Five men from the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS) recently set out on an important mission: Find the best location in San Diego for hosting their trade association's 22nd Annual Santa Reunion. More than 200 guys from California, Nevada and Arizona who play the role of Santa every Christmas season will descend upon the city in January 2016. The event's a big deal in the Santa world, so the local Claus contingent really wants to impress their visiting bearded peers.
The Sheraton Hotel in Mission Valley seemed particularly determined to score the Santas. It was early November, and the white-haired crew were on their third stop during a whirlwind tour of local hotels. Top staffers at the Sheraton lined up in the lobby with Santa hats atop their heads to greet the men. Lola and Alister, the hotel sales manager's pugs, were even squeezed into tiny reindeer and Santa outfits.
"We went up to the 14th floor to see the hospitality suites and—wait, let me see if I can find that letter," says Glen Bailey, or Santa Glen, as he's better known. He heads back into his home office to retrieve a letter handwritten on Christmas-themed stationary. "So, we walk into this suite at the Sheraton and there's this big tray of cookies and eight glasses of milk, and this letter is sitting by the cookies.
"Give it a read," he says, sliding the paper across his coffee table. "It's sweet."
The note's essentially the hotel's clever sales pitch written in the style of a child's letter to Santa. It's cute and, when coupled with the pugs, cookies and competitive price, was convincing enough to eventually win over the Santas, who voted unanimously to book the Sheraton for the affair.
Santa Glen is a founding member of the local chapter of FORBS, one of several splinter groups that formed after a well-documented 2008 leadership feud that shook up the original trade association, the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas (AORBS)—the story even made it into an episode of This American Life. Of the main Santa groups that exist today, Santa Glen claims that FORBS is the only one that maintains a strict rule requiring all members to have real beards. CityBeat later found that claim to be inaccurate, but Santa Glen's unintentional misinformation is emblematic of the competitive streak that still exists amid the varied Santa factions and indicative of his and other Santas' pride in having genuine beards.
"I've always had this thing against fake beards," Santa Glen says, sitting on his sofa inside his Escondido home that's awash in reds and greens and hints of Christmas even in the offseason. "It's just not natural... We admire any person who's willing to assume the role and spread Christmas cheer, but if we had our preference, we would like everybody who hires a Santa to have a real-bearded Santa."
Santa Glen's own beard is what initially convinced him to take on the role for the first time nearly 20 years ago. His wife, Jacquelin Balogh, was helping organize a Santa event, and their scheduled St. Nick flaked. She turned to her husband for help. He said he'd do it, but only if his beard looked OK when it grew in. The beard ended up looking more than OK. In fact, it's so nice, white and wavy that it's become a source of envy for other Santas who either have to dye or perm their beards to achieve the same look.
Regular Santa gigs started rolling in after that first appearance. And before Santa Glen knew it, he'd become steeped in the role, not only during the holiday season, but almost all year-round. He converted a storage shed behind his house into "Santa's Workshop," where boxes are filled with hundreds of cheap little toys and other trinkets. When he goes out in public, he makes sure to have at least a few little gifts in his pockets or toy bags (he carries Santa-like bags starting as early as November, when people start noticing him more) and hands them out to kids, or even adults who approach him with, "Hey, you look like Santa."
The secret to being a good Santa is astute attention to detail, Santa Glen says. Saint Nicholas, after all, is almost God-like with his omnipotence (Santa Glen uses his elf helpers to get the names and other background information on the kids he sees). Santa doesn't eat anything except cookies (Santa Glen always says no to dinner invites when he's hired to drop in on parties), and Santa's breath should smell of peppermint (Santa Glen keeps a ready supply of mints and accepts whiskey shots only on his way out of a gig).
When it comes to Santa, kids tend to notice the tiniest imperfections. Santa Glen had a scratch on his hand one year, and if he wasn't wearing his white gloves, kids fixated on it. Santa, it turns out, is also invincible.
Santa Glen has learned some important lessons along the way. Keeping hand sanitizer or wipes nearby is essential. As he puts it, "Kids are little germ factories." He's also learned never to promise kids anything unless the parents give him the OK, and he's perfected the art of keeping up the Santa illusion while stopping just short of lying.
"When kids ask, 'Are you the real Santa?,' I say, 'I am a Santa' and leave it at that," he explains.
Early on in his unplanned, post-retirement career—he'd previously been a third-grade teacher in Chula Vista—Santa Glen felt a little uncomfortable with his new role. His wholehearted dedication to the Kris Kringle shtick had him feeling like a wacko. The first time he rubbed elbows with other Santas at AORBs events, though, he realized he was normal—at least in a room filled with guys who look like him.
"At that meeting, I thought, My gosh, this is really validating for me, because part of me says, 'Am I nuts walking around telling people I'm Santa?" he chuckles. "But here I was with all these other guys doing the same things, with all the same stories, all with the white beards and hair and their Santa suits and casual Santa garb. I came away from there, more than anything, being relieved that I wasn't nuts."
While he's quite comfortable as Santa now, he's also quick to acknowledge the frustrations his wife has to deal with. Being married to Santa Claus isn't easy, he says.
"It's kind of like being a celebrity," he explains, detailing examples of being approached by strangers when they're out. Many parents, for instance, will ask him if he'll have a quick word with their misbehaving children.
Santa Glen says there are a few quieter months right after Christmas when he cuts his beard short and ceases looking so much like Mr. Claus. The break is nice, but he truly relishes his many magical moments as Santa. He says it's a role he never asked for, but it's become a gift he'd never give back.
"You don't find Santa; Santa finds you," he says. "When I was a young man, I never thought, Well, someday I want to grow up and be Santa Claus. It just happened and it stuck."