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Santa Claus greeted each child by name at a recent Stone Oak neighborhood party. His familiarity surprised them. Some eagerly told him what they wanted for Christmas. Somehow Santa was able to tell others that he already knew what they wanted – and he was right.
Mark Hotchkiss, the man in the red suit who knew all the kids’ names, relies on an electronic assist: a hidden earpiece.
Another Santa secret: He keeps his beard snowy white by bleaching it.
“I can’t hear you,” Hotchkiss said to his wife, Laura, while getting ready for a Santa engagement.
Laura accompanies him on many of his appointments – dressed as Mrs. Claus.
“You sure the battery isn’t dead in the earpiece?” she asked.
“It’s a brand new battery.”
“Are you on the right frequency?”
“I’m on [Channel] 1.” Hotchkiss fiddled with the walkie-talkie his wife was using and gave it back to her. She tried again. “Oh, now I hear you. Maybe it was on the wrong frequency.”
Hotchkiss partners with someone at each event to find out the names of kids waiting to meet him, as well as what they want for Christmas, he revealed.
Before each appearance, Hotchkiss blow-dries and curls his snow-white beard and mustache. It takes the professional Santa Claus several steps to make the magic real.
First, the 55-year-old primps his face. Hotchkiss uses a hair dryer and round brush to fluff his beard. He has a 1-inch curling iron to get the edges just right, curling them in a cartoonishly smooth shape. He runs a little bit of hair gel through the ends of his mustache until they stand up jauntily, framing his smile with a handlebar.
He bleaches his beard and mustache every two weeks during the holidays, he said, and once a month in the offseason. He’s been growing his beard for two years now and is a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, one of the many Santa Claus organizations around the country. The group gives members liability insurance as well as background checks.
Hotchkiss then puts on a fake belly and tucks a wallet inside of it. The wallet holds a walkie-talkie receiver and earpiece set, which he brings to all his gigs. He twists the tiny earpiece into place.
His wife’s preparations as Mrs. Claus are a little less time-consuming, Laura said.
“For me, I just roll my hair,” she said.
She found her Mrs. Claus outfit on a website that sells Victorian-era clothing and added her own touches: a white fur capelet and headband, a deep plum underskirt adorned with silvery snowflakes.
She has added colorful pins they found on a specialty Santa website to her headdress and her husband’s Santa hat.
“Every Santa and Mrs. Claus that goes professional starts adding things to their wardrobe,” Hotchkiss said.
Hotchkiss said he’s contemplating opening his own specialty store, selling walkie-talkie and earpiece sets like the one he uses on the job to learn kids’ names and wish lists.
“There are a lot of Santas in the country, and a lot of them open their own little stores,” he said. “The batteries on this earpiece I’ve only changed out once; it runs maybe 15 hours. And I haven’t changed the battery on the wallet yet, and that’s rechargeable.”
After Hotchkiss puts on his fake belly and tucks in the receiver, he pulls on the rest of his suit – stretchy red velvet pants and a red velvet jacket. He threads a black belt with a large gold buckle through his belt loops, cinching it tight. Then he slips on his red stocking cap and into black boots lined with fur. Last are his white gloves, which he wears once and then cleans or throws away.
Hotchkiss works as an auditor for a health care consulting firm but has set up a busy seasonal schedule for his side gig. His first taste of being Santa Claus was three Christmases ago. He sat outside of his home in Northeast San Antonio, waving at his neighbors and handing out candy. More than 400 people stopped for photos, he said. He and Laura kept track by how many pieces of candy they handed out.
“Last year, 880 people stopped by,” he said. “We did it Fridays and Saturday nights from Thanksgiving to Christmas, about five weekends.”
Last year also marked Hotchkiss’ first year going professional. He set up a profile on GigSalad.com and quickly found business.
This holiday season, he was almost completely booked. Hotchkiss acts as Santa at house parties, corporate events, and this year, he’s one of the Santa Clauses at the San Antonio Zoo. He charges $150 per hour for his attendance and double that on Christmas and Christmas Eve. But for many of his charity events, he refuses to charge.
“If it’s a fundraiser and I support the fundraiser, I try to do it for free,” he said.
On Dec. 8, Hotchkiss had two gigs as Santa Claus. His first was the neighborhood party in Stone Oak, where he and Laura posed by a Christmas tree for dozens of photos within minutes of doors opening.
Caroline Ramsay, who organized the party, welcomed a steady stream of children and parents as they gathered in a small clubhouse. Ramsay met Hotchkiss at her church’s Christmas Eve service last year and was stunned by how “legit” he looked.
“I booked him a year ago for today,” she laughed.
Through the walkie-talkie, Ramsay fed Hotchkiss children’s names as they approached him. A few held back, slowly warming up to Santa as he asked them questions and tested their “naughty or nice” levels on a smartphone app. One little girl was so overwhelmed she hid behind her parents, knees knocking and face buried in her hair.
“Where are the reindeer?” one boy demanded.
“I have to fly them into the airport and then they hang out in the hangar,” Hotchkiss told him.
Hotchkiss cuddled babies and shook many small hands.
“Seeing their expressions is so great,” he said. “It’s amazing. I had one little boy whisper in my ear, ‘A lot of kids at my school don’t think you’re real, but I do.’”