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Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 12:25 am

The tale of many Santas

The men behind the beard in central Illinois


Ken Guernsey, a 72-year-old professional Santa from Springfield, visits with 6-year-old Eli Nehrt in the downtown Santa House on the Old State Capitol Plaza. Nehrt asked Santa for a Star Wars Lego set and a Nerf football.

On a blustery, sub-20-degree night in downtown Springfield, the bright-green-and-red painted Santa House stands out like a beacon to children itching for the start of the Christmas season.

Tiny tots decked head-to-toe in fleece, down and wool waddle behind older brothers and sisters who break free of mom and dad, racing toward his front steps, shouting “Santa, Santa, Santa!” all the way.

These kids have waited all year to meet Santa Claus, the legendary North Pole dweller who guides his reindeer-drawn sleigh around the globe to deliver gifts to good boys and girls on Christmas Eve. When they step inside, that’s exactly who they meet.

The local professionals who appear as Santa for holiday get-togethers at charities, schools and churches don’t just throw on an off-the-rack red suit and white-cotton beard and belt out a few “Ho, ho, ho’s.” They actually become Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas.

As one Santa tells us, they have a “real beard, real belly and real love for kids.” They prepare for each holiday season by bleaching their hair (if it’s not already white), and convening with other Clauses for classes on Santa’s image and persona. Most of them even belong to national and regional Santa guilds that meet in the spring and fall.

Every December these Santas don layers of red velvet and white fur, magically transforming into merry messengers who collect the wishes of hundreds, if not thousands, of children across central Illinois. Some Santas remind their young visitors of the reason for the season, others want to offer the Christmas they never had. All of them delight in making children smile and laugh.

Ken Guernseys' letter to Santa.

Men behind the beard

Ken Guernsey sits in a green leather chair, next to a twinkling evergreen adorned with gingerbread-men ornaments, in the downtown Santa House on the Old State Capitol Plaza.

Six-year-old Eli Nehrt climbs onto Guernsey’s knee, and hands over a colored drawing. The pair study a map showing the long route from the North Pole to Nehrt’s home in Springfield. Nehrt tells Guernsey that he’d like a Star Wars Lego set and a Nerf football for Christmas.

“Do you want to be a football player?” Guernsey asks. The boy smiles and nods his head.

This is Guernsey’s first year in the downtown house, but the 72-year-old from Springfield has been acting as Santa since he first passed out toys to veterans’ kids more than 10 years ago. He’s worked as the Santa at the White Oaks Mall, and this year has appeared at Memorial’s Festival of Trees and the Mini O’Beirne Crisis Nursery Children’s Holiday Store.

His November and December are completely tied up, he says, but part of being a good Santa Claus is giving time and attention to anyone who needs it.

“Santa is a universal figure who gives,” Guernsey says. “This is a very taking world right now. Even for adults — I’ve had adults who say, ‘I never sat on Santa’s knee when I was a little kid. Can I sit on your knee and have my picture taken?’”

Santas like Guernsey are professionals — meaning they keep full beards year-round or wear what they call “designer” beards. While elder Clauses are already blessed with snowy tresses, younger Santas bleach their dark hair, beards and eyebrows every week during the holidays. They use white mascara and beard spray to touch up their moustaches and sideburns as their natural hair color reappears.

Floyd “Buster” Ferguson, a professional Santa from Tallula, got his start as a mall Santa after letting his hair and beard grow long. He’s even busier these days, making frequent stops at businesses, Rotary clubs and area homes. He already has 10 stops scheduled for Christmas Eve.

 Every Thanksgiving for the past five years, Ferguson has driven with his wife to Roswell, Ga., to get hair help from world-famous Santa stylist Joyce Beisel. During the $250 nine-hour process, Ferguson’s hair, beard and eyebrows are bleached, toned, wrapped in aluminum foil and conditioned three times. Nearly 300 Santas seek out the salon; this year, he met some from as far away as New Mexico and Maine.

Since Santa’s no slouch, professionals take the same special care in choosing their costumes. They buy their suits from costume stores or off eBay. Guernsey buys his suits from Adele’s of Hollywood, a costume shop for the stars in California.

Gloria Wendling, a Mrs. Claus from Nokomis, tailored all of her husband Dennis’s costumes. Real, red velvet Santa suits are expensive — as much as $600, she says. Many Clauses stockpile suits in differing styles and several pairs of black leather boots and white gloves.

Wendling, who also makes her own Mrs. Claus costumes, taught a workshop on bringing Santa’s main squeeze into the 21st century at the first annual Celebrate Santa Convention in Gatlinburg, Tenn., in March.

“We’re trying to get past this image of a lady in a red dress and white apron with a dust-cap on her head,” she says. “It’s extremely old, and looks like she’s taking cookies in and out of the oven all day.”

Ray and Cindy Spellbrink from Springfield will make at least 42 appearances as Santa and Mrs. Claus during the holidays.

Wendling has seven different Mrs. Claus costumes, ditching the dust-cap and apron for red jackets with white-fur hoods and what she calls her red “Mary Poppins outfit.”

Santas need snazzy duds, but what’s inside counts, too. They’re expected to be jolly, smiling and spontaneous in answering kids’ questions like, “Do reindeer bite?” and “How do you visit the entire world in just one night?”

Professional Clauses have been coming together to promote a positive image of Santa since 1937, when the Benevolent Order of Santa Claus first organized in New York. Nearly 70 years later, professional Santa Phillip Wenz authored the “Santa Claus Oath,” a list of eight principles that guide Santa’s goodwill [see next page].

In October 2008, the grandsons of Charles W. Howard and Raymond “Jim” Yellig, two of the most influential Santa Clauses from the 20th century, met at the Candy Castle in Santa Claus, Ind., to dedicate and sign the Santa Claus Oath. More than 600 Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves recited the oath’s eight principles in unison and added their signatures at Celebrate Santa the next spring. Since then, the oath has traveled to Santas in more than 35 cities in the United States and four other countries.

Four years ago, Springfield natives Ray and Cindy Spellbrink were working for the seasonal photography company at White Oaks Mall when their Santa called in sick 10 minutes before opening.

“I put the suit and the beard on, and there I went,” Spellbrink says. “From there it’s been no looking back.”

This year, Spellbrink is scheduled for 42 Christmas parties and appearances, including stops at the American Cancer Society and Brother James Court. Like Guernsey and Ferguson, he also visits area homes on Christmas Eve and Christmas, passing out gifts, singing carols and reading ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Spellbrink teamed up with another professional Santa from Iowa a few years ago to start the Midwest Santas Are Now Truly Awesome (Midwest SANTA) group. They have at least 45 Santas, some real-bearded and some designer-bearded, from Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri.

This Midwest network of Santas and their friends comes together at least twice a year in Illinois to share stories from the season and to offer advice and encouragement. They communicate through e-mail and the Internet, often helping new Santas find their first suits and holiday bookings.

Santas can also enroll in special schools to learn more tricks of the trade. The Wendlings attended the International University of Santa Claus in Atlanta and St. Louis, taking classes on Santa’s history, image and character. They eventually earned their Master of Santa Claus degrees.

Spellbrink visits with 3-year-old Lillian Messina at a Christmas party for Special Friends, an American Cancer Society program that pairs children with cancer and their siblings with medical students from the Southern Illinois University School of Medicin

Dear Santa

The Santas agree that electronics like the Nintendo Wii and DSi, a hand-held portable game system, have been the most popular requests from kids.

Girls around 6 or 7 years old have recently asked for Zhu Zhu Pets, mini robot hamsters, and American Girl dolls, Guernsey adds, while girls around 2 years old always ask for Barbie dolls or baby dolls. He often gets requests for ponies, puppies and kitties, too.

“Sometimes requests that are just out of the blue and off the wall are the things that make it the most fun,” Guernsey says.

Ferguson once had a couple get engaged in his lap, and the next year, the woman brought a baby boy dressed in a Santa Claus suit to visit him.

He also recalls funny conversations with curious kids about his reindeer. During one home visit, Ferguson says, a little boy asked him why he showed up in a car instead of with Rudolph and the gang. After Ferguson told him that his grandpa was feeding Santa’s reindeer in the nearby field, the little boy called to check his story.

Moms and dads often ask Santas to help deal with naughty children. Guernsey has been asked to tell kids to “go to the potty,” and Spellbrink recently talked to a little girl about getting into trouble at school. The magic of Santa knowing always boggles their minds, he says.

Other children have surprised the Santas by asking them for a better life at home or for something special for family in heaven. Spellbrink especially remembers one recent conversation with a little boy in Williamsville.

“I asked him what he’d like to have for Christmas, and he looked me square in the eye and said, ‘Happiness. I want everybody to be happy,’” Spellbrink says. “That touches the heart. We have a few every now and again who say that, or want Dad to come home from Iraq.”

Wendling was touched by one older woman’s request to sit on her husband Dennis’s lap. The woman had always wanted to visit with Santa, but didn’t because she was in a wheelchair. Her husband granted the woman’s request by picking her up and setting her on his knee.

“The next year, the family came back and said she had passed away right after Christmas,” Wendling says. “They had buried her with the pictures.”

Dennis Wendling, pictured here with his wife Gloria, acted as Santa Claus for 37 years. After he died in August, Gloria created the Santa Dennis’ Spirit of Christmas Giving fund to gather gifts for disadvantaged children.

These local men all have their reasons for becoming Santa.

Guernsey looks at it as a ministry. Some kids come to him with 19 to 20 presents on their lists, so he gently reminds them of the reason for the season. He asks them if they know whose birthday is celebrated on Christmas.

“I tell them that this is Jesus’ birthday,” he says, “but it’s a different kind of birthday party. Instead of him getting all of the presents, he gives them to you kids.”

Wendling’s husband, Dennis, had been Santa for 37 years when he died from a heart attack in August at age 68. He came from modest means, she says, and didn’t have the most exciting Christmases as a child.

“He was the sort of person who was a little uncomfortable in his own skin, but once he put on his Santa Claus suit and started dealing with kids, his inward self came out,” she says. “He was trying to give kids something he didn’t have himself.”

Wendling hasn’t given up on being Mrs. Claus. She’s continued to make costumes and appear at local churches, libraries and schools. She also founded the Santa Dennis’ Spirit of Christmas Giving, a fund that raises money for children’s Christmas gifts. Supporters have already donated $3,000.

Spellbrink became Santa out of necessity that one day in the mall, but he’s told his wife that he’s going to keep at it. There’s something about seeing an instant smile from the people who stop by to see Santa Claus.

“Once you put on the red suit, there’s something magical that takes place,” he says. “It just changes you. You want to live out positive things and be a positive role model for children.”

Ferguson agrees that he becomes Santa for the kids: “Just to see their smiling faces and their sparkling eyes. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

Santa Claus Oath

I will seek knowledge to be well versed in the mysteries of bringing Christmas cheer and good will to all the people that I encounter in my journeys and travels.

I shall be dedicated to hearing the secret dreams of both children and adults.

I understand that the true and only gift I can give, as Santa, is myself.

I acknowledge that some of the requests I will hear will be difficult and sad. I know in these difficulties there lies an opportunity to bring a spirit of warmth, understanding and compassion.
I know the “real reason for the season” and know that I am blessed to be able to be a part of it.

I realize that I belong to a brotherhood and will be supportive, honest and show fellowship to my peers.

I promise to use “my” powers to create happiness, spread love and make fantasies come to life in the true and sincere tradition of the Santa Claus Legend.

I pledge myself to these principles as a descendant of St. Nicholas the gift giver of Myra.

-Phillip L. Wenz


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