Ken Ullery of Apple Valley considers himself the south metro Santa.
For 33 years, Ullery has made house calls as Santa Claus in Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan and Lakeville. "I stay in the south metro area. I don't cross the river.''
Wearing his own red suit, black fur-topped boots and expensive wig and beard of yak hair, Ullery dates the beginning of his side life as Santa back to 1980, when he was 33 and answered an ad for Santas at the Burnsville Center.
After doing that for a season and realizing how much he enjoyed it, Ullery struck out on his own.
"I got a suit and put an ad in the local community paper, and immediately I was swamped," Ullery said.
Now 60, Ullery sends cards every November to past clients, letting them know he is still at it. For $60 a visit he will play Santa by appointment wherever he is invited.
"I have delivered everything from live puppies to engagement rings,'' Ullery said. "I have been on more family Christmas cards than I can imagine.''
Some families sign him up year after year, even after the kids have reached high school and college. Some started out having him visit their children and now have him visit their grandchildren.
After a career in customer service for Health Partners, Ullery, now in semi-retirement, drives an elementary school bus for School District 196-Rosemount-Apple Valley.
What he likes most about his Santa work is "the looks on the kids faces when I walk in the door. Their eyes light up like you can't believe.''
Ullery and his wife, Janice, have three grown children, but he doesn't even try to play Santa for his four grandchildren. "They're going to spot me in a minute,'' he said. "Kids pick up everything.''
He once appeared as Santa before a nephew who, while sitting on his lap, observed: "Santa, you have a watch like my Uncle Ken.''
Hey has his appearances well organized. He asks families to fill out a form with the names of the children, where he should make his entrance, if there are gifts to be handed out, and if so, where to find them to put into his pack. He doesn't rush from house to house and he doesn't rush children to keep a schedule. "If we say 7 p.m., I say I will be there as close to the time as I can.''
Some kids have a letter to read with Santa. Some like to talk. He asks them about school and their interests. He encourages parents to take photos, because children are photogenic when delighted with Santa and not waiting in long lines and throwing temper tantrums because they are tired, he said.
The visits last 20 to 30 minutes or so. "I tell people I don't put a time limit on it. We will know when it's time to go. Once kids receive the present they are pretty much done with Santa. I make sure they all get a candy cane and make my exit.''
The Elf on the Shelf
The "Elf on the Shelf" has entered the Christmas scene over the past few years, Ullery said. These are elf dolls that parents move from place to place in the house. Each one has a name. The story behind the elves is that Santa talks to them and finds out how the kids are doing.
Ullery asks for the elves' names so he can talk to the children about them. Kids are thrilled to hear that Santa is in touch with their elf, Ullery said.
The only problem that arises with regularity: parents forgetting to put the gifts where Ullery can find them. When that happens, he leaves his pack at the door and asks a parent to bring it in later — with the presents.
He remembers one hairy moment with a boy about 10 who was beginning to question if Santa was real.
He sat on Ullery's knee and said, "You're not the real Santa.'' Ullery asked why he would say that.
"He said, 'If you are the real Santa, what's my mother's name?''' In a moment of panic, Ullery looked at the mother who quickly asked a niece in the room to "come to Aunt Donna.'' Santa told the boy that he used to know his mother's name and it was coming back to him: "Oh, it's Donna!" Ullery said. The boy's eyes lit up and he said, "You are the real Santa!''
Ullery makes a point of dressing in full Santa attire — no white thermal shirts for him. He thinks the quality of the beard and wig make or break the costume. "If I am driving down the road every single person waves to me."
In his spare time he makes volunteer visits to Ridges Hospital for kids who are too ill to be home for Christmas. "I do this because it's something that I am good at and it brings happiness to everybody.''
A warning: "Everyone wants me at 7 p.m. Christmas Eve,'' he said.