It's all about the suit.
Cheap ones won't do. They have to be authentic and meticulously kept.
That's one of the most important parts of being a good Santa, according to Denny Albright of Claysburg.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich) Santa Claus, played by Jim Fouse, reads letters from the Foor sisters of New Paris. They are (from left) Samantha, 8, Meeka, 3, and Harley, 6.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich) Denny Albright of Claysburg is ready to go to work as Santa. He says the suit is an important part of making the role authentic.
Albright, 69, has been playing Santa for more than two decades and his enthusiasm hasn't waned. He doesn't sport a real beard, but once he's in costume (and it's a good one), he is Santa.
"When you put a Santa suit on, you're nobody but Santa Claus," Albright said.
Dressing in costume has always been fun for Albright. He and his wife, Carol, love Halloween. When Carol heard about the Film Center in Logan Valley Mall needing a Santa (in 1988), Albright applied. The gig at the mall got a little hectic, so he took his show on the road, playing Santa for parties, clubs and companies.
Jim Fouse of Altoona is a relative newcomer to the Santa world. The 59-year-old Blair Senior Services van driver began playing the jolly old elf at Logan Valley Mall in 2002.
As a Civil War re-enactor, Fouse sports a real beard, which is a plus for any Santa.
"They were looking for a Santa at the mall and it had to be a natural beard," Fouse said. During the holidays, Fouse bleaches his beard every two weeks.
Along with working at the mall, Fouse also does private appearances for family and friends. The real beard has attracted a lot of attention even when Fouse is out of his Santa suit.
"I've had kids come up to me at places where we eat. I don't tell them I'm Santa. I always tell them I'm Santa's helper," Fouse said.
The draw of being Santa for Fouse and Albright is without a doubt the kids. Fouse and Albright enjoy talking with the kids and listening to their Christmas wishes. Two of the strangest requests this year were a real elephant and a traffic signal.
"Those are weird things, but that's what the child wants. I never tell them I will get them that. I tell them we'll see. We'll work on that, but I never tell them yes, they'll definitely get it," Fouse said.
One year a little boy asked Albright to bring his daddy back. The boy's father had recently passed away and the boy wanted his daddy home for Christmas.
"Of course that choked me up. I said 'Santa can do an awful lot of things, but bringing people back is not one of them. On Christmas Eve, you go outside when it's dark and you see the brightest star and that will be Daddy looking down from heaven, and he's saying Merry Christmas,'" Albright said.
It takes a certain type of person to be Santa, Fouse and Albright agree.
Denis Navarro, psychologist at Altoona Regional Health System, said anyone playing Santa should have a jovial demeanor and be someone who is comfortable with people, especially children.
"You kind of have to have the manner for it," Navarro said. You don't have to be a psychologist, but you do have to be able to roll with the punches or the swats, beard pulls and cries.
"Sometimes children, especially toddlers, will hit Santa, pull his beard or kick and scream because they're afraid. The love of children is most important. Children are unpredictable with their emotions and Santa just has to accept them and be patient and willing to listen," he said.
"You have to be able to deal with kids and accept what they do to you. Just treat them kindly and be patient," Fouse said. It took three years for Fouse to convince one little girl to finally sit on Santa's lap. That was a victory of sorts.
As people age, they want to give back, Navarro said. Playing Santa allows some seniors to fulfill altruistic desires.
It's also a form of socialization. They get out of the house and fulfill an important role, interacting with many people. Empty nesters might also find joy in spending time with children if their own children are grown and they don't see their grandchildren often, Navarro said.
"In its best sense, it would be fun and give joy to kids," Navarro said.
"I just love seeing the kids and their bright eyes when they see Santa. It means the world to me," Albright said.
Seniors play Santa also because they love Christmas and everything it means.
"Keeping the magic of Christmas alive with kids is more of an honor than anything," Fouse said.