Job: Santa

Salary: Santa pay depends on photo sales, so it varies. When you start out, you might not be making very much. But you start making a name for yourself and then you can do very well. It can be anywhere from $40 to $12,000 a season.

Education/ background: I'm Santa 42 days of the year. I don't usually share this -- I usually keep it to the [Santa] story while I'm here -- but the rest of the year you could say I make toys. But toys for big people. I make aircraft parts for Hitchcock Industries & Consolidated Precision Products. I've also been to many Santa Claus universities and schools. I teach people, too: how to get jobs, and care for your beard and such. And I started the Minnesota Santas club 15 years ago; we now have 125 Santas.

How did you begin working as a Santa? I started out as a Santa for my own family over 40 years ago, with a $25 suit from Frank's Nursery & Crafts. The gal who bought me that suit now brings her grandkids in, so that dates me a bit.

But what really got me into it was I had a brother who was 3 1/2 years old and had leukemia. I spent a lot of time in the hospital at the University of Minnesota. I'd go out to see the kids and play with them and they'd love it. I was probably about 17. It was really a hard thing to see him go through chemo[therapy] ... so I helped build a trike for him and we had it extended because he had a shorter leg. That's where it started.

Then I grew my beard and my hair. And I got a job in St. Louis Park at a mall, and then another job flying out to a mall in Kalamazoo [Mich.] The line would be 3 or 3 1/2 hours long every day. People watching would holler down, "We believe!"

That's what it's all about: winning kids over, no matter what age. Then 13 years ago a friend told me they were interviewing here [at the Mall of America]. I showed them my scrapbook and some pictures of the things I could do, and it's been nothing but growing since then.

Now I go only by appointment. I get to have more fun with the kids because I sit on the floor, and we have a conversation. It's all recorded on DVD. The most amazing part is to see the twinkle in these kids' eyes.

Just on Black Friday weekend, I saw 1,554 kids. I don't know how many thousands and thousands of pictures have been taken through the years. People fly in from Florida and Chicago to see me. It's endless the fun you can have.

A family commented this year about how last year Santa delivered Dad on their steps. He came home from Iraq for Christmas Eve. They made it look like I did it. How special to be a part of that family's Christmas.

Any drawbacks to the job? I'm always fighting for vacation time, since I spend a lot of time here, and of course I want to take some time off with Mrs. Claus, too.

Is there a popular request this year? Nintendo DS. I'm going to be seeing that thing in my sleep!

HILARY BRUECK