TAMPA — Santa Fred, the long-bearded, 74-year-old Santa from Norway, was pulling a few bucks out of an ATM. Santa Jon Miller from Port St. Lucie jingled with every step of his red cross-trainer sneakers. Santa Buck and his Mrs. Claus checked out kitschy items being sold by a woman wearing a red T-shirt with green letters that read “I Get To Sleep With Santa” as their curly-coated Goldendoodle, Santa Paws, patiently stood panting at knee level.
Such are the things you see at a Santa Claus convention.
The International Santa Celebration, which takes place through Saturday at the Doubletree by Hilton on Cypress Avenue, has attracted 255 bearded and portly gentlemen and the women who love them to go Santa Casual for a couple of days in the Florida sunshine.
Except when it rains, which it did Thursday afternoon during a hybrid blood drive and Santa's Sleigh car show in the parking lot. After a series of downpours turned the skies naughty, a squadron of St. Nicks huddled under a small tent where retired WWE wrestler-turned stand-up comic Mick Foley was signing autographs.
On Thursday afternoon, the Doubletree lobby was clogged with jolly old elves. One rode a red Segway. Several others munched on salads and nachos in the hotel restaurant. A busload of Santas descended on the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. Tonight, the Santas are scheduled to set sail on a Yacht StarShip dinner cruise.
The celebration is a chance for holiday brethren to share stories, check out the latest in cranberry apparel and offer a little advice to ward off litigious parents.
“We give tips for the new guys, like, 'Every picture you take, the hands should be in white gloves and they should always show in the photo,'” Santa Bob Elkin said.
Santa Fred Osther, who goes by Santa Oslo and looks very much like the pointy-hatted Travelocity gnome, said being a Santa in the United States is much different than back home in Norway.
“The USA is more businesslike,” Osther said. “The custom in USA is to sign contracts. I do not use contracts in Norway.”
As if he didn't look enough like Santa, Bill Cheeseman wore a red T-shirt with a cartoon Santa head on it and a tan vest with a patch signifying his membership in the host group, the Palm Tree Santas of Florida, and a pin from the IBRBS (International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas). Cheeseman is a retired Hillsborough County paramedic with 33 years of Kringling under his shiny black belt.
The holiday business is good. Cheeseman said he and his Mrs. Claus, Pam Pepin, dropped in on 73 events last Christmas season, starting the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Only seven of those were in November. His holiday tour includes everything from office parties to senior citizen centers, Head Start facilities and homes for Alzheimer's patients.
Ever since Cheeseman grew the cottony beard 32 years ago — during year No. 1, he wore a fake beard that “smelled awful” — being recognized as Santa has been a year-round gig, even when he was out of uniform.
“You have to be ready to drop into the persona,” he said. “Kids come up in the grocery store all the time and ask what they're going to get for Christmas. I ask them, 'Are you being good?' It's just so much fun. Such a rewarding feeling.”
The Palm Tree Santas count about 100 Sandy Clauses in Florida, 15 of those in Hillsborough County. Santa Buck Winslow of Zephyrhills is among them. He and his wife, Mary Ann, and their daughter, Judy, of Plant City (“I'm a helper elf,” she says) have been working events and malls for a decade.
Winslow respects the mystery of St. Nick so much, he disguises himself with a cane, a slouched posture and a hoodie when walking in Wiregrass Mall, so the children will think he's merely an old man.
“I want every kid at the mall who sees me in costume to think that I'm him,” he said.
Winslow says he loves the job, even when he gets heartbreaking requests from children of military families asking for their dads or moms to come home for Christmas. He tells them it's up to God and asks them to pray with him.
Being Santa takes physical stamina. “You have to lift all those kids,” he said.
It also takes an emotional toll.
Winslow remembers an event years ago in Mississippi when a small girl asked if he knew where she lived. When he told her the elves keep track of every child's home, she said she lived in a purple house and that, “You didn't come to my house last year.”
Winslow still chokes up at the memory.
“I would have gone to her house that night with a present if I could have,” he said.