'I'm A Real Life Santa'

In 2002 my wife was organizing a charity drive for underserved families in the area. Someone had suggested that it would be nice to have a Santa to deliver the packages to them as the real Santa would probably be a bit busy at the time of year.

None of the group felt they could pull it off because they were women. then my wife brought the house down when she said she happened to know a fat man with nothing to do during the holidays.

She brought a suit someone had found home the next day. To this day I still call it the pyjama suit—it was so thin. At the time I had a beard but it was dark and way too short, so I had no choice but to wear the cheap, ratty beard that came with the suit—I looked so bad!

I remember feeling so anxious when we went up to the first door, but as soon as we walked into the house it took me seconds to realize that the children just saw Santa Claus. By the time we went to the third house and I received the same general response from everyone in it, my wife asked how I felt. I was able to tell her that I felt ten feet tall and bulletproof.

Fortunately my wife's mother is a professional seamstress, so after that first season she was able to put together a suit for me that lasted me for the next few years until I could buy an expensive $1,200 suit.

Back in 2005 when I was looking for an upgraded suit online, I came across a group called the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas (AORBS). They were having their annual luncheon the following day in a town not too far away from me. So, my wife and I went along, and the first time we walked into a room full of professional Claus' was an epiphany moment for both of us. We fell in love.

That order had actually originated from a casting call in 1994. A huge German catalogue had sent out a call for ten professional Santas. It asked for Santas who had their own suit and real beards. When the Santas were on the shoot, they had so much fun swapping stories that they agreed they should meet up again in the future. With the Christmas season coming up the final Sunday in the following January was agreed upon. By the third year of their annual luncheon, there were 30 Santas around the table, and it really started to take off after that.

Then, in 2006 the first Santa Claus convention was held and membership began to explode. In 2008 the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS) was formed from AORBS and became an official non-profit fraternity. I'm currently the Chairman and CEO, but I have served in various roles within the board of directors. Constituent chapters require five Santas in a close geographic area and they generally meet once a month. One of the older and more experienced Santas provides training for newer Santas; Santa's beard is a very popular topic as well as wardrobe. The Santas will trade war stories of our best and worst gigs over the years. It's an opportunity to pass the wisdom down the train.

Santa, Christmas, Beards
Santa Ric Erwin has been portraying Santa since 2002. Courtesy of Ric Erwin

According to our bylaws, membership is restricted to those who grow and maintain their own facial hair for the purpose of portraying Santa Claus. However, most Santas will admit rapidly and openly that they couldn't do much without their Mrs Claus, or their significant other. And, we do also have an associate membership for anyone who regularly appears with a member in good standing. That could be a Mrs Claus, an elf or a reindeer, for example.

There are three types of Santas who portray Santa from the north pole. The "photographic" Santa who appears in catalogues and videos, that's a certain look; a nice suit and a good beard. Then there is the "set" Santa who you see in the mall; these are Santas who can handle quick interactions with an entire family. The third category is a "live event" Santa, and that's my specialty. I was the singer Fergie's Santa for a commercial and I've been Santa for Hayden Panettiere. I also met Adam Sandler as Santa.

Although I won't be performing at any live events this year, because of the pandemic, I have many heartwarming stories from previous years. About ten years ago I started working with a kid's dental company here in California. Every Christmas they provided a free wrapped gift for kids, and at the time they wanted to also start providing a free Santa photo for every child in their neighborhood. The families in those communities aren't necessarily well off. This may be their only opportunity for a Santa photo and the wrapped gift could be a significant contribution to their Christmas—they often line up by the hundreds or even thousands. I have always been touched by the capacity of people who have so little to be so grateful.

By contrast, I have been Santa in wealthy gated communities in areas like Orange County. I'll ask what that kid would want for Christmas and they might say, "my iPhone is over a year old and I'd like the new one". When a kid asks for a big ticket item I'll try to sneak a glance to the parents and look at what their response is. If they seem shocked then I will try to downplay the kids expectations by saying that it's very popular this year, I'll have to check at Santa's toy factory.

I've never begrudged any of those rich kids their fortune, I've only wished and hoped that the parents are teaching their kids gratitude for their good fortune. If they appreciate what they have, God bless them, every one.

Throughout the year, whether I wear red—or black and try to look like a biker instead of Santa—certain people are going to look at me and see Santa and they're going to address me as Santa. It happened at least once or twice a day before the pandemic when you could go out and about to see people.

Every second or third person who would address me as Santa would want a picture, so we recognize it's a bit of a commitment for anyone who maintains this beard for this purpose, and we want to honor that. In addition to the benefits we offer every Santa, part of the FORBS is to encourage and reward our members for that commitment.

Santa, Christmas, Beards
A group of the FORBS Santas in south California in 2018. Courtesy of Ric Erwin

We have been meeting each other for 27 years now, so our annual January reunion is considered the birthday of the modern Santa world. This is the first year we're not meeting in person, we're going to do a virtual reunion. I absolutely refuse to let the weekend pass without a stamped reunion to put in the books.

Overall, my favorite moment as Santa has to be when I'm in front of a crowd, myself and Mrs Claus have the spell working and everybody in the audience is bobbing and weaving with the tales and the songs. When I then catch a parent's eye and see that they have realized that they're believing in all this as much as their children are, my heart swells. It almost brings a tear to my eye.

Santa Ric Erwin is the Chairman and CEO of The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS). He lives in California with his Mrs. Claus and looks forward to recommencing in-person Santa duties in 2021. For more information about membership, visit forbsantas.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.