Santa School: Four men who take the job of Jolly Old St. Nick seriously
Emme Forde, a kindergartener at Coal Mountain Elementary School, got to meet all four at once at Mountain Lake Church. Don’t worry, she still believes. One of those Santas is the real guy, her mom said, and the others are his brothers. That’s why they look alike. - photo by Micah Green

Did you know this about Santa?

* Each of the four Santas own anywhere from one to four suits, from the traditional “Coca-Cola suit” to a summer suit for Christmas in July events, a swimming Santa suit and a toy shop suit.

* Each Santa suit can have seven or eight different pieces: boots, pants, jacket, belt, vest, shirt, gloves, and a hat, but these Santas also know how to accessorize with ornaments and aprons.

* Atlanta is one of the most popular places in the nation for Santa school.

* For their first year last year, Santa Willie and Santa Doug started growing their beards out in July or August.

About this article

This article was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of M: North Atlanta, a publication of the Forsyth County News. To read the entire magazine, click here.

In a church in north Forsyth in early November, sat Santa Carl. Santa Carl sat next to Santa Jim. Next to Santa Jim was Santa Willie. And next to Santa Willie was Santa Doug.

Four Santas. All real in the eyes of every young child who meets them during the events they host in the weeks leading up to Christmas — and
even for Christmas in July. All story tellers. An ear. A hug. A priceless family picture.

These weren’t just any group of men decked out in white wigs and elastic beards. They take their jobs more seriously than many people view work — they even have to train at Santa school.

“You learn how to handle kids asking questions, and there are certain situations, like being around kids with special needs,” said Doug Keesey,
who is now in his second year of being Santa.

That’s where they all met. They train at places like the Northern Lights Santa Academy. They’re members of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

“It’s very much a brotherhood,” said Carl Johnson, who is in his sixth year as Santa.

At Santa school, they go through classes for everything from working with photographers and practicing improvisational situations to makeup, hair, health, hygiene and Santa ethics.

“Kids can tell you some of the craziest stuff,” said Jim Galpin, also a sixth-year Santa.

Even if they’re crying, he said, that’s the picture their family is going pull out of the album every Christmas.

Whether they are ecstatic or terrified, kids are always aware of Santa.

"It’s always in the periphery. It’s just something you have to watch all the time,” Johnson said. “You have to have a heightened sensitivity.”

For example, he said, he went to a restaurant, and a kid recognized him because of his white hair and beard. He could not simply be Carl Johnson.

He is, whenever there is the opportunity for a young child to see, Santa Carl.

“It happened to me one time on a cruise. People want to come up to you and ask, but sometimes they’re afraid. Until the first person does, and then they’re like, ‘I knew it!’” Galpin said.“You get a lot and you give a lot. I still remember stories about specific kids and how excited they were, and it made their day,” Keesey said.

Being there for a kid or for a family is not always happy or enjoyable, they said, like when a kid is scared or crying, but there is meaning in it all.

“Delivering flowers is the closet job I’ve ever got to feeling this gratification,” said Willie Williamson, a second-year Santa.

“It took me 51 years to find a job I enjoy,” Johnson said.

Galpin said the most difficult experience he has had with being Santa was when he met a man on the first Christmas after losing his wife. He brought his newborn child to meet Santa to “still give him that experience and feeling.”

“It can’t be a job. It’s like teaching. You have to want to do it, to be comfortable doing it because it can be a tedious day,” he said.

Or the girl Keesey said he remembers who asked for Christmas if her parents would get back together.

“I wasn’t going to fix it, but I was there to listen, and to give her a hug, and to say Santa loves you. Thank you for coming to see me,” he said. “And that’s all she needed. Someone to tell her they loved her.”