The Kelly house is throwing a Christmas party this year. We have the professional carolers lined up to perform. "But I think we need a Santa," friend Bernice told me over the phone, "something to hold the kids' attention." Bernice was swamped with the party decorating details, so I took up the hunt. I wanted to get a few different options, Santas that offered a bit more than rosy cheeks and a fat belly. I racked up a huge phone bill dialing the North Pole, but I managed to find a few Santas, and each offered a twist or two to the regular Saint Nick. "Our Santa wears the traditional Santa's outfit," explained Helene Auerbach of the company Party Animals Children's Entertainment (858-279-2908). "He comes in with bells and he reads 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. The kids can sit on his lap, and we hand out coloring sheets of him that the kids take home. He has a big red bag so he can pass out presents.

"We also have elves that can come and do face painting and balloon animals for the kids. The elves can come on their own or come with Santa. And we also have characters like Barney or Sponge Bob that do holiday characters. We put a Santa hat on them, or a muffler."

Prices for Santa run $85 for a half hour, $125 for an hour, $150 for an hour and a half, and $175 for two hours. The prices are the same for the elf.

"I offer Karaoke Santa, DJ Santa, and just Santa," said Brad Gish of Audio Paradise Entertainment (626-922-2723). This would be a delightful curve ball to throw Bernice's way. Drag in the DJ Santa. "DJ Santa can happen a couple of different ways," offered Gish. "I start off deejaying in my normal clothing, as people are dining, and at the end of the meal, I make a big announcement, and all of a sudden in walks Santa and takes over the deejaying. Or from the start of the event, Santa can be deejaying."

Or Gish comes as plain old Santa, in his red suit with fur trim, and hands out presents, reads a story, and takes pictures with the kids.

Prices run $200 for the first hour, $250 for two hours, and $325 for three hours.

Magic Santa, a.k.a. Loch David Crane (619-222-2849), has been suiting up as Santa for the past 15 years. "Every year I do less makeup on the beard," he joked. "It comes in white; it's so nice to have nothing to wash off in the shower. I have a two-piece Santa Claus suit, based on a double-breasted suit, with six-inch and eight-inch fox fur trim. It is a tuxedo sort of design that unbuttons in the front; it's cooler to wear. I do have several traditional suits that I wear for parades, where people don't see too closely.

"The first thing the kids always check out is the beard and the hair," he said. "That is what sells it. They grab a big handful of beard and tug on it."

Ouch. I had no idea Santa work could be so painful.

"I have a goatee most of the year, but at the end of summer, I start growing a Santa Claus beard so by November it already looks good."

Crane had an important tip for those who would have good Saint Nick make a cameo at their Christmas party. "The other Santa secret," he explained, "is kids under three are not a good audience. Frequently they get terrified of a big hairy red thing, and I don't blame them. So I always have people sitting next to the little ones."

Displaying a bit of professional pride, Crane boasts that it takes more to be a Santa than a red suit and a high tolerance for beard-tugging pain. "You can certainly go out and buy a Santa Claus suit for cheap and have any fat guy fill it, but you have to know how to do it well so that you can finesse the rest of the party after having scared a baby," he jested.

"I am a magic Santa Claus," he added, "I perform a magic act, either 15 or 30 minutes long, and then I also do the traditional Santa services, like photos with the kids, bouncing kids on the knee, handing out labeled gifts. Those are priced separately. A half-hour show costs $150 , and there's an extra $25 for the Santa services for up to about two dozen kids. If you have 40 or 50 kids, then it costs a bit more. I have four or five specific magic tricks that I do, and then depending on the audience I have, I do a different finale. If they are young and kind of drifty, I tend to do 15 or 20 minutes and let them go. If it is an older group, then I like to stretch the last 15 minutes and do individual mind reading and things like that. For just a Santa Claus appearance without a magic show, it costs $60 for about 15 to 30 minutes. And I do photos with the kids, hand out presents, I run around the room looking for Ricky in all the corners and don't look at him waving his hand. I play around a little bit. I also do surprise Santa visits after the 25th. Nobody expects to see Santa in January, and I show up and blow them away and then do some magic on top of that." Magic Santa charges $1 per mile travel charge.

"Being in the season always makes me feel so warm," Crane added. "Being a Santa makes me happy; it raises my endorphins."

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