People confuse Roger Freeman with Santa Claus even without the suit. Never mind that a diploma from the International University of Santa Claus hangs on his wall. Forget that his business cards list credentials such as member of the National Beard Registry. And strangers would probably not recognize him from an Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas meeting.
Even on Halloween, when Roger sprayed his mid-chest length beard black during his second favorite holiday, some children still thought him Santa.
One child’s father told him, “You can’t take the twinkle out of your eye,” recalled wife Jo Freeman.
After all, the suit doesn’t make the man, even if it is red and costs $700. And the big, golden “Santa” belt that helps support his back? That was a Christmas gift from Jo and the price will remain a secret.
But Santa was willing to divulge some secrets. He curls his perfect beard with two curling irons — a small one for the mustache and a large one to turn under the beard. He also uses roughly 3 gallons of Paul Mitchell hair product annually.
Santa, 65, has been Santa for 38 years, first in California and now in Arizona. He has done mall work, private parties, school events and town events, showed up to work as Santa two weeks after a triple bypass heart surgery and managed to Ho Ho Ho through it all.
“We had to do it or he’d have to start calling and telling them Santa’s not coming,” said Jo. And for Santa, disappointment is not an option.
“Our tax preparer says you have to start making a profit one of these days or else they’ll start calling it a hobby,” said Roger.
“It is a hobby,” said Jo.
“Shhh,” said Roger.
In Huntington Beach, Santa Roger visited a class with mainstreamed Down syndrome children. “I have never seen so much love in one place,” he said.
“There were no questions, are you the real thing? They just knew,” said Jo, otherwise known as Mrs. Claus.
Mall engagements preclude the love and hugs those kids gave him, which is why Roger prefers the town, school and private parties he entertains.
“Mall work isn’t fun at all,” said Roger.
“They want to keep the line moving,” said Jo.
Santa, although he’s nearly 2,000 years old, must always exercise caution. He must not drink nor smoke on the job. He must keep his suit clean and free of soot. He must answer tricky questions.
One little boy asked him to bring his father home from Iraq.
“That’s something the president has to respond to. I’m sure your daddy will be home as soon as Mr. Bush can take care of it,” Roger told him.
Another little girl requested a gift for her sister. When Santa asked where her sister was, the girl replied, “in a casket.”
For all Santa’s tribulations, he is not alone. The Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas — which has recently split into two groups — offers members an outlet to discuss suits, styles and Santa answers.
How does your suit stay so clean of soot, Santa? “You shake it out really well,” Roger explains. “It keeps Mrs. Claus real busy.”
How do you travel the whole world in 24 hours? “We fly in a special direction so it’s actually 48 hours,” Santa said.
However, even Santas are not without their disputes. Roger left the first organization after it began allowing those with fake beards, along with elves.
“Elves are OK,” said Jo.
“But when you put a fake beard on somebody and try and sell them as Santa, it just doesn’t work,” said Roger. The declining standards also make it so some Santas, who are often recruited for engagements through the organizations, embarrass other Santas by wearing dingy costumes or appearing with liquored breath.
Children also tend to tug on a Santa’s beard, to test its legitimacy. They mustn’t be disappointed.
Roger, who calls fake-bearded Santas “helpers,” said, “There are a lot of Santa’s helpers that live up here.” But no other real Santas.
Real Santas know that to land on a tiled roof in the Valley, the reindeer must wear rubber boots to keep from sliding. They also happen to carry magic keys for houses without chimneys.
Real Santas happen to know Rudolph has simply snuck off with his girlfriend when he can’t be found at the Payson airport. And the real Santa, even though he’s over 2,000 years old, doesn’t look a day over 65.