- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - There’s the crying baby who doesn’t want to be held. Or the boy with autism who steers clear - backing away from loud sounds and bright lights.

Or the reluctant teenager who lost that Christmas spirit years ago.

There comes a time every year when the magic of twinkling lights, gift-building elves and a snow-capped North Pole is questioned and the essence of what it means to be Santa Claus is tested. Being the big guy - the go-to face of the biggest holiday of the year - is a hefty responsibility to shoulder.

Then, with a twinkle of the eye, the guy wearing the red and white suit sitting in the elaborate display in the mall is once again a hero who has turned an ordinary day into a magical moment. He crawls on the floor to ease the anxieties of a boy locked in his own world, offers a sucker to a wailing baby to quell tears just long enough for a photo to be snapped or he reminds a nonbeliever that talking back to his or her mother is a surefire way to end up on the naughty list.

“That’s because when you put the suit on, you are not who you were. You are Santa,” said 62-year-old Richard Woerner of Columbus. “There are five weeks in the year when fat, bearded guys get the ultimate respect.”

Now, this is more than just a story about what life is like for the Santas of the world from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, when everyone is clamoring to reignite the Christmas joy felt when that first Barbie doll or Daisy Red Ryder BB gun found its way under the Christmas tree.

This is about what it takes to get there.

Being Santa is hard work and where you learn the craft is just as important as where buy your red suit.

“My intent is either a tear in the eye or a dropped jaw,” said Dennis Blanden, 63, of Grove City by way of the tiny community of Birmingham, where he lived when he attended Firelands High School. “If I haven’t done either, I haven’t done my job.”

Enter the Buckeye Santas club.

For a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to become the quintessential Christmas character, this is the place.

“We’re a social club, just a bunch of guys and ladies that love Christmas, but we have monthly meetings and training, too, so everyone can learn from each other on what to do,” said past President Pat Morgan.

But be warned: This club has a special kind of membership requirement.

Members must be willing to sport real beards they are willing to dye white for the winter months, have a robust love for making children smile, an infectious smile and be able to bellow ho-ho-ho on command with enough depth to shake a bowl full of jelly. Keeping a Santa suit on standby is not a bad idea, either.

“I bought a suit and decided to do it,” said Dan Cunningham, now retired from Oberlin College. “For 35 or 40 years, this has been my thing. Never really doing it full time all the time, but loving every minute of it. There is something special about being Santa.”

Who doesn’t have a memory of sitting on Santa’s lap at Christmas, whispering gift wishes into his ear, smiling for a picture that will grace mantel tops for years to come and snagging a peppermint candy cane on the way out?

It doesn’t matter if Santa is a mall Santa or a department store Santa. The Buckeye Santas club has them all.

The first time Pat Morgan donned the red-and-white suit and took on the persona of Santa, he was scared out of his mind.

Being a mall Santa is not just a gig for any guy in a costume, said the 64-year-old man from Westerville, near Columbus.

“You need a couple of years of experience to perfect being a mall Santa, but I got a crash course,” Morgan said. “Why? Because the other mall Santa got sick.”

Just the memory of that holiday season made him laugh as he retold the story during the October meeting of the Buckeye Santas club. The statewide group meets in various locations, but the state’s capital is home base.

“My first experience being a mall Santa was in Newark. I was a brand new Santa and got a call from Indian Mound Mall,” he said. “Within a flash, I had my Santa suit and I was at the mall. I sat in the chair. It was huge. I could sit a person on either side of me. They escorted me there from the changing room and I was told to go to work.”

Morgan said he put the first kid on his lap, swallowed hard and said, “OK. Tell me what you want for Christmas.

“You just get into the mood,” he said. “I had three days without a glitch. It was great. That was my first time in that setting. The line was wrapped around the Santa station.”

Morgan said he made it through that season and has returned year after year because he can’t give up the gig.

“It’s in your heart,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. When I’m in a restaurant, kids will come up to me - I don’t even have to be wearing the suit - and ask me if I’m Santa. If it’s not in your heart and if you can’t imagine loving those days, don’t do it.”

Woerner said he started his Santa tenure in February 2009. He’s since learned a lot, he said. Empathy and listening are needed, as well as being able to think quickly to answer tricky questions.

“It’s your job as Santa Claus to make their day memorable,” he said.

But times have certainly changed. Woerner said there are eerie reminders of the vulnerabilities of the world like when he attended a tutorial on how to react to mall shooting situations.

“Throw everything you can, get him distracted so they don’t shoot kids or at Santa,” he said.

That’s the heavy stuff that the Buckeye Santas club addresses. It also is the place to learn about tailors, who in town can properly dye hair white and where to buy the most comfortable boots.

It informs members about liability insurance, background checks, drug testing and ways to identify a child in danger.

“Santa sees so much about life,” Woerner said.

Mike Smith of Galloway, who smells like peppermint candy canes - because what else should Santa smell like? - said he has learned to calm fears with a smile.

“One of the first little boys who sat on my lap asked for a machine gun so he could shoot the man living with him because he hits his mom,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do or if I should call someone. I had to find someone to talk to learn how to answer those questions.”

Smith, one of the founding members of Buckeye Santas, said the impetus for the club was the need for camaraderie and, to that degree, not much has changed. After all, where else can a grown man learn how to ho-ho-ho and not feel out of place?

“I learned a long time ago,” Smith said. “It’s not really ho-ho-ho. It’s ha-ha-ha with volume. It’s deep. That’s because it comes from the diaphragm. You can’t do it from the throat.”

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Information from: The Chronicle-Telegram, http://www.chronicletelegram.com

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