Jayla Gomez started crying the moment she saw him. It only got worse the closer she got to the burly man with the long white beard dressed in red. The 1-year-old kicked and screamed as day care workers and her mother tried to set her on his lap — five times. Through it all, the smile on Santa's face never wavered.
Despite Santa's status as a cherished holiday figure across the globe, Bob Elkin is used to children erupting into tantrums at the sight of him.
Elkin, 69, is one of many who works as a professional Santa, posing with children at special events throughout Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. He recently started his day at A Child's World Learning Academy in Tampa. The crying, he says, is just part of the job.
"At some ages, they don't understand someone strange-looking," said Elkin of Lutz. "Their only reaction is to cry while thinking, 'Don't get me near that monster!' "
Then what keeps this 18-year veteran of the Santa trade going?
"You get a few that make wrestling with all the other ones worth it."
Such as 4-year-old Sean Michael Vera, who ran up to Elkin as he was leaving the day care, hugged him and said: "I'm gonna be a Santa like you."
As a professional clown with the Shriners, Elkin knows a thing or two about dressing up and entertaining children. His current gig began almost two decades ago when someone asked him to fill in for a missing Santa. He put his beard, which turned white at the age of 40, to use. From there, he was hooked.
"When I walked into the first day care center as Santa, I just felt the magic," he said. "I still get goose bumps when I see the little eyes."
Over the years, Elkin has even developed a method for getting good pictures out of scared children: First, carry them with their backs toward Santa, so they don't actually see him ahead of time. Then, gingerly set them on Santa's lap, snap the picture quickly and pick them back up again before they realize what has happened.
But even Santa can't get all of the adults to follow his advice — hence the dozens of screaming kids at many of his engagements.
"That's why Santa has got to be in here," he said as he pointed to his chest. "In our hearts."
With a real white beard, a custom-made costume and blush smeared across his nose and cheeks, Elkin looks a lot like the St. Nicholas featured in storybooks. He even has the laugh down, which consists of jolly-sounding ho-ho-ho's.
It's an image Elkin perpetuates 365 days a year. He wears red nearly every day.
"I can't go to Home Depot looking like a bum," he said. "A little kid might see me."
Elkin, who is semiretired from the insurance, investment and real estate businesses, spends the entire holiday season going from one event to the next. On his busiest day, he attended nine events as Kris Kringle.
Elkin studied the art of being Santa at the International University of Santa Claus — a two-day workshop put on by an instructor who travels the country. He holds a master's degree in "Santa Clausology."
There, he learned such things as the importance of liability insurance, background checks and the answer to a common and sometimes scary question: Are you the real Santa Claus?
"I am trained to say 'What do you think?' Elkin said. "More often than not, they will say 'I think you are.' "
A few hours after the day care visit, Elkin almost sparkled during a party at Seal Swim School in Lutz. Positioned in a maroon chair with Santa scrawled in gold on the back, Elkin wore a red velvet robe with soft white trim and gold embroidered stars that twinkled.
The line for photos snaked out the door.
"We do it for the tradition of the Santa picture," said Katie Holeman of Lutz.
Holeman's sons Gage, 3, and Bryce, 1, both met the big guy. Gage was more excited about it than his little brother, who didn't want anything to do with Santa.
Seeing him in person was something Gage had looked forward to. "It puts a real face to the whole abstract idea of Santa for my 3-year-old," Holeman said.
To Elkin's own children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, he is considered one of Santa's ambassadors.
"Santa chose me to spread love, hope and joy," he tells them.
And many parents would say that's exactly what Elkin does.
"Kids need that spirit, need some imagination," said Charles Tyree of Land O'Lakes. Tyree brought his 5-year-old daughter, Isabella Tyree, to see Santa at Seals Swim School.
As she sat on his lap, she asked Santa for an Easy-Bake Oven, an American Girl doll and a new dress.
"She had been looking forward to that all day," her father said.
As for Christmas Day, just like Santa, Elkin's work will be done.
But that morning he will volunteer with senior citizens, bringing a sense of hope to those sometimes thought too old to believe.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.