Brazil's Father Christmas wannabes hope for economic gifts

Brazil's Father Christmas wannabes hope for economic gifts

RIO DE JANEIRO - The chubby, white-bearded men with red hats sing out a cheerful "Ho ho ho," but for these Brazilians training to be Father Christmas, a little cash would be the best present.

Christmas celebrations featuring Santa might seem odd in a country where December 25 falls in the middle of the summer, but with Brazil's economy wallowing in recession, nothing could be jollier than the chance to earn some money

During a session this week at the Father Christmas School of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, a guitar teacher strummed "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells" while the trainees, all over 50, sang the Portuguese version of the familiar lyrics.

To finish up, they switched to a Brazilian carnival tune celebrating "Papai Noel."

Traditional Christmas celebrations featuring the bringer of gifts from the North Pole might seem odd in a country where December 25 falls in the middle of the southern hemisphere summer, with temperatures shooting above 40 degrees Celsius (104 F).

But with Brazil's economy wallowing in recession, nothing could be jollier than the chance to earn some money.

Unemployment in the world's seventh-biggest economy is at its highest since 2009, reaching 7.6 percent. Not surprisingly, then, the school's free-of-charge lessons -- and opportunity for job placement during the Christmas shopping season -- are in heightened demand.

"This year because of the economic crisis the school has had more than 200 candidates, which is double the number last year, but we only have 40 vacancies," school director Limachen Cherem said, adding that most would-be Father Christmases were unemployed or retired men.

"Before they'd be people who wanted to be able to buy toys for their grandchildren, but now it's to pay the bills," said Cherem, who led stretching exercises, which prompted a lot of huffing and puffing.

Father Christmases can earn $800 to $3,850 over a period of 40 days in shopping centers, paying a cut to the school from their takings -- a decent prospect in a country with a $200 minimum monthly wage.

- More than just money -

Luiz Tirelli, 53, is looking forward to getting even temporary work after 11 months of unemployment.

"I had a telecoms business and had to close because of the sharp economic downturn. I had to let go my 10 employees," he said.

But he said that even if the Father Christmas gig doesn't work out "at least I'll have learned something."

Another signed by the school, Voni Riberio, 68, said that after five years of experience as a Father Christmas he has learned this is more than a regular job.

"Everyone wants to be one, but to be a real Father Christmas means having a lot of love, to be able to beam that love out to children," he said.

"It looks easy but there are precise techniques. You have to do it just right for the children and parents," said Hilton Ferreira, 81. "You put on the costume but also embody the character. In my neighborhood everyone calls me Papai Noel all year round."

The worry this year is that businesses won't be in the spirit to hire.

"Many shops will not hire a Father Christmas and only the malls will manage, since they split the cost between boutiques," said Aldo Goncales, president of the Rio chamber of commerce.

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