- Associated Press - Sunday, August 27, 2017

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Those who are destined to be play the part of jolly old St. Nicholas don’t pick their paths.

“They get chosen,” said Jan Male of Spotsylvania County. “Somebody always asks them to be Santa.”

She sat in a room filled with men who’ve answered the calling. The Colonial chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas met for the first time in Fredericksburg, and about 40 Santas and their wives_some who prefer to be called Mrs. Claus_gathered for fellowship and food at the Great American Buffet in Central Park.

No one wore the full coat, pants and boots that Santa is famous for, but red definitely was the dominant color. It was followed closely by white, as in real white beards, ranging from those trimmed close to the chin to ones that billowed to the breastbone.

“You get it too long, the kids sit on it, and that’ll bring tears to your eyes,” said Michael Chapman of Newport News.

He’s the official Santa at Bass Pro Shops in Hampton and fills the bill. His smile is warm, his cheeks are rosy and his belly, tucked into a set of red bib overalls, looks like it belongs to a jolly old elf.

But when he first donned the Santa suit, he didn’t have any of the physical attributes. He was in his early 20s, wanting to bring some holiday joy to children whose father was in Vietnam. He liked it so much, he’s played Santa for 45 years since then.

He takes his Santa duties seriously.

“All of us try to set a positive example in the community,” he said, adding that no one would want to give any appearances “that reflect badly on the name of Santa.”

Indeed, the Santas in the group seemed to realize that they’re not the only ones watching the behavior of others. Kids seem to have their eyes on the men with white beards as well.

Christian Morgan, 8, of Chester heard as soon as he walked into the restaurant that there were a lot of Santas in the back room. With eyes wide opened, he sneaked a peek.

“He was like, ‘Wow.’ Just so excited,” said his mother, Felicia Morgan.

Even if he’s the only man with white hair and beard in a place, children will wave or acknowledge him, said Randy Thomas of Colonial Heights.

And one word to youngsters about watching their behavior seems to speak volumes, said Rich Male of Spotsylvania. When he spoke with a family at a restaurant one time, he hadn’t seen any indication that the boy and girl didn’t get along.

But he went out on a limb and told the boy to stop picking on his little sister. Eyes opened in amazement and the mother whispered: “I told you he’s watching.”

Male, who worked as the Santa at Spotsylvania Towne Centre, has witnessed the gamut, from overstressed parents who waited until the last minute to bring their children to see him to a girl of about 8, who asked only that her mother get better.

He told her he didn’t have the power to make that wish come true, but said they could consult a higher authority, if she wanted. The Santa then prayed with the girl_and has often wondered, over the years, what happened with her and her family.

It’s those interactions that make the Santa role priceless, Male said.

“I just love children, I love the reactions from them,” he said.

Tom Bailey of Arlington, who organized the meeting, said there are thousands of people nationwide who perform in the spirit of Christmas. Local gatherings allow Santas to network, share information about events and places that need the guy in red and help them find someone to fill in, in the event of sickness or emergency.

They talk about where to find supplies_including the fact that a really good wig, made from yak and human hair, can cost more than $5,000. And they discuss how to avoid picking up the many germs children can bring with them.

Bailey and his wife, Marlo, a liberated Mrs. Claus who uses her own last name of Ivey, said flu shots are a must, along with lots of water, zinc and immune system supplements. He also changes gloves regularly to keep the germs away.

Bailey, who lists “sleigh” in front of his phone number, also likes to come up with stories about the reindeer and their magic ride as well as life in the North Pole. He likes to share them with inquisitive kids, to keep them guessing.

“It keeps the magic alive,” he said.

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