Inside NJ’s Community of Professional Santas

Real-bearded St. Nicks take their jobs seriously—and can earn quite a bit of Christmas cash doing so.

Doug Meyer, a retired music teacher from Dunellen, says that real-bearded, professional Santas like him “have to become Santa full-time, because you are recognized as Santa full-time”—even in the off-season. Courtesy of Doug Meyer

For “Santa Jersey Joe” Nametko, Christmas and politics don’t mix. For the last six years, Nametko, 69, has worked as both the mayor of Netcong, a small borough in Morris County, and as a professional Santa Claus. But Nametko, who has been mayor for a total of 15 years, makes a concerted effort not to let his two worlds collide.

“I have been asked several times to appear in photos with elected state officials and respectfully decline because I truly believe in the magic and spirit of Christmas, and politics could not be further from those ideals,” says Nametko, whose Santa work mostly includes events and photo sessions.

When he’s off the clock as mayor, Nametko does mingle professionally with other Santas, including those in the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas—a large professional Santa and Mrs. Claus organization with a New Jersey chapter. Membership provides practical benefits, such as liability insurance and subsidized background checks, plus the chance to forge friendships and network.

Pre-pandemic, Jersey’s branch, which is run by professional Santa Jim Kelly, hosted dinners where the Santas and their Mrs. Clauses would “swap stories and have fun,” while also trading professional tips, says Kelly. “The interesting thing [about] people who want to spread joy is they tend to be very nice,” says Kelly, a retired physics teacher who lives in Manville.

“Santa Jersey Joe” Nametko is also the mayor of Netcong. Courtesy of Millie Dee Photography

These real-bearded Santas take their jobs seriously—and can earn quite a bit of Christmas cash doing it (Nametko’s December rates range from $300 to $500 for a half-hour home party). Many have attended the well-known International University of Santa Claus, which offers “degrees” and courses on everything from talking to children to the history of Santa. Kelly, 65, even went on a Santa cruise to Alaska a couple of years back that was part learning—and all fun.

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Doug Meyer, a retired music teacher from Dunellen who now works as a professional Santa, says that from February to September he hones in on skills he wants to improve—from learning American Sign Language to beard care—through classes, conferences and Santa meet-ups. “There’s a big world of Santas out there,” says Meyer, 66. “It’s something you don’t think about when you’re a normal person.” Others spend part of the off-season doing Santa gigs; Nametko was hired for a nun’s 80th birthday party this past summer, while Kelly donned his red suit for a 3-year-old’s birthday celebration.

Even when Santas are not on duty, “you kind of have to become Santa full-time because you are recognized as Santa full-time,” says Meyer, who is working at a New Jersey mall this season. “But who’s a better person to try to be than Santa Claus in your own personal life?…If you take it seriously enough to wear a beard, you also have to work on your outside persona.”

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