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Local Kris Kringles talk bringing holiday magic to the masses

Mark Sawyer-Dailey has played Santa at several venues including magazine covers bringing the Christmas spirit to each interaction.
Mark Sawyer-Dailey
Mark Sawyer-Dailey has played Santa at several venues, bringing the Christmas spirit to each interaction.

Santa Claus signals Christmas in one iconic outfit. The red-suit-clad figure has become synonymous with holiday, and his lore has been passed down for generations.

Every year people try their hand at bringing Father Christmas to life. Long-time Santas say the role is way more than a red hat and beard. Mark Sawyer-Dailey has been a Santa for more than 50 years. When he first slipped into the suit he was 18 years old.

It was his late father's.

“He was very active in his church, and he would play Santa for the church and scouts and things,” Sawyer-Dailey said. “When I turned 18, it fell to me. My brother was tall and slim, and I was rather pudgy. So I fit the costume.”

Since then, he’s madea career of playing Kris Kringle. Sawyer-Dailey is an actor by trade and Santa has been his most consistent role.

He’s played Santa on TV, at stores, for events and at family parties. No matter the venue, Sawyer-Dailey said what he needs to bring to the role remains the same.

“You have to be a big child yourself,” he said. “You need a real good sense of humor. You need to like kids. You need to be fairly solid with improvisational skills. Because you'll never know what's going to greet you on that old throne.”

Sawyer-Dailey has dealt with kids pulling on his beard —he uses his real one now—, asking about where his reindeer are, to his own daughter interacting with him as Santa.

Throughout it all, he has one rule.

“I never ever break character,” he said.

Each Santa is different, and they bring their own touch to the role.

Sawyer-Dailey recalled a time when a girl came up who wasn’t responding to him speaking to her. The girl’s mother explained that she was deaf and just wanted to get a picture with Santa.

Sawyer-Dailey employed his limited knowledge of American Sign Language to ask her what she wanted for Christmas.

“I mean, her eyes lit up. And then she starts finding all of the things she wants,” he said. “And then the girl gives me a big hug.”

It’s moments like those that have Sawyer-Dailey coming back to the role of Santa. Those moments where he can build individual connections and make lasting memories.

Another 50 year Santa, Tim Halbauer keeps a naughty or nice meter, a book of names so he can check twice and some magic tricks.

When Halbauer is out and about, children will recognize him as Santa even when he’s not in costume.

He remembers one little girl who he saw at the grocery store, starring. Her mom told her that he wasn’t Santa.

“I looked at this little girl and I winked at her. And I said, ‘I'm in disguise. Don't tell anybody,’” Halbauer said. “And the little girl says, ‘I won't say nothing.’”

Even when he’s not on the job, kids look at him with hopeful eyes. He leans in.

“It's just something I love to do. I don't mind. You know, playing the role,” Halbauer said.

He said he tries to keep himself in the Santa spirit year-round, listening to Christmas music and playing the role at Christmas in July celebrations.

It’s become part of who he is.

Halbauer’s love for Christmas and enthusiasm for Santa goes back to his childhood.

“I've always been a true believer, it's just been in my heart all these years,” Halbauer said.

He aspires to make more believers, no matter their age.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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