Saturday, Dec. 23, 2006 | There’s the regular old rent-a-Santa, and then there’s the real thing. William Bryant is the real thing.

The furniture in his tidy Chula Vista home is coordinated in the holiday colors, though Bryant says his wife changes up the decorations every season. There are three small Christmas trees near his front door, and a sign reminds visitors to look up when the world has them down. And he has a real beard.

Bryant is one of about a dozen San Diego area-based members of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, a 13-year-old Los Angeles-based association made up of jolly, cheer-filled men. The average age is 59 (Bryant is 60), and their average weight is 256.6 pounds. The group started with just 10 Santas, who met in Berlin to film a commercial for a mail-order catalog company. Its members meet for lunch every January, though some also hold Santa-training seminars and attend weekly web-chats to share research about the toy market or compare notes on what the kids are asking for the most. This year, the group plans on incorporating into a fully fledged nonprofit organization.

But for Bryant, there is just something special about being a real-bearded Santa.

How long did it take you to grow out your beard, and how hard is it to maintain?

About 10 years ago, I guess, when I first did a Santa Claus job and I didn’t have a beard – I was in the Navy or had just come out of the Navy and wasn’t allowed to have a beard – so I used a fake beard. And I discovered that’s not really the way to go, I didn’t think, so I grew my own beard. I keep my beard all year long but I’m one of the Santa’s that usually trims it down shorter after Christmas and then I grow it back out. So I had mine trimmed down pretty close earlier in the year, and I let it grow out starting in August.

How hard is it to maintain?

My beard is just all natural, I don’t whiten it or bleach it. It just grows, but I trim it a little bit because it can get a few fuzzies. A man’s beard is like a person’s hair, on each guy a beard grows differently. It can grow sideways, or out, or on some of them, it can get out nice and bushy. Some of the loudest Santa’s just keep it full and long all the time. But mine is not too much trouble.

What made you decide to get into the Santa business?

It may sound kind of mercenary, but about 10 years or so ago, I was trying to think of something kind of like a part-time job, and I happened to see an advertisement in the newspaper for people to come and be Santas for the holiday season. I thought, “Wow, that sounds like something that could be kind of fun,” so I went into a gathering that a fellow here in San Diego had, who runs a booking agency, talked to them, and started doing it. And after a year or two, I decided to branch out on my own, and try to get parties on my own.

What do you and other Santas do the rest of the year?

Well, I am a school bus driver. I’m retired Navy, and I drive the school bus for the local school district here, the Sweetwater School District, which is middle school and high school students. I do that all year round, and I pretty much start doing Santa stuff at the beginning of September. There are places that get things going at the end of Thanksgiving and November, but I start with it in earnest usually the first week in December.

How have the kinds of gifts kids ask for changed over the years?

Well, of course, they change with what’s out there. This year, it’s very heavy toward the high-tech stuff: your mp3s, the newest and latest video games. That’s another thing, a Santa really needs to know what’s out there. I know for me, I’m not really into a lot of computer things and video things personally, so it’s hard to know what those things are. But that’s a big one: electronic things. For little girls, it’s still Barbie dolls, so some things kind of stay the same, depending on what their age is.

Are there any differences that you see among different socioeconomic populations?

As far as kids asking for things, kids from all different areas ask, a lot of the times, for the same things. They see the same things advertised. Like the “Angel Tree” party – which is for kids of prisoners – their economic situations vary, but they still ask for high-tech things, videos, electronic music systems, mp3s, whatever those things are.

I don’t know if you’ve read David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries,” but I imagine being a Santa is a tough job. What are some of the things that happen on a regular basis?

I’ve been very fortunate. You hear horror stories, like getting wet on, or getting the beard pulled. I have to say that I’ve been fortunate, I’ve only had my beard pulled on one time over the years. Now, they may feel it, and a lot of the times, it’s the parents that are more into saying, “Oh look, look, it’s a real beard. It’s a real beard, it’s a real Santa.” So a lot of the times, it’s the parents that get more excited.

Is there anything you need to do to prepare yourself or your beard for the holiday season?

Just basically let it get a little fuller and longer from what I keep it most of the year. Of course, I have to keep trimming.

You said it’s important to stay up to date with what’s out there. Is there any market research that you do, or things like that?

I do not. Now Tim (Connaghan, executive director of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas) if you were talk to him, he probably does. And that’s some of the things he teaches when he does his seminars. Some Santas, I’m sure, do do that, and they are a little bit more attuned with what’s out there. I think I tend to be more of on the low-key end of the Santa thing, where others would be much more “into it” all the time. They carry that persona of the Santa. They even have clothes that they wear that, though they may not be the Santa suit, they go along with the Santa theme.

A lot of them do that more than I do, although it’s interesting because at a lot of times through the year, there are kids that look at me or people that say to me, “Anyone ever told you that you look like Santa Claus?” And I say, “I know, I am Santa Claus.” So, if you have a white beard, and you’re big like I am, and so forth, there are always people that look at you. But it gets more intense toward Christmas time.

Why did you become a member of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas?

I thought it would be just a good thing to do, being a real-bearded Santa. It’s a way to get together at times with other fellows who do jobs, and to learn things. Now, when it started, it was a much smaller organization. I guess it got started with just a dozen guys or so, and then it just got bigger. Now, every year, when we do the lunch after Christmas, there are 300 or 400 guys – and that’s just on the West Coast. They’re also organizing on the East Coast and other parts of the United States.

How do you feel about Santas who have fake beards? Do you resent them, or ever just want to come up to them and yank their beard, or punch them in the nose?

Oh no, no. Santas should never be punching anyone in the nose – especially not in public. I wouldn’t say that I resent them, but now that I’ve been doing the real-beard thing for so long, and now that there are so many real-bearded Santas – I mean, even a lot of the malls, the Santas are real-bearded Santas – I guess I don’t resent them. I just think, “That’s kind of a sad-looking Santa.” But, you know, they’re doing what they need to do, I guess. I just prefer a good, full-figured, jolly, real-bearded Santa.

How old were you when you stopped believing in Santa?

Oh my goodness, well, realistically, it would be way back when I was just a youngster. I suppose 7 or 8. Even today, there are some kids that are totally, 100 percent, “I believe in Santa.” And that’s really fun and exciting when you have kids come up, and their eyes light up that they’re with Santa. And then they get to an age when they start to be skeptical, and they like to ask questions to try to trip you up.

So how do you respond to them?

Well, one of the big things I get when I go to parties is, “Where are your reindeer? Where is your sleigh?” And I pretty much tell them that I take my sleigh out only on Christmas. So the reindeer are still at the North Pole, getting strong and getting ready for the big night. So when I come out to these parties, I say, “I have friends that help me. Santa has lots of friends and lots of helpers.” Sometimes, you just kind of do the old, let’s-go-on-to-the-next-question thing. Sometimes you just have to take it as it comes.

What is the most important thing about being a real-bearded Santa, at least to you?

For one thing, you always have to think about the fact that, with the beard, and especially as you get toward the Christmas season, you’re out there, and wherever you may go, people think, “You know, that might be Santa Claus.” And I think you have to be a good representative and conduct yourself properly.

Is there anything else that I missed?

Well, I don’t know, other than the fact that everyone should be sure to keep those chocolate chip cookies and milk out there for Santa. The thing I guess, when I talk to a kid that says, “Well, I don’t believe in Santa,” you know, Santa is the spirit of happiness, and good cheer, and joy. So we go around to all of the boys and girls and try to spread that around a little bit and hope that it will mean something to them.

– Interview by VLADIMIR KOGAN

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