The Bearded Ones

Two types of Santas in the world: Those who play the part, and those who live it

Every child knows there’s one thing that distinguishes a real Santa from a wannabee: the beard. And the test is simple. When sitting on Santa’s lap, give his whiskers a tug. If you get a scream, the man is a “real beard.” If you get a fistful of fake whiskers, you’re dealing with a “designer.”

There are a lot of designer Santas in the Kringle business, so the real beards have created the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas (AORBS). The group was formed in 1994 by 10 Screen Actors Guild members (one of whom, Leonard Ray, lives in Las Vegas) who met while filming a commercial for a German mail order catalog. They hit it off, and decided to meet for lunch following the Christmas season. The group grew, and now AORBS boasts a brotherhood of 1,700 real beards who participate in events throughout the year, including a cruise, convention and luncheons.

“It’s an A-class group of men,” Ray says. At 82, he has been dressing up as Santa for more than 25 years.

Even when in civilian clothes, Ray represents the jolly old elf full time—that’s one of the principles of AORBS. “Christmas comes all year long,” he says. “Even though you’re not dressed up in the red suit, when people greet you, you greet them back as if you’re Santa. I have that happen all the time in grocery stores.” AORBS believes children should always be treated nicely, and that Santas should never smoke or drink around kids. “You are an A-class Santa Claus,” he says. “You don’t smoke, you don’t drink around the children or out in public. You act like Santa.”

Nicholas Trolli, president of AORBS, agrees that real-beard Santas are always on duty. “You’re Santa 24/7,” he says. “You’ve got to be careful when you go out, you can’t just go out in jeans and a T-shirt, or in ripped pants you were gardening in. You’ve got to look good every time you go out. Your mustache has to be done perfectly. Your beard should be styled. And you should look good.”

Trolli, who is spending the season working in a mall in Kansas City, Mo., says that when he’s off the clock from October through December, he avoids malls because throngs of kids will inevitably follow him. “I definitely would not go to Disney World,” he says. “They’ll be lining up.”

Of course, Trolli and the other Santas wouldn’t have it any other way (or else they’d consider asking Santa for a gift card to the Art of Shaving). It’s that beard that’s earned them a place in the esteemed order. And while they insist there’s no rivalry between designers and real beards, you can sense their mustache-twirling pride, even when they’re giving a nod to the follicly challenged.

“Ultimately people want the real beard,” Trolli says. “I started off as a ‘designer-bearded’ Santa, which means I started off wearing the fake beard. But did I still have the same love for the children? Yes. Did I still perfect the character? Yes. Santa enters through the heart. And once you put on that red suit, a transformation takes place in most people who do it that we call the ‘Santa bug.’ Once they get bit, they are Santa from then on, whether they have the beard or not.”