It may come as a surprise to those who never reads it, but there's almost always something fun in the Wall Street Journal, and yesterday was no exception, with a "Christmas in July" gift from Jim Carlton in the form of an article on the Amalgamated Order of Real-Bearded Santas. (I think that the WSJ content is only available to subscribers; the Amalgamated site is, of course, free.)
If you live in Kansas City, Santa Claus and Santa Claus and Santa Claus and Santa Claus, are coming to town this weekend for the Amalgamated Order's convention.
But it's not going to be all that ho-ho-ho,
The Amalgamated Santas, one of the nation's largest Santa groups, are dealing with a schism in their ranks. The rift has left burly bearded men accusing one another of bylaw violations, profiteering and behaving in un-Santa-like ways. Some Santas have filed complaints of wrongdoing against others in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
The rift started with a not so jolly power struggle, and, as a result there are now splinter groups, including the Fraternal Order of Real-Bearded Santas, who have thrown their weight behind the Celebrate Santa Convention, which will be held in Gatlinburg, Tennessee next March (over St. Patrick's Day, no less), and will be the:
...largest gathering of Santas, Mrs. Clauses, Elves, Reindeer Owners and Christmas folk to ever assemble under one roof, let alone in one town!
Celebrate Santa (which has been around since 1939) is trying to stay above the political fray:
While we are members of Claus Net, I.O.S, F.I.R.B.Santas, S.A.T.G., and Honoree member of Mystic Order of Traditional Santas, NONE OF THESE OR ANY OTHER ORGANIZATION has any claim or influence over Celebrate Santa. We respect and admire all organizations but as individuals, we are inviting other individuals regardless of their current, past or future associations. We only ask they do not wave their association credentials to other attendees while in Gatlinburg. We are here to learn and have fun, not to hear political or social agendas.
I wonder if this is a veiled, or rather bearded, reference to the Amalgamated Group?
Amalgamated started out in the mid-nineties, when 10 Santas found themselves together shooting a commercial. What they had in common was that they had real beards - not the cheesy clip on ones that "disguise" youngsters (and even, yikes, women).
By 2003, Amalgamated had 100 members, and the Santas tapped a new St. Nick, Tim Connaghan, to run the group. (Among other things, Connaghan is an academic of sorts, since he runs the International University of Santa Claus. Warning: Charlie Brown Christmas theme is playing there.)
Under Connaghan, Amalgamated's roles grew to 300, and held a convention in Branson, Mo.
But there was a lump of coal in the organization's metaphorical stocking.
Connaghan got into with Nick Trolli, the Santa in charge of the 2008 Kansas City convention.
One thing led to another, and - on Dasher, on Dancer - soon there was more flying than sleighs through the December night.
Connaghan was accused of conflict of interest for doing bookings for Santas. Then Connaghan:
...disclosed that he had signed a contract with a Hollywood production company for a possible movie on a Santa convention. Mr. Connaghan acknowledged he stood to retain as much as $25,000 as the film's consultant, but said the group would also get up to $50,000. Some Santas said he was personally profiting as head of the organization.
Connaghan resigned, and Trolli succeeded him.
The lines were drawn, Santas took sides, and - with trash talk flying around on the Amalgamated chat group (Elf Net) - every Santa could see (and comment on) who was being naughty and nice.
Then things got even naughtier: a shoving match; withdrawal of a URL; threats to take it to the FBI; involvement by the Kentucky AG's office; charges in Pennsylvania about unregistered solicitation of charitable donations; Trolli's claiming that his family has been threatened by rogue Santas....
Once you know that there are hundreds of Santas out there, it becomes somewhat predictable that Connaghan is throwing his bowl full of jelly into the Red Suit Society, which is the alumni association of Santa U.
And then there's the World Santa Claus Congress, coming up in another week or so in Copenhagen...
Although the department store Santa I had my one and only picture taken with (along with my sister Kathleen and brother Tom) looked like the real deal (if the beard was fake it was a decent one), most of the Santas of my childhood were the exact opposite of the Real Bearders.
In first grade, Kathy Shea's mother came by and gave out little mesh bags full of hard candies. As I recall, her beard looked like a roll of cotton batting. And I'm pretty sure we all knew it was Mrs. Shea.
A year later, friend and neighbor Jack McGinn came by our house on Christmas Eve dressed as Santa. Even I knew that Santa wasn't a beanpole with a Worcester accent - let alone a beard that was even worse than Mrs. Shea's.
"That Santa is a fake," I screamed. "It's Mr. McGinn!"
Well, that was it for me and Santa.
Maybe if a member of the Red Suit Society, or the Amalgamated Order of Real-Beard Santas, or the Fraternal Order, or any of the other authentic Santas, had swung by our house that fateful Christmas Eve, rather than Jack McGinn, I might have been a believer for a little while longer.