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Real Beards And Christmas Magic: Inside The Holiday Of A Louisville Santa Claus

Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

For Tom Dobbins, impersonating Santa Claus is a lifestyle.

He signs off emails with the word “Santacerely” (and a few Santa emojis for good measure) and picks up the phone by saying “Ho, ho, ho! It’s Santa Tom.”

His living room is covered in about 50 Santa figurines, and some of them stay out year-round. Pieces of his various costumes are laid out in the guest bedroom – he has separate costumes for indoor wear, and some for more North Pole-like climates, which collectively cost several thousand dollars. His wife is in the kitchen making Christmas cookies.

Even their bathroom is stocked with festive peppermint soap.

Dobbins, a former aircraft mechanic, has been playing Santa for 25 years at different schools, events and parties. He has very little free time this holiday season and is already booked out for next year.

It started at his church when the man who typically wore the costume wanted a break one Christmas.

“He had grandchildren and wanted to see them sitting on Santa's lap,” Dobbins said. “When I walked in there that first day and they came over and gave me their hugs and their love, I became Santa Claus.”

Looking at Dobbins, he seems like a natural fit for the part. He’s in his 60s, has a thick white beard — which is real, by the way — and a jolly-looking build. He’s from Boston, but when he calls out “Ho, ho, ho!” his accent pretty much disappears.

Dobbins has also participated in continuing Santa education.

He’s a member of the Bluegrass Chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real-Bearded Santas; they meet quarterly and talk about everything from beard maintenance to accommodations they can make for children with special needs.

Dobbins says the “real-bearded” designation is a big deal in the Santa Claus impersonator world. Some Santas look down on impersonators with fake beards.

“But I don’t,” Dobbins said. “Those are designer beards — sometimes made of human hair. They can get very expensive.”

But since Dobbins does keep his beard year round, children are curious about him, regardless of what he is wearing.

“Children will look at me and say to their parents ‘That’s Santa Claus’ and their parents will say, ‘That’s not Santa Claus,’” Dobbins said.

“And I’ll walk and hand them a little card that has a picture of me that says ‘I met Santa Claus.’ And say to the parent, 'You should listen to your children. They know who Santa Claus is.'”

Just as kids have an idea of who Santa is and what he looks like — Dobbins has his ideas of who his Santa is.

First of all, Dobbins doesn’t believe Santa would actually tell any child that he or she was naughty.

“They’re just being kids,” Dobbins said. “But you don’t know what their home life is like. The only words they may hear of encouragement is the words I speak to them, so I always try to be upbeat.”

And Dobbins believes what Santa says to kids can impact them long after the holidays are over.

He said one year, he was Santa at a Coca Cola-sponsored grocery store appearance. Dobbins noticed a man about his age watching him from the corner of the store. After about fifteen minutes of watching, once there were no children around, the man approached Dobbins.

‘He came up to me and said, ‘ You can tell you really care about this kids and you like bringing them joy,’” Dobbins said. “He said, ‘I was taken away from my parent by the state. My mother used to burn cigarettes on me and I looked forward every year to see Santa Claus. He was the guy who gave me hope and joy in every year.’”

That conversation has stuck with Dobbins ever since, and it’s one he thinks about when he meets kids who ask him if he’s the “real Santa” or if Santa actually exists.

Santa Claus, Dobbins says, is wherever people are spreading that holiday hope and joy — which, in a sense, makes him very real.

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