malls has turned the Santa Claus business into a multimillion-dollar industry in America. Sometimes, competition can be stiff among the estimated 8,000 professional Santas that experts say don the red velvet uniform at Christmas. Perfect hair often is what sets them apart.
"It's a lifestyle because you always look the part when your hair is natural," said Tom Hartsfield, a co-founder of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, a group of 670 Santa professionals that advocate a natural look rather than the wearing of wigs.
Beisel, a 59-year-old grandmother, realized the importance of Santa's hair years ago when she ran a shop in an Atlanta shopping mall. In exchange for free advertising, she offered to do the mall Santa's hair without charge.
Before long her business blossomed, and she and her sister opened the Hair Appeal salon in suburban Atlanta.
"I thought I could make them prettier, and I do," said Beisel, who has about 200 regular Santa. "Santa used to cause traffic jams in the mall when he walked out of my salon."
The average age of the Santas she serves is about 50, she said. The youngest is 35 and the oldest is 85. The cost of a job is US$195, regardless of what they get done. Beisel also does the hair of about a dozen Mrs. Clauses, usually the wives of the Santas.
On a recent Saturday, Bob Green waited patiently as Beisel put the finishing touches on two other Santas who arrived ahead of him. For 34 years, Green has worn a Santa wig, but this year, he decided to commit to the natural look. That meant trimming 10 inches off his gray and brown locks, leaving 9 inches hanging to his shoulders. He had not had a hair cut in over a year.
"I got a new Santa suit for the first time in 34 years, so I thought I would do the hair to go along with it," said Green, who runs several small businesses in Selma, Alabama, during the Christmas off-season.
"I bought the suit when I was in my 20s, and I had to stuff it with a pillow. But over the years, it just shrunk," he said, making light of his round stomach.
Beisel's three grandchildren paid a visit to the salon as she applied bleach to Green's hair, eyebrows and mustache. Two other casually clad Santas stood nearby, one of them with his hair piled on his head in a clunky glob.
The boys had an explanation for the scene that might have been confusing to some.
"There are three of them here so one can go to every country," 8-year-old Tyler Williams explained to his younger brothers, Dakota Mullins, 7, and Braden Mullins, 4.
"When he leaves here, he's going back to the North Pole to get all the toys and pick up the elves."
He also could explain why Green wasn't traveling in a sleigh but on a Harley-Davidson, his preferred method of transportation even when he is wearing his Santa suit.
"There's no snow outside," Tyler said.
Formerly hired individually by large department stores, most Santas now contract with an agency, often a large photo company that sends them out on assignments and profits from the photographs of Santa with the children.
For a six-week job that normally starts a week before Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas Eve, Santa can earn US$10,000 to US$12,000 by working 10-hour shifts at a shopping mall. The most popular Santas can demand up to US$150 an hour working private parties.
But for many of them, it is not about the money.
"Personally, you have to become Santa to be a good Santa," said Randy Ellis, 51, who this year is fulfilling a 10-year dream to be a Santa. Ellis, of Woodstock, Georgia, spent the day at Beisel's salon getting his hair transformed to snow white.
"It sounds hokey, but you have to feel the spirit of the season in your soul," said Ellis. "It is incredible to have people walk up to you and call you Santa, whether they are two years old or 80."
Before a St. Nick lands in Santa Village in the mall or gets to visit sick children in a hospital, he has likely attended training offered by an agency or other groups. He can recite the history of Santa Claus and knows the names of all the reindeer. He knows how to engage in conversation with a fidgety child, and that it is forbidden to promise things he cannot deliver. And he knows certain tricks of the trade - like keeping breath mints on hand. Nobody likes a Santa with bad breath.
Being Santa has responsibilities, said Hartsfield of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.
"When I get irritated with somebody on the freeway, I have to think before I flip them off. My license plate says 'Yo Santa' so I can't afford to damage my image," said Hartsfield, 67, of Panguitch, Utah.
Beyond image, and due to screening that has become more prevalent in the last five years, the chance that the shopping mall Santa or any of his elves are criminals has become less likely.
But it is not foolproof.
The Web site, pre-employ.com, that specializes in background checks for job applicants, found that about 70 of the 1,000 applicants for mall Santas or Santa's helpers had misdemeanor or felony convictions during the last seven years. Those offenses included indecent exposure, assault, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and soliciting for prostitution. A study by the Web site showed that 46 percent of the malls do not conduct criminal background checks on these seasonal employees.
Ernest Berger, president of Santa America, said he welcomes such scrutiny. "It shows that our society is better informed than it has been at any point in history," said Berger, 62.
According to Beisel, her clients have come from as far away as California and Canada. Her busy season begins October 1.
"I try to make their hair as white as I can," Beisel said. "But no Santa is the same. Some have black hair when they come in. Some have gray. ... So I have to tailor the dye and the style for the individual."