Becoming Santa, becoming a better man

By Carol Thompson

Having a full Santa beard can have unexpected consequences on your life. For instance, a Life After 50 reporter may stop you with a copy of the May issue saying “You look like you might know this man on the front cover!” Or perhaps another Santa look-alike may stop you with “Nice beard,” which may ultimately change your life.

JaySantamilitarycirca1997web

Jay Alcenius in his Air Force days, circa 1997.

For Jay Alcenius, the accidental meeting seven years ago with Billy Gooch at Sheldon’s Diner not only changed his life, but that of a friend, also a bearded Santa lookalike.

Billy Gooch was not only a well-known Santa character at the North Pole up Highway 24, but was also a Santa recruiter. Gooch, now deceased, had also served one Christmas at the White House. While the meeting did not recruit Alcenius at the time, he referred another friend to Gooch, who did enter the Santa world.  Last year, that friend returned the favor, by referring Alcenius to his Santa recruiter. Thus, another Santa was created. And as he will tell you, it made him a better man.

“You can’t be Santa through Christmas, keep the beard all year long, everybody makes comments, so you  kinda have to be Santa year round. You can’t have road rage and yell at somebody, get in a bar fight, cause you’re Santa year round even if you’re not getting paid for it,” Alcenius said. “You live it. It’s fun. And there are lots worse characters to be mistaken for. Nobody wants to hear, “Aren’t you the Charlie Manson guy?” Nobody wants to be mistaken for him.”

As I learned more about Alcenius, I began to realize how neatly he fits the true Santa role.

First of all, Alcenius is a retired Master Sergeant (E-7), having served 24 years in the United States Air Force. This shaped him in many ways. Although he served in Florida, California, Northern Maine (186 miles from the nearest 7-11!) and Colorado Springs, the deployments that affected him most deeply was the one in Korea.  It was there he learned to eat with chopsticks, a feat he still practices today, as I witnessed his facility with them at Bhan Thai over Cashew Chicken.  It was much more than that, though, that left impressions which challenged his thinking of how things should be.  “It’s interesting when you go to another country and see another culture and see how they have a totally different logic than we have. Here, if you are in a taxi and the taxi gets in an accident, it’s the taxi driver’s fault. But there, if you’re in a taxi and get into an accident, it’s your fault, cause you told him where to go and otherwise he wouldn’t have been there. Totally different logic. You see that there’s more than one way of seeing something.”

After retiring in 2003, Alcenius spent seven years with Boeing, writing maintenance manuals on the GPS ground antenna for Spacecraft support. He was looking around for something interesting to do when the friend he had referred to Gooch contacted him about filling in as a Santa.  This usually requires about six weeks during the Christmas holiday season, so it becomes hard to work at another job and request that amount of  time off. At loose ends, Alcenius accepted and was sent to the Merced Mall in Merced, California. Normally, there is a training period, but in his case, he had to rely on his wits and former training.

One of the most frequently requested gifts was for a puppy. Quick thinking led him to reply, “I can’t deliver live puppies anymore. Last year I had a puppy on the sleigh, and he barked, scaring the reindeer who jumped to another roof, so I can’t deliver live puppies anymore.” If the parent has nodded yes, he adds, “I have a special service that may be able to deliver a live puppy.”  When I asked where he learned his ability to think on his feet, he told me about his NCO training. One of the trainings involved picking a card of topics from a batch, and being given 15 minutes to prepare a speech either for or against, even if you knew nothing about the topic. You needed an introduction, at least three facts to cover, transitions, and conclusions and at the end you were given five minutes to give your speech. If you weren’t finished, you were cut off anyway. He said being a grandfather to a three-year old granddaughter and six-year old grandson had given him lots of training on children’s interests.

Becoming a father to a daughter who developed leukemia at 18 months also changed him.  Five years of chemotherapy later, she was declared cured, one of the lucky ones. This daughter has given him the grandchildren he adores. Since they live with him and his wife, he has year  round training on which programs children watch, who the main characters are and their names. This comes in handy when he is acting Santa.

Last month, 450 Santas gathered in Denver for the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. There were workshops on Santa characters, the history of Santa, what to say and do and not do or say. “You never promise unless the kid’s mom nods.” Other trainings included “You never reach for a child, you let them come to you. There were trainings on what to look for like signs of abuse, legalities, trends, sexual harassment and molestation. All Santas must have background checks and insurance. There are two categories, mall Santas and independent Santas, who may be contracted out for small parties, family appearances. I’m a mall Santa. This year I will be the alternate Santa at the North Pole.” His friend whom he referred to the recruiter seven years ago will be the full-time Santa, and Alcenius will be the alternate.

It’s a good thing he’s the alternate, because this Santa has many interests. He is an accomplished musician, playing first solo clarinet in the New Horizon Symphonic Band of Colorado Springs, which has 85 pieces and performs two concerts a year. He also plays in a community band and in a clarinet choir. In addition to his music, he enjoys long distance motorcycle rides on his “BMW K1200 LT with power adjustable windshield, six-disc CD changer, heated seat and handgrips, and hydraulic center stand.  It’s just missing two wheels of being a car!” he grins. He is currently  participating in a 3K “Run for the Wall” to arrive in D.C. Memorial Day to bring awareness to the POWs and MIAs. This is the 30th year of the run, and 1,600 participants will travel three routes to get there.

Alcenius has been in the Springs for 21 years, where he is also a ham radio operator, coordinating with the Pikes Peak Hill Climb for emergencies, and reports weather conditions to NOAA in Pueblo. They coordinate storm conditions with the 300-500 ham operators in the Pikes Peak region. This information helps refine weather reporting for the future.

Photography is another interest of this Renaissance guy.  He and his wife enjoyed square dancing for many years. His father-in-law was a caller, so date nights were frequent and free!  He also played competitive darts for 16 years and ranked 320th in the nation.

You see, this Santa was accomplished in many areas but was unprepared for some aspects of being a Santa. “I wasn’t prepared for the counseling aspect of being a Santa, cause I’d been pretty well isolated from that kind of life.” Homelessness, kids who were unkempt, unmatched shoes, separated from their parents. “One little girl who came in with two men, asked if I knew where her dad was. No, I said, where is he? He’s in jail, she said. That’s when I knew the men were her foster parents.”

“It’s hard to stay in character and not shed a tear when you hear some of the stories. I didn’t succeed. I cried right along with them. But it’s interesting to see the lives of people. Some people bring in 17 family members and everything seems happy.” This is often when they have a family picture taken, all 17 in one photograph. “The kids all like Santa Claus, and the sparkle in their eyes when they realize someone is talking with them not to them.”

Some kids are real curious. “’Where are your reindeer,’ they ask, and I tell them reindeer are kind of messy animals and we don’t want to have that kind of mess on the floor and the Department of Health wouldn’t allow it.”

“Being a Santa is like being in the military. In uniform, you represent the entire USAF. You represent something much larger than yourself.  In civvies, you can be yourself, but in uniform, you’re all alike. Being Santa is like that, you have a reputation to uphold, you represent something much larger than yourself. You don’t want to let people down. You don’t want people saying that guy looks just like Santa but he’s a jerk.”

This father’s day, I extend a “Happy Father’s Day” to Jay Alcenius and all fathers. I salute his service in the military, applaud his music, avoid his darts, smile for his photos and shelter during the storms he helps supervise.  And for being a Santa all year I silently add my own wish list: world peace, a new car (selfishly, I admit), and happy holidays for children and parents everywhere. By the way, his other sleigh is a 1997 candy-apple red Jaguar convertible with white leather seats and bird’s eye maple dash. Wonder if we could trade my 1997 Ford Escort Station Wagon with five on the floor with his Jag?

JaySanta4web

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