Santa Claus lives in the village of Arroyo Grande.
Or at least that’s what Jack von Biela, a local Santa Claus impersonator who lives on Allen Street, wants people to think.
“Once in a while I go into the Pismo Beach Athletic Club dressed up as Santa and do the whole class,” he said. “It’s just about getting more smiles on the faces of the people.”
Von Biela, 65, gets paid to play Jolly Old St. Nick each year at a range of events throughout the county, including as the official village of Arroyo Grande Santa Claus on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
He’s one of thousands of Santas who can be spotted in almost every shopping center, party or North Pole display across the country. Though they all sport Santa’s signature suit, curly beard and fluffy hat, many of the people who impersonate Santa have vastly different opinions on what it takes to play St. Nick.
Here’s a closer look at two local men behind the white Santa beards.
Santa in the Village
For von Biela, playing Santa is all about authenticity and encouraging children to believe.
“They’re so used to seeing the store Santas and everything else, with the fake beards,” he said. “But you know when you’ve opened their heart a little bit. You can feel it. Whether it’s in a hug or you can see it in the smile, you know that you’ve won that person over, and they believe a little bit more.”
Von Biela, a heavyset man with long white hair and a beard, manages to look exactly like Santa even when lounging at home in a long-sleeve shirt and shorts. He said he got into the Claus gig after his wife, Suzi von Biela, saw a picture in The Tribune of a St. Nick impersonator five years ago and told him he would make a better Kris Kringle.
“She goes, ‘No, you’ve got to do this — you look so much better as Santa Claus than this picture I’m seeing today,’ ” he recalled her saying.
So the next year around the holidays, von Biela contacted the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association to apply to be a Santa.
Since then, he’s been hired to work at the Santa House in downtown San Luis Obispo, at the village of Arroyo Grande, and even at some holiday parties and events around the county.
It’s just extra special, to see the gleam in the children’s eyes. That’s what keeps me doing it.
Jack von Biela, on why he plays Santa Claus
One of von Biela’s most memorable experiences as Santa was from working the Santa House.
“I had a father riding a bike next to the Mission, up on Chorro, right where that stoplight is,” he said. “So you go right past the door to the Santa House there. And a little boy is turned around in his little jumpseat on the back of his dad’s bike. He’s going, ‘Santa! Santa! Santa!’ And when his dad stops at the light, the little boy unbuckles himself, jumps up and comes running up that ramp, still yelling, ‘Santa! Santa! Santa!’ He gives me the biggest hug, and it was just unbelievable. Those are the different things that are very, very special.”
Von Biela said one of the ways he makes the experience more meaningful for the children is by working on his appearance.
“As I’ve been going along, my hair’s been getting longer,” he said. “A lot of people said (in the beginning), ‘Hey, your hair is too long.’ But that was usually in the first or second year. I really don’t hear that comment much anymore. Now it’s more, ‘Is that your real beard?’ and ‘You look like the real Santa!’ ”
Von Biela has three Santa suits to wear depending on what job he is doing — the heavy, deep burgundy is his favorite — and he invested in a “good pair of boots and a leather belt” to help portray the image of an authentic Santa, rather than using the plastic boot flaps and belt that come with most Santa costumes. He also continued to grow his hair so that it hangs down his back and has even started curling it to give a little extra boost to his appearance.
“The character comes just by putting on the Santa suit,” he said.
But looking like Santa isn’t enough, von Biela said: You have to act like him as well.
“I think you just have to be happy around them,” he said. “You have to have a smile on your face — you don’t want to be the grumpy face. It’s in the heart.”
A special kind of Santa
Unlike von Biela, Tommy Sanders bears very little resemblance to Kris Kringle in his day-to-day life.
Sanders, 75, has no beard — though he does have a mustache — and when he met with The Tribune before a holiday party at the Pismo Coast Village RV Resort, the only sign that he would be playing Santa later in the day was a red Santa cap he had paired with his blue resort T-shirt and jeans.
But as soon as he puts on his costume, Sanders becomes Santa.
“Happy New Year everybody!” he said in a booming voice as he entered the small rec room at the RV park, amid the excited giggles and screams of a group of elementary school students. “It’s so good to see all of you!”
Each year for the past 13 years, Sanders — a maintenance worker for the RV park — has donned Jolly Old St. Nick’s signature red suit and played Santa for the park’s annual Special Children Christmas Party, which brings South County children with disabilities to the park for a day of crafts, pizza and presents from the big man himself.
Before that, Sanders was a volunteer Santa Claus with a fire department in the San Joaquin Valley.
“They were just looking for people and I said I would,” he said with a shrug.
Sanders’ current job isn’t like other Mr. Claus gigs. The children at the party have a range of disabilities that can make it stressful for them to meet a stranger and sit on his lap, and Sanders has had to learn how to be calm and stay relaxed in that situation.
“It’s a challenge to see some of these kids year after year,” he said. “It can be heartbreaking, but somebody needs to do it. And I enjoy the kids.”
Over time, Sanders said he has come to realize that the children who come to the annual party react to him just like other children: Some are thrilled to meet and hug Santa, while others don’t want anything to do with him.
“The kids, most of them are pretty good,” he said. “Some of them, they don’t want to be up there on my lap, so we don’t push it. We just let them do their thing.”
Sanders and von Biela said they have no plans to quit playing Santa any time soon.
“I’m going to keep going as long as they want me to, and I’m here in the resort working,” Sanders said. “I’d be happy to.”
Von Biela, a retired insurance and cars salesman, echoed Sanders’ thoughts.
“It’s just extra special to see the gleam in the children’s eyes,” he said. “That’s what keeps me doing it.”