Creating a Sense of Community in Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia

Hey Santa, Is That Beard Real?

The man in the Santa suit tugged at the long white beard draping down past his chest and winked.

“You see that?” he said with a sly trademark chuckle of a veteran Saint Nick, “It didn’t move. Yes. It’s real. I mean of course it’s real. What else did you expect? Look at me. I’m Santa.”

Phil Paris of Bristol is the man behind the big red suit and jolly laughs that sprinkle merry good cheer like falling snowflakes across the region every Christmas season. As both kids and adults line up in shopping malls, holiday events, Christmas parties, and private receptions to sit on the lap the world’s most famous gift-giver, they have one shot at convincing Santa they’ve been nice not naughty.

And Paris is that man.

Nothing short of an annual right of passage, the picture-with-Santa moment has become a staple of the holiday season, a bright eyed and smiling photo slapped on refrigerators nationwide and stuffed in Christmas cards to grandma. With pointed toe elf shoes, a thick black belt buckle, and plumped up red two piece suit trimmed in white, Paris spends countless hours perfecting every detail of the Santa suit as he prepares for a gauntlet of holiday season engagements at malls, parties, and other events to speak with fans and families alike.

It’s all meticulously put together. All meticulously thought out. All meticulously detailed. One foot in the suit after another, with his wife and sometime elf photographer Peggy Paris zipping up the back before show time.

But one thing will never come off: The Beard. “It’s mine. It’s all mine,” he said. “And I’m proud of this thing.”

Phil Paris’  long thick white beard has been growing steadily for the past two years, inspired by an old college friend whose own white mane had landed the friend Santa gigs for the past 20 years in Michigan. “Grow that white stubble out,” the friend encouraged. “When it’s longer you can do what I do,” the friend said. “What’s that?” Phil Paris asked. “What do you think?” the friend asked. “Grow it out and you could be Santa.”

Phil chuckled at first, not giving the off-handed comment much thought, but when he climbed in the car with his wife Peggy for the drive home, he began to think. He turned to his wife. “I might just do it,” he said.

These days Phil can be found all around town, his eyes twinkling and smile beaming as he does more than just dress up to play the Santa part. To Phil, the Santa gigs are a time to ease the holiday blues, to make both kids – and adults – smile, even if just for a few moments.

“Nobody ever expects Santa to be mean. But when you put on this suit, you have to be extra nice. You have to go that extra mile,” he said. “It’s not just about the kids. Sometimes it’s more about the adults. Come on now, you know you believe in me,” he said he tells mom and dad waiting with their children.

Going that extra mile also means keeping the beard year round, and being an active member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (IBRBS), the nonprofit community of working Santas, all with real, white, and long beards, dedicated, according to its mission “to keep Christmas magic in the hearts of children of all ages by creating an international Christmas community.” Complete with sensitivity training, best practices and more, the IBRBS dictates Santas’ on-stage behavior, and guidelines for all situations, not just during the holiday season, but year round.

“Any joker can throw on a suit and grow a beard,” Paris said. “But not everybody knows how to talk to people. Not everyone knows how to act appropriately. We take this seriously.”

One look at the website and it’s true. The nonprofit boasts a member’s portal, board members, a mission and vision statement, and four chapters: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. Each chapter with five or more members is eligible for insurance and discounts on materials with collective purchasing.

This is a community that views donning the Santa suit not just a job or hobby, but as a privilege and Paris champions that notion.

“Life is tough enough as it is,” Paris said. “If you can share a little love, makes someone’s day a little easier. That’s what its all about.”

With a master class in preparation, Paris not only lives for that smile erupting on a child, or parent, but he also understands in this day and age working with kids can be sensitive. This is why the white Santa gloves are akin to kid gloves, he said. There’s a way to safely and warmly speak with children, to not step on parent’s toes, or not cross the line with kids.

True to form just as a little girl sat down to take a picture with Santa at a recent Christmas expo in Bristol, Paris stretched out his long red-suited arm and white-gloved hand, whispering in a warm, kind manner to the eight-year-old, “Ok, I’m going to put my arm around you now for the picture.”

She nodded her head up and down. Then the two turned to Paris’ wife Peggy Paris, the photographer, who called out “cheese”. The little girl’s crooked, adorable smile lit up the area.

Phil smiles back. His face is warm; his demeanor inviting.

Anyone who watches Phil Paris at work would smile too. There is a genuine sense of warmness and kindness to his actions. True, the work is some extra income during the holiday season but that’s an added benefit, not a motivation. There’s just something about the Christmas spirit; the warm-on-the-inside feeling spritzed with a hot-cocoa smell, illuminated with a sparkle of Christmas lights type of magic about the whole ordeal. Paris cherished that as a child. As an adult he fosters it.

“Having a Santa face is not something you mail order,” he said. “But it’s a nice gig nonetheless.”

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