COLUMBIA — The only physical changes Gary Mitchell needed to make were letting his hair grow a bit longer and perming his beard.
Four years ago, the Columbia resident joined an elite 70-member group of Natural Santas who spend the holidays in large shopping malls and Christmas displays across 30 states.
The Natural Santas form a brotherhood that lives by a moral code — no public drinking, womanizing or grumpiness. They must be ready to greet children and adults, whether at their holiday jobs or just out in the community during the rest of the year.
Frank Martinez, the group's operations manager and veteran Santa, said Natural Santas try to keep the magic of Christmas alive for children by being consistently gentle and kind.
Natural Santas can't be nice to kids in public and "a grump at home," Martinez said.
Mitchell tries to always have trinkets in his pocket for the children he encounters in his day-to-day life.
Even when Mitchell's not wearing his custom-made red suit and sitting on an oversized red and gold throne as a main attraction at the mall, he remains Santa Claus.
Throughout the year, he often wears red shirts and sports a gold watch chain — an outfit that draws attention from most everyone.
Cheryl Mitchell, who helps operate the photo booth at the malls where her husband works, said she was once approached by two Asian tourists while she and her husband were on vacation in California. They wanted to know if she was with Santa Claus.
Gary Mitchell works every day from mid-November until the day after Christmas. On busy days, he meets about 1,000 children. This year, he's stationed at a mall in St. Louis that asked not to be named because the company wants visitors to see Mitchell only as Santa, not a real man.
By the end of the season, Gary Mitchell is exhausted. Momentarily, he thinks, “I ain’t never doing that again.” All it takes is a little rest to remind him why he joined the group in the first place.
It's certainly not for the money. The first year, all his earnings went to pay for the custom-made costumes Natural Santas must wear.
This year, the group's founder, Billy Gooch, is stationed at Santa’s Work Shop, part of the National Christmas Tree exhibit in Washington, D.C.
None of his Santas see their role as a money-making venture, Gooch said. "If you don’t got the love in there, you don’t do it."
Gary Mitchell said he does it because he loves the thrill children get from meeting him and the camaraderie he's found with the other Santas.
Natural Santas are required to attend February auditions in Las Vegas, a suit fitting and photo shoot in March and the final training session during Labor Day weekend.
During the off-season, many of them go on cruises together, convene for the "Big, Fat and Ugly" party on Fourth of July weekend and stay at each other's homes while on road trips.
When a Natural Santa dies, members in neighboring states attend the funeral.
At 68, Gary Mitchell has no plans of retiring. "I don’t know if I could stay home in November and December," he said.
Gary Mitchell wishes he had joined long ago. When he did join, he had just retired from a 47-year-long career at CenturyLink and its preceding companies, where he worked as a cable splicer, putting up lines around Columbia.
There are usually about eight Santa hopefuls who go to Las Vegas for the annual auditions. The veterans and hopefuls eat together and spend most of the three-day gathering sitting around the hotel lobby and talking about the tricks of their trade.
The hopefuls are vetted through this informal process and only about four make the cut.
"We're really picky about who we get," Gooch said.
The No. 1 requirement is that Santas have real hair.
Some people who don't get selected re-audition the following year after improving their shortcomings — such as getting teeth fixed.
Gary Mitchell was admitted on his first try.
He has had a beard for most of his adult life, and Cheryl Mitchell said she remembers children recognizing her husband as Santa Claus about 15 years ago when his hair started turning white.
Hair is important. While spending the holidays last year at the Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis, Calif., the heat got to Gary Mitchell one afternoon. He took off his hat and a little girl standing on the balcony started to yell, “Santa’s bald! I seen him.”
“That was a real issue for the kid,” he said.
Looks alone, though, aren't enough to gain entrance into the group; Gooch said Gary Mitchell fit the looks and is a really "good guy." He's warm and speaks from his heart.
Last year, Gary Mitchell was near a military base and received visits from several kids whose parent had been killed. He remembers one girl in particular who had lost her father right before the holidays. While they spoke, she started crying, as did her mother and her grandparents. There was no script for what to say.
“Your Daddy’s there in your heart,” he said. “Just close your eyes and he’s there.”
He also knows how to be diplomatic. A mentally disabled man once paid him a visit to request a gun. When Mitchell asked why, the man explained that he wanted to shoot his friend for calling him "four eyes".
“I told him, ‘I think we can settle this a different way,’” he said and asked the friend to stop the name-calling.
Some parts of playing Santa can be learned. A Natural Santa trains its members by teaching them rules and techniques.
“There’s a lot of do and don’ts,” he said.
For example, his hands must be visible at all times. If a picture is taken and they can’t be seen, there could be a problem. That’s one reason for wearing white gloves and for buying $2 million of insurance.
Taking pictures can prove tricky for other reasons. He said that toddlers are often afraid.
“Give 'em a big hug and they jump off,” he said. He doesn’t like forcing them to stay seated for a photograph: “All you get is their tonsils.”
Then, there are the adults. “You take that beating,” Gary Mitchell said as he demonstrated how he sits back and grounds his feet.
Another rule is that he can’t promise anything. Kids sometimes want expensive gifts, like Nintendo Wiis, and he knows they won’t all get them. He tells children that for some gifts they might need to wait for years.
Despite all the rules, the most difficult part of Gary Mitchell's job is reading out loud.
“I get nervous,” he said. “You’ve got 100 pairs of eyes on you. I’m just not good at it. I did it the first year, and that took care of that.”
This year, the mall hired someone else to read.
Even though you won't hear him reading "The Night Before Christmas," he has a gift that can't be bought.
"A lot of kids don’t believe," he said. “But when I get done with them, usually they do.”