Maybe I haven't been paying enough attention, but it seems like there was a lack of Santa-related legal stories this season (comical ones, anyway), at least compared to years past. This one may (or may not) make up for that by featuring a very large number of feuding Santas and at least one incident of Claus-on-Claus violence.
This summer, the Wall Street Journal and other sources reported on a "civil war" raging amongst the nation's professional Santas, who had split into at least three rival groups. The groups have been trading allegations and charges for over a year now, and the disputes were still unresolved as Christmas came and went in 2008.
All the Santas seem to agree that they were spawned at the same source, namely a group established in 1994 by ten founding members (some of them pictured at left), who called themselves "The Amalgamated Order of Real-Bearded Santas." (All ten had real beards, and insisted that fake-bearded imposters would never be admitted.) Over the next 12 years, AORBS grew from ten Santas to 700 or more.
But the group fractured in the summer of 2007. The head Santa at the time, Tim Connaghan, was accused of unethical business dealings involving a potential film project. He quit, or was expelled (there are conflicting stories as to many of these details), after which vice-president Nicholas Trolli took over.
Trolli also seems to have been controversial, allegedly ruling AORBS "with an iron fist in a white glove." He reportedly expelled several members for offenses including "maligning fellow Santas on Elf Net," the AORBS Internet chat group. Trolli then incorporated (or re-incorporated) the group, and his faction now refers to itself as "AORBS, Inc." (www.AORBSinc.com). It is using that domain under protest, however, because Connaghan still controls (or stole) the domain www.AORBSantas.com, which AORBS previously used.
Connaghan, however, has also set up an entirely different rival organization, "The Red Suit Society" (a subsidiary of "The Kringle Group, LLC"). The RSS is comprised of graduates of Connaghan's Kringle college, the International University of Santa Claus. (Well, not exactly — the website says RSS membership after graduation is "almost automatic," and also that it's been expanded recently to include anyone who has purchased the course book or DVDs. Classes thus appear to be optional at IUSC.) Connaghan has accused AORBS of a "vindictive and persecutory" attitude, and "engaging in un-Santa-like dialogue."
Then there's Ric Erwin, one of the banned Santas kicked out for maligning people on Elf Net. He runs yet another group, which he calls "The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas" (FORBS). Erwin showed up at an AORBS "Meet and Greet" held at Knott's Berry Farm in January 2008, and that's when the scuffling started. AORBS members claimed that Erwin charged in "like a linebacker," and Erwin claimed that vice president Jeff Germann (who is 6'4"!) "used his elbow to bounce me off the wall." Having met and greeted Germann's elbow, Erwin was removed by security guards. Trolli later told the Journal that he and his family have been threatened by rebel Santas (it's unclear whether he meant Erwin). "My children," he said, "have been instructed that, if anyone looks like Santa, [they should] run."
There was no further violence, as far as I can tell, at the 2008 AORBS Santa convention, when Santas from Canada and Norway joined the American group to enjoy the wintry weather of Kansas City in July. But neither has there been any resolution of the dispute, at least according to a Christmas check of the group's websites. AORBS appears to be the largest of the three groups, followed by the RSS. All of the groups may have been too busy dealing with reduced Santa demand this Christmas to worry about who's in charge. According to reports, mall Santa bookings were down as much as 50 percent, likely reflecting the general downturn in the economy.
It is impossible to say who's ultimately to blame in this saga, and everyone seems to have had his beard dragged through the mud to some extent. I will at least give Connaghan credit for conducting a Santa survey in October 2008, so that we finally have some statistics to apply to the Kringle phenomenon. According to his survey, the average Santa is 59 years old, 5' 8" tall, and is appropriately jelly-filled at 253 pounds. A full 96.5 percent have a real beard. Most have been married for over 25 years, and have three grandchildren on average. Almost all are college graduates. Nearly four percent actually have a Ph.D.
If they only had better management and conflict-resolution skills, I'd suggest putting a Dr. Claus or two in charge of Wall Street and/or the bailout money. Actually, I suggest it anyway.