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Three New Jersey Santas agree: There’s more to it than red suits and a few ho-ho-hos

Three veteran Santas from South Jersey say the secret to a successful portrayal is love.

The South Jersey Santas (left to right) Les Jamerson, Kevin Chesney and Chuck Gill find the role is a moving experience.
The South Jersey Santas (left to right) Les Jamerson, Kevin Chesney and Chuck Gill find the role is a moving experience.Read moreKEVIN RIORDAN

Kevin Chesney, Chuck Gill, and Les Jamerson get a daily visit from Santa Claus.

Every morning, a snow-white beard and a jolly face greet them in the mirror.

You could say it's always Christmas for these three merry gentlemen from Burlington County, whose Santa work started by chance and became a calling.

"The Santa spirit finds you," said Gill,  65, an actor and retired Moorestown elementary school teacher who was a Temple freshman when his mother surprised him with a Santa gig at the department store where she worked.

"Any fool can wear that suit, but it takes a special person to make it come alive," said Jamerson, a 55-year-old former high school football coach from Palmyra. He was pressed into Santa service decades ago as a youth group adviser.

Said Chesney, 54, a Moorestown resident and retired Inquirer truck driver who as a teenager was a last-minute substitute Santa at his dad's Cinnaminson Rotary Club bash: "Santa's not in the suit. He's in your heart."

The three buddies talked to me recently about the joys, sorrows,  pitfalls — never, ever promise a particular toy will be under the tree — and occasional perils facing even "real-bearded" Santas, as distinct from the ones with "designer" (aka, fake) facial hair.

It seems that even in a digital world, kids and kids of all ages still love to meet and do selfies with a flesh-and-blood Santa who's got all the trimmings: generosity, kindness, and love.

"I don't think that will ever change," Jamerson said. "I don't care how much social media is out there."

Cheney estimated that 100 real-bearded Santas are working the territory between Trenton and Cape May, an informal, good-humored fraternity whose members socialize, share tips, and sometimes throw a snowball or two at one another.

"There's a lot of beard-shaming," said Gill. Suit-shaming, too: A cheap borrowed outfit may be fine for first-timers, but many Santas have long since graduated to better-quality off-the-rack or even custom suits, which can go for $500 and up.

While the suit doesn't make the Santa, image matters — especially given popular-culture portrayals that often are "more on the naughty than the nice side," said Jamerson.

Memes such as drunk Santa "don't  help," said Chesney, a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (there's a Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, too). The groups aim to protect the Santa brand and professionalize Santa presentations, as do various online Santa schools, colleges, and universities.

After all, portraying an iconic superhero who soars through the air to deliver presents worldwide in a single night is hard work, particularly during our ever-longer, ever more elaborate holiday season.

Chesney, Gill, and Jamerson said they don't much care for "mall sitting" — too much pressure and too little time with the kids, they said — but are available for photo shoots, house visits, tree lightings, office parties, parades, and events of all sorts.

Indeed: Gill was a singing Santa for several years during holiday concerts with the Philly Pops, has also worked with the Santa Express excursion trains on the Cape May Seashore Lines, and does a "video Santa chat" online. He also was front and center at Wednesday's lighting ceremony for Philadelphia's holiday tree at City Hall.

"You don't say no," said Jamerson, a self-described part-time Santa who doesn't advertise his services and donates any reimbursements he receives to charity. "We've all got sentimental hearts."

He and Chesney regularly sit for portraits with children at Danielle Foster Creations, a photo studio in Havertown. A single day's work can involve as many as 70 children and their families.

"You have to have that smile ready," Chesney said. "Whether that child is screaming, crying, kicking, wetting their pants … you have to be ready for that picture."

For insight into what draws otherwise ordinary people to Santahood, I called film director Tommy Avallone, a Haddon Heights native whose 2014 documentary is called  I Am Santa Claus.  Available on Amazon Prime, the film looks beyond the beards as it candidly profiles five Santa performers, including a pro wrestler, a lonesome gay "bear," and a fellow whose wife runs a club for swingers.

Santa performers "normally don't get a lot of attention, but for two months of the year, they're rock stars," said Avallone, whose new documentary film, The Bill Murray Storiesis about people who report having had unusual or seemingly magical encounters with the actor.

"The minute your child is on Santa's lap, and a child looks at Santa that way, these guys become the best version of themselves," he said.

Chesney, Gill, and Jamerson said they get lots of questions about the reindeer, and the temperature at the North Pole. Older children who are skeptical about Santa's identity can leave his lap reassured — real beards can really help with this — and able to savor this childhood highlight a bit longer.

However heartwarming, such moments also can be heartbreaking, Chesney, Gill, and Jamerson said.

One child asked for a house so that her entire family could live together again, said Chesney.

Jamerson said 90-year-old nursing facility patient asked Santa to let her go home.

And a terminally ill young woman told Gill "you've made my Christmas."

He and his friends Chesney and Jamerson have made mine, too.