Welcome to Santa's Ho-ho-ho House of Hard Feelings. Herein lies a tale that sounds more like salvos fired in an ugly divorce than Christmas tidings from Jolly Old himself.
It involves squabbling among men who portray Santa Claus, members (current and former) of the Amalgamated Order of Real-Bearded Santas, or AORBS, a national fraternal group whose members gather to network and swap tips about such industry essentials as beard-grooming.
The insults and accusations being hurled about feature a scantily clad Santa's helper, theft, revenge, power and profiteering. So very un-Kringle.
Facing off are Nicholas Trolli of Croydon, Bucks County, the current head of AORBS; Tom Hartsfield of Utah, one of the group's founders; and California Santa Tim Connaghan, a past president and Claus-business mogul. This trio (all of whom are now working Santa gigs) and their allies are spatting over who has operated the association in whose interests, with more than a dash(er) of personal attacks thrown in.
"They might be putting Christmas at risk," says Eric Patton, an assistant professor of management at St. Joseph's University who studies organizational behavior for the Haub Business School.
His more formal diagnosis is that the fracas resembles a classic relational conflict within an organization: "That's when people personally don't get along."
But these aren't ordinary people, for goodness sake - they're people who play Santa.
AORBS started pleasantly enough. In summer 1994, 10 Santa portrayers chatted on set in California between takes for a TV commercial. They decided to get together again.
Brothers in red that they were, nine of them did gather the following January and formed the group.
As more Santas heard about it, more came. No Mrs. C's. No elves. Back then, the lingua franca was purely Santa - and only those whose beards bloomed naturally from their chins. Clauses with fake, "designer beards" were barred.
About 2003, Hartsfield turned the reins over to Connaghan, whose businesses include a Santa-booking agency, a costume outfitter, and a Santa university. The new leader built AORBS and its membership, which in 2006 had a mailing list of more than 1,000 Santas.
There was a close relationship between AORBS and Connaghan's businesses: He used his connections to draw people to AORBS, while the group helped feed his company.
"Tim thought AORBS was his property to do with as he wanted and to make a profit off of," Trolli says.
Connaghan doesn't dispute that he blended his personal and AORBS work.
"All the time I was building the association, I was building my business," Connaghan says. "I had one computer and one mailing list. I did not think there was any problem with it."
Like the Grinch's sled teetering atop Mount Crumpit, the tipping point came in August 2007, when members learned Connaghan had signed a contract with a Hollywood production company interested in their Santa gatherings. Connaghan also had signed a personal contract with the company to serve as a film consultant, with the potential to earn up to $25,000.
Trolli joined the AORBS board in 2007, after Hartsfield recommended him for a vacancy. Hartsfield and Trolli were among those who said Connaghan's personal contract with the producer was a conflict of interest, and he was asked to step down from leading AORBS.
After Connaghan left, Trolli became its chief. Hartsfield now regrets that he initially backed Trolli and says he feels responsible for the demise of the group he helped found.
Hartsfield and Connaghan, who are friends, say Trolli immediately began exerting dictatorial control over the group's meetings, records, finances and Web operations.
In late 2007, Hartsfield says, Trolli's board banned Santas who were critical of AORBS leadership from posting on the Elf Net message board, and booted some Santas out of the group - including Hartsfield.
Hartsfield took back the group's Web domain, which he had launched in 1999, and started the International Organization of Santas.
Connaghan's accusations about Trolli sound familiar: that he is using AORBS to bolster his own business. (Trolli says his own bookings are down about 50 percent this season.) Hartsfield and Connaghan also raise questions about Trolli's handling of AORBS' money.
To which Trolli responds: "They say, 'Nick Trolli did this,' 'Nick Trolli did that.' Well, Nick Trolli did nothing. . . . They want to get the organization back so they can make money off it."
Trolli says he has done nothing wrong and has records to support him, though he doesn't think he has anything to prove to Connaghan and Hartsfield. Their aim, he says, is to destroy him so they can regain control of AORBS.
Now, about that matter of the scantily clad actress.
In 2007, to promote its program,
about a fictional family who produces fictional rum, CBS held a contest to find the "Duque Rum Girl." Connaghan asked Santas to go to a Web site and vote for an actress who had worked for him as a helper and was photographed sitting on Connaghan's lap clad in a skimpy outfit. Some Santas were offended by the Web site, aimed at adults, and complained, Trolli says.
Connaghan scoffs at the suggestion of an inappropriate relationship. He adds that, though he has seen some provocative Santa's-helper outfits in his day, his helpers follow a dress code: "No French-cut tights," he says, just cheerleader-ish shorts or "frilly pants" under outfits.
The Pennsylvania Department of State, which has a charitable-groups bureau, has ordered AORBS to stop asking for money because it is not registered in the state to solicit charitable funds.
That order came about, Trolli says, because he had asked members to contribute to a benevolent fund - "we had one Santa die in the chair" and the widow needed help getting the body home. The group is complying with the state order.
But who's complying with the spirit of Christmas and the image of Santa?
Says organizational-behavior expert Patton: "It just goes to show that people's emotions can take hold in any work environment."