- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

GATLINBURG, TENN. (AP) - Tim Mack’s cell phone _ he calls it his sleigh phone _ rings with the tune of “Santa Baby.”

Catching his breath between Santa educational workshops and preparing for the big afternoon parade on Tuesday afternoon, Santa Mack pulls the phone from his back pocket and says, “It’s Mrs. Claus.”

For Santa Mack and the nearly 700 other Kris Kringles, Mrs. Clauses, elves and reindeer handlers from around the world gathered in Gatlinburg for the Celebrate Santa convention, Christmas isn’t just a day in December. It’s a way of life.

“For most of us, this is not a character. This is a lifestyle,” said Dennis Pollard, a Santa from Gainesville, Fla. “For us to be able to stay in the lifestyle 24 hours a day _ this is what we feel like we were born to do.”

The convention, running three days through Wednesday at the Gatlinburg Convention Center, is a chance for them to hone their holiday craft by learning tips on how to be a better Santa and checking out the finest offerings in Santa wear and gear.

It’s the largest gathering of its kind, and it’s only the 12th Celebrate Santa convention that’s taken place since the first one 70 years ago.

Phil Wenz, a Santa from Crescent City, Ill., instructed a workshop on the history of Santa in the 20th century with topics ranging from legendary Santas like Charles W. Howard and the Santa Claus School he created in 1937 in Midland, Mich.

“It’s a source of inspiration for these guys,” Wenz said.

Other workshops included hair care, magic and ventriloquism instruction, mall Santa etiquette, a session called “Reindeer 101” and something for the most modern Santas _ podcasting.

In the grand ballroom, Santa-themed vendors hawk their wares. Sam Militello is a Santa from St. Clair, Mich., who operates Santa & Co., which offers traditional Santa and Mrs. Claus costumes made only from wool inspired by Howard.

“He would teach these Santas to be more responsible. We’re teaching them to dress more responsibly,” Militello said.

Later in the afternoon, the Santas lined up for the “Holly and Shamrock” parade, celebrating both their favorite holiday and the holiday of the day: St. Patrick’s Day.

Patrons of the Crawdaddy’s Restaurant and Bar on Gatlinburg’s main drag _ which included a few of the Santas themselves _ hung out open windows with beers in their hands, shouting at the Santas, “Santa, we love you. You make our dreams come true!”

The parade featured juggling Santas, elves dressed like leprechauns and a Santa band. Other Santas marched in groups such as the “Florida ‘Sandie’ Clauses” and the “Yes, Virginia, these are your Santa Clauses” groups.

Ask any of the Santas, and they’ll tell you they love what they do because of the joy it brings to children, both young and old. Ask them why they love the Celebrate Santa Convention, and they’ll tell you it’s about the camaraderie.

For Charles Barnett, his wife Lorlene Barnett and daughter Charlene, it’s a family affair. The trio lives in Memphis but doesn’t have any family there and spends much of their free time doing charity work as Santa and two of his elves.

Decked out in a green and red elf suit with pointy shoes and reindeer earrings dangling from pointy elf ears, Lorlene Barnett smiles and nods at all the Santas asking to take photos with Charlene, dressed in head-to-toe candy cane stripes.

“It makes me feel so normal. It makes me realize we’re not alone,” she said.

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