By Joe Smillie
For Peninsula Daily News
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“As soon as I walk in and look in the eyes of kids delighted to see me, every other worry I could have is erased,” said Don Talmadge of Kingston, who has 32 years of experience in the red suit — and his own white beard — and who served as Father Christmas at Port Townsend's Gilded Age Yuletide Salon last weekend.
Larry Klinefelter of Sequim, who has 11 years of experience under the big, black belt, said the Christmas spirit comes to life for him when he experiences the generosity of children.
“It's when a kid looks at you and says, 'Santa, I don't want anything, I just want my Grandma to live forever,” Klinefelter said.
“That really cuts you to the heart.”
Klinefelter and John Hubbard of Port Angeles donned the suit for a visit to Necessities and Temptations gift shop in Port Angeles for a benefit for the Olympic Medical Center Foundation.
Peninsula St. Nicks said even cynics melt at the sight of their white beards.
“People who will not open the door to anybody, anywhere, anytime will let Santa in,” said Don McIntyre of Sequim, who has played Kris Kringle for 33 years — wearing his own beard.
“Security goes out the window when Santa comes by.”
One of Santa's most laborious chores is his legendary job of tracking the behavior of 7 billion people.
They all have systems.
“All children are good. That part's easy,” said Hubbard, who's been standing in for Santa in Port Angeles since 1977.
Adults, though, are another story.
“I learned that you always tell women they're on the nice list,” said McIntyre, known for cracking candy canes in pieces before handing them to men, while giving whole ones to women. Why? “Most men have been bad.”
McIntyre rates 60 percent of the adult population on the nice list, 30 percent on the naughty roster and 10 percent “really, really naughty.”
But, said Talmadge, it's not carved in stone.
“As long as you know you're bad, admit you were bad and try to make up for it, there's always room to move your name to the nice list.”
One way to make the nice list, said McIntyre, is to leave out a plate of oatmeal cookies with raisins, cranberries and 'lots of nuts” on Christmas Eve.
Another job requirement: Santa needs to be merry and laugh with that patented bowl-full-of-jelly belly.
“It's scary enough for the kid, just looking at some big dude with a big beard,” said Hubbard, who admits that even Father Christmas has some bad days.
“You get the kid that walks up with a 3-inch diameter sucker, and he pulls away, and the sucker's stuck in your beard.
“But you just get up, go to the bathroom and slowly pull it out, hair by hair.”
And then there are co-workers.
Elves are no sweat, said Talmadge, who studied this year at the St. Nicholas Institute, a training school for would-be Santas in Livonia, Mich.
Guest stars are another story: “Clowns and Santa Claus don't mix,” McIntyre said.
“I was Santa once at this party where there was this obnoxious clown. Every time I opened my mouth to talk to the kid, the clown would honk his stupid horn.”
And Santas can't get creative with their dress. The costume is always red and white and fur-trimmed — from head to black boots.
“Santa Claus isn't something we put on. It's a bit like being a minister or a nun,” Talmadge said. “We feel called to do it.
“But when you put that suit on, something does kind of sweep over you.”
John Hubbard inherited most of his suit in 1977, when his father, Dick, handed over his Port Angeles Kringle duties.
In 1952, the elder Hubbard ordered a Santa suit, complete with a yak-hair beard from New York for $350.
Eventually, after years of kneeling to hear the whispered wishes of young fans, John Hubbard wore out the knees.
He has a new suit now — sewn by his wife, Judy — but the rest of the items are the same ones his father ordered in 1952.
The father of five daughters, Hubbard, 76, is grooming one of his sons-in-law and a Kringle-framed grandson to take the suit from him.
The old yak-hair beard has served him well, save the one year he sent it out for a cleaning.
“It's supposed to have a little yellow tint, but when I got it back, it was bright white,” he recalled of the blond beard.
“We had to take in a picture of me wearing it so she could get it died back to the right color.”
Now, it's kept clean at home, with Judy giving the mustache and ends a curling iron touch-up before Santa calls.
Along with the jingle-bell wristband and the red bag of toys, McIntyre also sports a Dickensian pipe.
“A lot of people speak out and have problems with me carrying around the pipe,” he admitted.
“But, I tell you what, when I walk into a retirement home with this thing, those old ladies — they just light up.”
McIntyre recalled being summoned to a lawyer's office in the Seafirst Building in Seattle one day.
It turned outa fan of his Santa work had left McIntyre a classic pipe with a dark black-arched mouthpiece and a rich wooden bowl — a piece that became what McIntyre considers the cherry atop his Santa sundae.
How do Santas travel? Opinions are mixed on the traditional reindeer-drawn sled.
“Reindeer only fly in the snow,” McIntyre said.
“They have to have snow in order to get traction under their hooves.”
Talmadge, though, disputed that notion: “Reindeer don't need snow. I go to California, to the desert. There's no snow there.”
For Klinefelter, the transportation solution is simple.
With more than 7 billion people on the planet, Santa's got to get around, he said.
“Santa's got a Learjet now. I've got to get around a lot quicker. There's more kids these days,” Klinefelter said.
For local transport, Klinefelter trades in tiny-reindeer power for good old-fashioned Detroit horsepower.
Tooling down U.S. Highway 101 in his GMC pickup truck and camper, Klinefelter often turns heads as he heads from Sequim to gigs in Port Angeles.
“You gotta freelance it sometimes,” he said.
After Christmas, comes the downtime.
When demand for cheery, white-bearded men goes away, so do the red suits and black belts.
“You've got to take extra care of that suit. That's where all the magic lies,” Hubbard said.
For the Peninsula Santas, it means a return to everyday life without candy canes or cranberry cookies — most of the time.
But, said Talmadge, sometimes “it'll happen in July.
“I'll walk into the hardware store and hear, 'Mommy it's him.'”
And even Santa Claus has his own wishes.
“I'd love to be a mall Santa,” Klinefelter said.
“To be in the center of a big mall with all those people waiting to see you. . . . That's the big time.”