Throughout childhood, there are a number of magical creatures that one learns to love unconditionally. There’s the Tooth Fairy, who’s ready to place a dollar under your pillow in exchange for a molar, and the Easter Bunny, who comes bearing baskets of pastel-colored treats to help mark the beginning of spring. If you were like me, you also probably had a whole bunch of imaginary friends. (No? Just me? Fine.)

And while most of our youthful love for these mythical beings stems from the fact that they’re always giving out presents, there’s one enchanted man that rises above all others, both as gift-giver and holiday legend: Santa Claus. It’s hard to imagine a character that kids love more than the dude in a red velvet suit bellowing, “Ho, ho, ho!” as he flies his fearless team of reindeer through the night.

The real Santa, though, is a tough guy to track down. So when, as an adult, you’re tasked with bringing Santa to a first-grade holiday party or cocktail soirée, it’s time to call in some reinforcements. Enter the Rent-a-Santas: actors who have made it their life’s work to spread a little bit of holiday cheer by playing Santa Claus.

“I started [being Santa] as kind of a joke,” says Clay LeBrun of New Orleans, who has played Santa since 2014. “I belong to a steampunk group, and I kind of look like Santa Claus: I’m heavyset with a big beard, and have a maroon pirate coat with fake rabbit-skin trim. I wanted to go to the renaissance fair dressed as a Russian, but I thought, “Hey, this kind of looks like Santa Claus!” Everyone else remarked that [I looked like Santa] too, so I went as steampunk Santa Claus to our steampunk Christmas party.”

Since LeBrun’s happy Russian-turned-Santa accident four years ago, he’s played Mr. Claus over 30 times, at venues ranging from private events to very public spaces like New Orleans City Park. He’s also invested in a whole range of Santa “styles” that are now part of his rotation, from pirate Santa, to zoot suit Santa, to steampunk Santa. All in all, there are six versions from which to choose, including the classic Santa look.

“After that first year, we made my coat more accurate, dropped the rabbit skin and put actual white fur on it. We had a vest made that looks more like Santa Claus, and my mom made me a crocheted Santa hat which comes right down to my waist. From then on, I just started doing Santa, and it’s all grown from that.”

Dudley Stadler of LaPlace made his entry into the world of Santa in an equally fortuitous way.

“Many years ago, my mother was a Girl Scout leader, and the Girl Scouts were going caroling. My mother said, ‘We have to fit him in somehow! Oh yeah, we’ll dress him as Santa.’ So, I went around singing with the girls dressed as Santa, and while we were out, a neighbor tried to give me a mixed drink. I said, ‘Santa wouldn’t drink a mixed drink!’ and my mother said, ‘You know what? You’re right, Santa wouldn’t do that.’ I’ve been playing Santa ever since.”

Over the years, Stadler estimates he’s played Santa hundreds of times, from stints at photography studios, to Boy Scout troop parties, to company events.

“You feel almost like a member of the family,” Stadler explains. “You’re kind of like the leader of the group, and [playing Santa] takes you to a lot of different places. Sometimes, I’ve been awed by the greatness of a house [where I’ve played Santa], but I’ve also gone to houses of those who are less fortunate. I’ve been walking down the street while dressed as Santa and been asked if I would come inside to eat a meal with a family. The time that happened, I went inside, sat down and ate the meal! The father said, ‘Now my son can say he ate dinner with Santa.’”

While many Santa connections come via word-of-mouth or long-standing relationships, there are also online resources for matching potential party-throwers with the local Santa of their dreams. In a version of matchmaking similar to online dating, Santa-seekers input a set of detailed preferences — party date, location, length of time — and then are paired up with potential Santa matches from which to choose. (I’d like to think a bunch of tiny Internet elves are working on the back-end to find the Santa-to-party pairings that are just right.)

Since the Santa game tends to be somewhat competitive, Rent-a-Santas are always trying to refine and perfect their seasonal looks so that they have the best chance of attracting and retaining potential clients.

“I typically have one costume that I use, but my wife has gotten me a great present this year: I’m getting a new costume, with new boots — everything,” Stadler says. “I already have a natural beard and natural bifocals, but this year I’m going to bleach my hair for the first time instead of wearing a wig!”

Of course, not all Santas choose the jolly job themselves — some have holiday greatness thrust upon them.

“When I was picking out my Santa the first time, it was easy, because I’ve been married to him for 46 years,” laughs Judy LeBlanc of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. “He does it for me because he knows he better! Eleven years ago, when we started our [holiday] brunch with Santa, I got him involved immediately, and it’s just evolved from there. It’s a wonderful event we look forward to every year. We love seeing the families come back and the kids grow up over the years.”

Since Mr. LeBlanc’s first time in a Santa suit, he’s become something of a natural, playing the role everywhere from Papa Noël events at the Ritz-Carlton, to Deanie’s Seafood, to the illuminating of the seasonal lights on Canal Street. During the brunch at the Bourbon Orleans, Mrs. LeBlanc accompanies him by playing Mrs. Claus (naturally).

With all Santa-playing professionals, there’s a special kind of thrill at being able to bring so much joy to so many people, simply by existing. And while most adults probably don’t believe in the concept of Santa exactly as it was told to them as little tykes, it’s hard to deny there’s something inherently magical that those who play Santa bring to the season — particularly for children.

“I went to the Santa Run in Baton Rouge in 2016 dressed as pirate Santa, and ended up winning the costume contest,” says LeBrun. “After it was over, I was walking around, and out of all the Santas there, I was the only one people would turn around and say, ‘Look, there goes Santa!’ as I passed by. It was an amazing feeling.”