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Santas gather in Tampa to spread joy, swap tips

TAMPA

Two Santas and a Mrs. Claus walked into a sports bar and talked about . . . their beards.

"I've been trying to grow mine for six years," one Santa said.

"I usually start growing mine in July," the other replied.

"It's so strange how different each beard grows," Mrs. Claus said.

The festive conventioneers had gathered Thursday along with 300 other professional Santas at the DoubleTree by Hilton for the bay area's first International Santa Celebration. They were here to share tips, buy supplies, spread cheer.

Santas tottered through the hotel lobby like overgrown gnomes with white, wiry beards and white, wispy manes. They were a chorus of throaty chuckles, a jingle of joy. They scoured booths that were selling everything from tailored suits and leather belts to buckle boots and books on elves.

They were dressed in Santa casual — red shorts, tan vests, fluffy hats. To children who showed up throughout the day, they said the real Santa "might" be among them.

"We call this a celebration," said Bob Elkin, 73, president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. "It's so magical."

In a profession this odd and sprightly, each Santa and Miss Claus had to find their calling.

Lehman Davis, 64, who traveled from South Carolina, said he went hiking about 20 years ago in the Smoky Mountains. Four weeks later, he walked out of the woods with a healthy beard, and on the way to the dentist, two children asked if he was Santa. "Never shaved since," he said.

Cliff Snider, 67, who boasted a neatly curled moustache and a plump belly, said he stepped into his first Santa suit in 1962. At 15, he was the only student at his school in North Carolina large enough to play Santa. He delivered some gifts to a nearby missionary and knew "this was a way (he) could make people happy."

Elkin, who used to perform as a clown, said his granddaughter's class needed a fill-in Santa. He found a costume and dropped $100. When he earned his first smile, he was entranced. He stopped clowning and worked on his scraggly beard. "It's just so much more fun to play Santa," he said.

Kathi and Buss Mahaffey — Santa and Mrs. Claus from the sports bar — have spent nearly 45 Christmases together. They moved to Florida from Ohio about seven years ago to retire in the sun. But holidays in the South seemed vaguely empty without the snow. Their two grown children were gone, their cheer was gone. Playing Mr. and Mrs. Claus filled the hole.

"You wouldn't realize how it gives back to all of us," Kathi Mahaffey said. "But it really does."

Zack Peterson can be reached at zpeterson@tampabay.com or (813)-226-3446. Follow @ZackPeterson918 on Twitter.

Santas gather in Tampa to spread joy, swap tips 05/15/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014 9:12pm]

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