Real-Bearded Santas Flood Toasty Missouri Town

It's summer in southwest Missouri, but Santa Claus has come to town.

More than 280 Santas and 250 Mrs. Clauses are in Branson this weekend for the first convention of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.

The convention -- with 15 seminars on such topics as "Dealing With Special Needs Children," "The Art of Storytelling," "Santa Ethics" and "How to Get an Agent" -- is giving Santas a chance to discuss "ways to work with kids and be the best you can be in this," said spokesman Joe Moore, of San Clemente, California, who has been a Santa for four years.

The group, which requires members to have real beards, now has more than 800 members around the world, according to its Web site.

But how can there be so many Santas?

"They probably all take turns," said 6-year-old Audrey Hislip, of Vincennes, Indiana.

"'Cause there are a lot of places to get to in the world," said 6-year-old Jessi Whittle, of Iberia, Missouri.

Some Santas are salesmen, some teachers, some retail workers. One is a Catholic priest from Alabama and plans to celebrate Mass on Sunday, the final day of the convention.

"When you put that suit on, you're a different person," said Larry June, a parts clerk at the fleet maintenance facility of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. "You're actually Santa."

"Even when you don't have it on," his wife, Vickie, added, recalling a girl who saw her husband -- a tall man with a husky voice and long, mostly white beard -- in a restaurant and yelled, "Mommy, Mommy, there's Santa Claus!"

"Things like that happen no matter where we go," Vickie June said. "I mean, there's something about Santa."

Sid Fletcher is Santa at Mall of America near Minneapolis, where he prefers to sit on the floor and wear a colorful T-shirt instead of a red coat.

"It doesn't scare kids," said Fletcher, who has been a Santa for 30 years.

When not using vacation time to be Santa, he makes aircraft parts at Hitchcock Industries. An effective Santa operation can earn up to $25,000 (€19,560) in six weeks, he said.

But he acts like Santa all year, his wife, Mollie, said.

"During the offseason, I catch him at a stop sign waving at the kids," she said with a grin.

A committee of 15 Santas and one Mrs. Claus organized the convention for the order, which was formed by 10 Santas about 12 years ago.

"There's a high demand for Santas," Moore, the organization's spokesman, said. "It's a very lucrative, growing industry."

While the convention is similar to other trade conventions in some ways, Kathy Tedder, an assistant front office manager at the Radisson Hotel Branson, noted, "We've never had anything like this before."

The hotel has been turned into a Midwestern North Pole, with a boat-sized red sleigh parked out front.

Moore said the Santas plan to hold their convention in Branson again because of its central location, attractions and the warm welcome they have received.

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