Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Santas With Real Beards

Richard Christie Story

Richard Christie, a 73-year-old retiree in Sunland, Calif., was struck by the idea of becoming Santa Claus seven years ago while vacationing in Big Sur.

"I was walking on the pier when I saw a man dressed all in red with a full beard, and I watched children flock to him and talk to him as Santa," recalls Mr. Christie, who had retired from Sears, Roebuck & Co. several years before and was looking for something "noble to do where I could interact with children."

The Santa who would become his mentor, Bill Gibson, told Mr. Christie -- who already sported a small beard -- that he could find work as Santa, too.

Mr. Christie never shaved again.

Within two years, the transformation was complete. He found an agent who helped him land work at corporate events, private parties, malls and even in television commercials. Last year, he flew to Shenzhen, China, where he greeted thousands of guests in a chalet set up in the lobby of a five-star hotel -- and pulled down a paycheck in "the mid-five-figures" for two hours of work a day, six days a week, for about a month.

About two weeks ago, Mr. Christie returned to Asia. This season, he is listening to wishes of girls and boys at Pacific Place, one of Hong Kong's most popular shopping malls.

He also markets a line of leather belts, buckles and other accessories, some costing nearly $300. Others, finding themselves with too much work to handle on their own, have become agents for fellow Santas. And a few of the sagest St. Nicks have written and published instruction manuals for the business and hold regular Santa workshops -- turning out trainees rather than toys.

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