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"It's a helluva hard job," says Canada's top Santa Claus. Victor Nevada has been playing the jolly old elf for 22 years. It started as a way to butter up his real estate clients during the slow months. "In January, February and March, I could count on $30,000 to $50,000 in new business," says the Calgary-based Claus. But perfecting his act was brutal. "Santa is a very complicated character," he says. "When I started, I was absolutely the worst." Nevada devoured all the Santa lore he could find, and took voice and improv lessons. Now, he does parties, stand-up comedy and appearances at events like the Calgary Stampede, for which he dons a red frock coat, spurs that jingle--and a shoulder holster. Once a year, he also runs a four-day, $500 (U.S.) Santa school (the voice coach is an opera singer who has performed at the Met in New York). A couple of his former students charge $1,000 an hour.

There was no Santa school this year, though--enrolment was too low. Most of Nevada's students usually come from the U.S., he says, "and there's a recession going on." It's shaping up to be a tough Christmas all around: A couple of Nevada's clients have already cancelled their parties. "I was thankful I got a helluva big non-refundable deposit," says Nevada. "But as a business owner, I'm thinking, 'You're letting people go and asking the people remaining to do a helluva lot of work, and now you're cheaping out on them with the party?'"

The malls will be hurting, too--and as far as Nevada's concerned, they already pay a scandalously low rate for Santa services. "A good mall Santa has gotta be worth at least $50 an hour--at least," he says. "That's a real-bearded Santa who knows how to do the character, take a good picture and has good costuming--not a costume that costs $200 or $300. But clients will pay for that. Once they see a really good Santa, they get to realize what mediocrity is."

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$10,000 to $15,000

Average pay for a typical mall Santa for 10-hour days over two months

$2,200

Cost of Victor Nevada's 2008 Santa suit, which he designed (he designs costumes for Santas worldwide). His most expensive ever cost $3,500

$60,000

Amount a top-notch Santa doing private events in Toronto can make during the holiday season (about $5,000 a day)

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