In January, when Christmas tree ornaments are tucked away in closets and the smell of peppermint starts to fade, a group of jolly, white-bearded men will gather in Arbutus Town Hall, already preparing for next Christmas.
Arbutus is the meeting place for the new mid-Atlantic chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, chapter president Mark “Yogi” Nettleship said.
The fledgling chapter, founded in October, has seven members thus far: one who portrays Mrs. Claus, one who portrays Yukon Cornelius, and five men who play Santa Claus — all with real beards. They are part of an international organization that offers Santa conventions and networking opportunities, training, liability insurance and background checks to those who don costumes and play the role during the holiday season.
The chapter’s mission is to make sure “every child goes away with a smile,” member and bearded Santa Greg Miller said. The Santas have matching red jackets emblazoned with, “Do you believe in SC?"
Arbutus and Catonsville welcomed Santa to town last weekend with tree lighting ceremonies, songs, games and hot chocolate. The annual opening ceremonies marked the start of the Christmas season, during which Santa Claus will hold visiting hours in each community.
To greet the hundreds of southwest Baltimore County children clamoring for a chance to sit on Santa’s lap is no easy task, longtime Santa Clauses said. It is work that involves long, hot hours, expensive costumes, insurance policies, Santa School, and studying.
“It’s a good time,” said Mark Weinkam, one of four men volunteering to play Santa this year at Catonsville’s Santa House, near the Catonsville fire station where Santa greets children. “There’s nobody more popular than Santa at Christmas time.”
The lifelong Catonsville resident has been donning the red suit and beard since the Santa House, a volunteer effort affiliated with the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, was founded 24 years ago. The event draws more than 750 children each year, said Santa House Committee Chairman Lou Weinkam Jr., who is Mark Weinkam’s brother.
The season kicks off each year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when Santa rolls in on a firetruck for the annual tree lighting ceremony at the Catonsville Fire Department. After that, children can visit Santa at the Santa House on Fridays and Saturdays until Dec. 22.
Photographs with Santa at the Catonsville Santa House are free, Lou Weinkam said. Mark Weinkam can even hold up to two adults on his lap at once — “but it has to be a quick picture,” he said.
The annual event, which costs between $3,000 and $4,000 for such items as maintenance of the Santa House, is sustained by volunteers and donations, Lou Weinkam said.
“Whatever we need, the Catonsville community has provided, 100 percent,” he said.
Like in Catonsville, Arbutus Town Hall's Santas are volunteers. Ross Kendrick has played Santa Claus for the grand entrance for two decades, Nettleship said. The event, run by the Greater Arbutus Business Association, has long been organized by volunteer Jeff Utzinger.
After a celebration that includes a moon bounce, face painting, the board game Candyland and Christmas movies, Santa will have regular evening hours at the permanent Santa House next to Arbutus Town Hall, and photographs are $5. The event is sponsored by the town hall and presented with help from local organizations, including the Arbutus Community Association, Arbutus Auto Body and the neighboring Ice Cream Cottage.
This year, children visiting Santa can even drop off a letter to Santa in a special, kid-sized mail box, said organizer Carl Boyer, who plays Yukon Cornelius, the prospector from the 1964 animated classic, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” If the letter has a child’s home address, Santa will reply, postmarking the letter from the North Pole.
“We try to bring the meaning of Christmas back into the community,” Nettleship said.
The business of Christmas
The start of the holiday season is also the start of the most important time of the year for retail business in Catonsville, said Catonsville Chamber of Commerce Director Teal Cary.
“It’s very important to them, and that’s true for all retail,” Cary said, adding that the holiday gift shopping season helps to sustain businesses through the rest of the year.
To promote local businesses, the Chamber is organizing “Elves in the ‘Ville,” a game in which plush elves are placed on shelves in small businesses around Catonsville, Cary said. When customers find an elf, they can put their name in a ballot box; the person who finds the most elves receives a prize.
“We’re trying to help small businesses that way by making it a game for people to stay in the community and shop local,” Cary said.
Bettina Tebo, president of the Greater Arbutus Business Association, said the holiday season is also good for Arbutus businesses, many of which are restaurants, because the festivities make Arbutus a destination.
The Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department hosts a model train garden every year, she said, which draws people from outside Arbutus who then stop at local restaurants to eat. She said the town will be decorated and Christmas music will play along East Drive, while events such as Christmas movie showings and Breakfast with Santa get people walking around town.
“It’s a great time in Arbutus,” Tebo said of the holidays.
A lot of time, effort and even money go into making Santa jolly and believable, longtime Santas said.
The suit alone, Weinkam said, can become sweltering. Heating the Santa House is a balancing act, he said, keeping it warm enough for families without overdoing it, “because I’ll just be melting.” Miller wears a special cooling vest under his suit.
Then there is the homework. Weinkam plans a question to ask the children each year, to help shy ones warm up. One year, he told children they had a new baby reindeer at the North Pole, and asked them what they would name it. His favorite answer: “Sparkle."
Before strapping on the beard, Weinkam says he studies the Toys R Us catalog so he knows all the latest toy trends. Even after studying, the father of two 21-year-olds is still sometimes caught off guard by references to new movies or trends, such as the “Elf on the Shelf."
“Children question us,” Nettleship said, saying they ask about reindeer names or details from the movie "Santa Claus.”
Maintaining the magic is a matter of attention to detail, the volunteers said.
Miller, who has played Santa for 12 years, uses makeup to make his cheeks rosy and glitter to make his white beard sparkle. He has a peppermint-scented spray, because in Santa School they teach that it is not enough to look like Christmas. he said. Santa has to smell like Christmas, too.
Miller and Nettleship even have “sleigh drivers licenses” that include their photographs, in case a hard-to-convince child asks Santa to show ID. Miller’s license says his height is 6 foot 1 inch, his weight is “jolly” and his eye color is “twinkle.”
Weinkam said he once held his artificial beard up with his hand for hours, so children would not see him adjusting the strap. When his own children were young enough to believe in Santa Claus he had to hide the Santa suit away and make excuses to sneak out of the house for a Santa gig so they wouldn’t guess his secret, he said
“Santa, he’s crafty,” Weinkam said.
Becoming Santa also has expenses; Nettleship, who said approximately half of his time as Santa is paid work rather than volunteer work, said some costs are tax deductible.
Miller’s suit, which he described as “draped in gold,” cost him $1,200, he said, in addition to $900 boots. He said he learned the hard way that a Santa should have more than one suit after a little girl “tinkled” on his leg.
The Bearded Santas, through their organization, also pay nearly $200 per year for a $2 million liability insurance policy. Many companies now require Santa Claus actors to have background checks.
Despite those costs, Nettleship and Miller said, the service they offer is growing more popular; real bearded Santas, they said, are becoming trendy. Their new group, Nettleship said, will help meet that need in the area.
“As the group grows, we will be able to satisfy more people with real bearded Santas, because we’ll have a network built here,” Nettleship said, adding that the Santas help cover for each other during the busy Christmas season.
The Santas said they don’t play the role for the money, but for the Christmas spirit. Much of their work, they said, is volunteering at locations that include a soup kitchen and Johns Hopkins hospital.
“I do it because I enjoy working with children,” Miller said. “Because children are our future."