St. Nick

Behind Santa's beard, a sleighful of Casper Christmas spirit

2012-12-25T08:00:00Z 2014-12-10T19:06:35Z Behind Santa's beard, a sleighful of Casper Christmas spiritBy JEREMY FUGLEBERG Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

The day after Christmas for Santa Claus is a quiet one.

The reindeer are stabled, the sleigh's work is done.

Millions of toys are under trees for kids to take.

Finally, the Jolly Old Elf gets a well-deserved break.

After all, Casper at Christmas is a busy place for Santa Claus.

He hands away dozens of boxes of candy canes.

Hundreds of kids sit on his lap for a photo at the Eastridge Mall.

He presides as thousands of bags of donated presents are given away at the Salvation Army.

Being Santa Claus, after all, is more work than one man can do.

Meet John Shields and Bryan Bowen. Both men spend the Christmas season doing the work of Santa in Casper: A jolly smile here, a hearty laugh there, all from behind the traditional white beard both maintain year-round. With some bleach touchups, of course.

"It's just magic when you put on the red suit," Shields said.

Both have few expenses, although the initial costs add up. The Santa suit itself costs about $600, Bowen said. And it costs several hundred dollars each season take care of all the other details: the candy canes, the white cotton gloves that wear out, the beard-whitening.

Bowen, a retired Air Force veteran, uses a solution of hydrogen peroxide and powdered bleach to get the beard just right -- not easy with the red hair that sneaks into his mane. By the week before Christmas, he's reapplied the bleach mix seven times too keep the snowy beard.

"I put it on and hope I don't burn myself," he said. "It's the same thing they use for whitening skulls of animals."

Shields, a former correctional officer, first became Santa Claus in 2000, volunteering for a visit to a nursing home. That first visit shaped the Santa he became.

"I wore a false beard, and I couldn't stand that false beard," he said. "I said if I'm going to stick with it, I'm going to grow my own beard."

When Shields and Bowen don the red suit, they both carry on an old tradition. It's a tradition Shields knows won't die, as long as there are kids who need a smile.

"You can't let the kids down, that's the important thing," he said.

"It's not who the Santa is, it's the kids who are really important."


Being Santa Claus

The rumors are true: Santa does have a list.

It's not the naughty list for bad boys or the nice list for good girls. It's a list of electronics: 50 to 60 items Shields' 9-year-old grandson helped him compile to stay up with the latest, hottest pieces of electronic gear.

Electronics are all any kid seems to want anymore, he said.

"One little girl asked for a doll, and that was really refreshing," he said.

At the Salvation Army, one girl sits on Bowen's lap, twisting her fingers into his white beard as her mother picks up donated presents.

Bowen beams down at the girl with his blue eyes, and she looks back.

Sometimes words are overrated.

Children don't always bring their joy to Santa Claus.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, kids would ask Shields for something he couldn't give: "Can you get my daddy home?"

"That's kind of heartbreaking," he said. "You can't promise anything, because they would be disappointed."

Another said her dad was in jail.

"That broke my heart. Kids don't deserve that," Shields said.

"You've got to love the kids, you've just got to, and try to make them forget about things for a few minutes and try to spend some time with them -- quality time -- just in talking to them," he said. "You see the stars in their eyes. They're so trusting, just so innocent, you can't help but love them."

Bowen and Shields book few commercial jobs, focusing on volunteer gigs and work that is enough to cover costs.

Both tally a host of appearances: A church one morning, then a day care, a visit to Walmart, the downtown businesses on a Saturday, a visit to some ill folks in the hospital. Another school, another day care.

Santa here, Santa there, Santa everywhere.

"I don't know how to get on a list or something," Bowen said. "It's just all hearsay and who knows who."


The business of Santa

It's possible to pose as Santa and rake in cash. Santa is big business. There are Santa Claus colleges and even Santa Claus unions, including The Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.

To get its visit from Santa, Eastridge Mall works with a Santa union, under a national deal between the union and General Growth Properties, the mall's parent company.

The Santa at the mall this year is a local guy, but he's hired through the union, said Dustin Cox, the mall's general manager.

"They used to be hired directly, but now it's easier for us to bring them in," he said.

Unlike some states, though, low-population Wyoming's isn't a hot market for Santas. certainly covers the U.S.

"Nationwide since 1999, Hong Kong since 2004," its website touts.

But the woman answering the phone at the Phoenix-based offshoot says she couldn't recall a single company organized trip for Santa to Wyoming.

But Bowen says he's heard of gigs that pay pretty well, trips with airfare covered.

"I've heard of Santa Claus coming into Casper from Colorado -- 1,200 plus all expenses for a four-hour show," he said.

Bowen said he's not a fan of the photo lineups and long lines. He'd prefer to stick to the volunteer work. He recalls one party he visited as Santa, and the hosts were charging parents $5 for a disc of photos if they wanted more than one picture.

"That ain't what it's about," Bowen said. "I just felt, man, I'm part of a scam."

Other local businesses stick with in-house talent. One of the local Albertsons grocery stores got its associate store director to don the fabled garb.


The real reason

Despite wearing the Santa suit, Shields and Bowen point to Jesus as the reason for the Christmas season. Bowen tells a story about the candy canes he gives away, describing the red in the cane as the blood Jesus sacrificed for the world by dying on a cross.

Shields said he sees himself as a manifestation of Saint Nicholas, and he's quick to reinforce Jesus' preeminence in Christmas whenever a child brings it up.

"I still believe that very firmly, that Jesus is the reason for the season," he said. "Sometimes kids come up and tell me that, when they're sitting on my lap, and I agree with them. We can't take away from that at all."

Bowen said it doesn't matter what you believe. When Santa rolls up to you with a shopping cart carrying candy canes, tells you the story behind them and gives you your own cane, the smiles win out every time.

"People treat you differently doing this," he said, but he wishes that wasn't the case. Everyone can do their own part to make others' lives better.

"You could walk up and hand them a candy cane and everything changes," he said. "We should be that every day."

Shields never believed in Santa Claus. His mother, disappointed as a child to learn that Santa Claus wasn't real, quickly told her children so they wouldn't suffer the same disappointment.

Kids need a chance to revel in the magic of Christmas, and if anything, adults may need Santa Claus even more, Bowen said.

"That's how it works. It just makes people remember when they did believe and remember when it was all magic and good," Bowen said.

"We have to remember when our times were good."

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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