Los Angeles Times

Bearded band of brothers, still jolly and wearing red

They’re like any fraternity of brothers. They plan outings, reminisce, joke around.

 There’s just one exception -- they're professional Santas.

 The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, or FORBS, is a regional group dedicated to providing professional Santas with a support system all year.

 They have a reunion every January, after their holiday work is done. This year’s event was hosted by Knott’s Berry Farm Resort Hotel in Buena Park, Calif. The reunion allows them to swap “war stories” about the job -- the good, bad and hilarious -- and decompress from the Christmas season.

“When we got our charter to become a fraternity from the state of California, we promised three things,” said Rick Erwin, the group’s vice president. “Professional training, peer support and social networking.”

The social aspect, it turns out, is very important. FORBS wants to foster a close-knit community among the men, some of whom come from Northern California, Arizona and New Mexico.

“We have a lot of fun, but this [reunion] is the high-water mark,” said Erwin, who says most of his closest friends are professional Santas. “We can go to any venue and take the place over in 15 minutes.”

And that they did. Their jolly display of pageantry was hard to miss. More than 200 Santas roamed the hotel, traveled in packs and dressed in red -- or as they call it, “Santa casual.”

The weekend’s itinerary was packed with entertainment and education. From a “Santa’s Got Talent” show and a fashion parade to “veteran versus rookie” panels and ukulele lessons.

The requirements for membership are few. “Other than a verifiable background check, you must grow and maintain your own beard for the purpose of portraying Santa Claus,” Erwin said.

Growing an authentic beard can be harder than it looks. But the reunions usually offer a beard-growing tutorial, among other things that can boost a Santa’s marketability. Vendors display trinkets that can improve style and image.

“Every Santa in this room takes some of his earnings and puts it in his stocking for the reunion,” Erwin said. “This is the perfect opportunity to augment your Santa look.”

Above all, though, the Santa fraternity is in the business of “promoting a Santa state of mind” all year long.

What does that mean exactly?

“It means when I get cut off in traffic, I can’t do what most people would do,” Erwin said. “I can only laugh.”

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