Behind the beard: What it's like to be Santa

Chris Bergeron

Last year Santa Walter drove more than 2,000 miles to meet children at schools, parties and Christmas tree lightings across New England.

When not working as a house painter, Santa Neil, who has red hair, a white beard and rosy cheeks, enjoys "giving a ho-ho-ho" to children at his wife's Framingham day care.

And Santa George remembers making his first holiday season appearance in the 1970s wearing a "cotton beard and cheap $19.95 suit from Sears." More than 30 years later, he visits children in hospices and has a message on his "sleigh phone" urging callers to "Keep Christmas in your hearts all year long."

For Santa Walter, staying jolly throughout the long holiday season can be a royal pain. "When I'm visiting schools and making weekend appearances, I can be busy from 9 a.m. until 11 at night," said the MetroWest resident. "Anybody can don the uniform. But if you're going to be a real Santa, it's got to come from the heart."

At 5-feet, 7-inches tall, 240 pounds with a chest-length white beard, Santa Rob gets recognized everywhere, even during the summer. After 17 years making appearances, the Bellingham resident won't work in malls because "I don't believe a kid should have to pay to have a picture taken with Santa."

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In a season when Americans will spend an estimated $60 billion on gifts, an army of Santa Clauses can be found in malls, hospitals, corporate and private parties, military bases and Sudbury Farms where John Taylor, wearing a suit donated by the Natick Kiwanis Club, will be ringing a bell to raise money for the Salvation Army.

Like snowflakes, there's no candy cane mold for Santa. But like the recipe for fruitcake, there's lots of shared ingredients.

Several belong to the California-based Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. Many have been to Santa School which provides practical tips on grooming, hygiene and calming down nervous kids. Many try to read up on the high-tech gifts, PlayStation 3 or Nintendo Wii, kids often ask for.

Santa Desmond has learned to never promise a child expensive gifts parents might not be able to afford. "I tell them I can't guarantee something because the elves are working hard to make sure each and every child gets a nice gift," said the 68-year-old Natick resident who has upcoming appearances at an area Rod & Gun Club and the Bass Pro Shop near Gillette Stadium. "Some kids ask for the same item a brother or sister wants. I'll say something like, 'I don't think that's fair. Do you? Are you willing to share?"'

After 15 years behind his "natural white beard," Santa Dave would play Santa "365 days a year if I could."

"It's the biggest joy. These kids get that look in their eyes. They really believe," said the 67-year-old retired New England Telephone worker. "They're so innocent. At that age, thank God, they haven't been polluted by everything in the world."

But nothing prepared Santa Dave for the time a little boy asked him "to bring back my Daddy from Iraq."

"I told him Santa couldn't bring his daddy home but he can pray that he'll be safe," he said.

Most Santas undergo background and CORI, or criminal record background, checks. Many have been vaccinated against swine flu and those who haven't say they would if the vaccine was more available.

Few can rival New England Patriot Vince Wilfork's ample belly. But they train just as hard at defending time-honored traditions they love.

All, like Santa Philo, treasure that magical moment of seeing a child's eyes light up.

He's spending these days at the Solomon Pond Mall in Marlborough working at "the best job I've ever had in my life."

"I love talking to people. It's one of my passions," explained Santa Philo Thursday evening after his shift. "I think I've always had the ability to communicate with children of all ages."

With shoulder length white hair and a white beard, he sits on a green cushioned chair and talks to children about Christmas as a photographer snaps their photos.

Like many of his colleagues, Santa Philo asks not to give a full name or say where he lives. He is hired by Noerr Programs Corporation, a "digital event imagining company" that trains 250 Santas who'll appear at 165 shopping malls in 37 states. Based in Colorado, Noerr's motto is "Creating Magic, Inspiring Smiles, Capturing Memories."

In his second year wearing the red suit, Santa Philo does all that and much more.

He speaks in a soft, soothing voice that calms children sitting on his lap.

A helper usually gets the child's name from parents waiting for photos and Santa Philo invites them by name into his little Christmas village.

"Every child is different. I don't have a cookie cutter pattern to talk to them. I watch as they come in to see how they're reacting," he said. "If they're nervous, I calm them down and get them up on my lap."

Some requests have left deep and lasting impressions.

"One little boy had a family member who'd passed away. He asked if I could give them a ride on my sleigh," he remembered. "It tore my heart out."

But for Santa Philo, every day brings shared moments of "total wonderment."

"After a while you kind of take on the persona. I feel like the real Santa Claus. Children recognize it in me," he said, his soft voice alive with emotion. "A child's heart never grows old. Part of their childhood comes alive. I see it every day."

The MetroWest Daily News