His eyes sure twinkle, and his dimples easily pass the merry test. And the beard of his chin? White as the snow, coifed to storybook-perfection after a few deft turns of the curling iron.
And the lavish chuckles from the familiar round, red-suited figure, coming so often and easily, jingle bells signaling the jolly presence, once again, of Santa Claus.
That’s Doctor Santa Claus, if you please.
With the passing of Thanksgiving, the busy season kicks into gear for the aptly named Chuck Clausen, Santa Claus extraordinaire. “I’m all over the place,” he said with a chortle, setting off jingles. The mirthfully dedicated Clausen, a retired Stillwater prison corrections officer who lives in Oakdale, earned his doctoral degree in SantaClausology earlier this year from the International University of Santa Claus.
It’s where Santa Clauses go to learn the serious business of being jolly. They learn how to listen and interact with children, how to tell jokes and be an effective storyteller, to properly convey the image of Santa Claus, the history of St. Nicholas and Christmas traditions — and helpful tricks of the trade, like how Clausen tips his eyelashes with frost-like white mascara and keeps the ends of his white mustache in permanent curl. It’s not wax.
“Actually, it’s Got2B Glue,” he said, showing how it springs back after being pulled. “The little kids get their fingers in there and it’s no big deal. All day long you could do that.”
An idea takes off
Clausen had already been immersed in the role of Santa for about 30 years when he earned his bachelor’s degree in SantaClausology in 2000. He also holds a teaching degree from Winona State University, teaches chess to elementary-age kids and works as a substitute teacher.
As a child growing up on St. Paul’s East Side, he had always been mesmerized by St. Nick when his mother took him to the old Golden Rule or Emporium department stores downtown. But it was a Santa Claus in a shoe store on White Bear Avenue when he was 9, just after his father died, who left an impression.
“His suit wasn’t that great, and he had kind of a ratty beard, but he was just so kind,” Clausen said. “He gave me a little candy cane, and he really took some time with me. He said he knew my Aunt Helen, and I thought ‘Wow!’ When I told my Aunt Helen, she said she had no idea who he was. There was just something special about that Santa there.”
His own debut as Santa Claus came in 1970. While getting fitted for a tuxedo for a wedding, he noticed the shop had Santa Claus suits — a pair of felt pajamas, a fake beard and hat. On a whim, he decided it would be a kick to surprise his brother-in-law’s family and arrive as Santa Claus.
“We got there at four in the morning, banging on the door of my brother-in-law’s house in a Santa suit going ‘Ho, ho, ho!’ and he’s going ‘Oh no, no, no!’ The kids loved it. So that’s how I got started.”
Clausen became Santa Claus, at first just for family, at work and at parties of friends. In 1976, after his mother died, he said, “I decided I wanted to be the most realistic Santa Claus I could be.” So he bought an upgraded suit and fake beard.
A few years later, while playing Santa at a Christmas party at Stillwater prison, a woman offered him $15 to come to her house.
So Clausen had two suits professionally made and grew a beard and mustache. He searched and finally found a beautician who agreed to turn his red beard white.
Clausen earned his bachelor’s degree from the International University of Santa Claus during a cruise that ended in North Pole, Alaska. “It was 70 degrees, so we were wearing our summer Santa outfits — red shorts and striped socks,” Clausen said.
After earning his master’s degree, he decided to go for his doctorate, which involved attending courses — and teaching one of them. Clausen taught the history of Santa Claus. The training is important, he said, and professional Santa Clauses pass background checks and are insured.
Clausen has three grandchildren younger than 3 and is looking forward to playing the role for them this year. His wife, Judy, as Mrs. Claus, plays a key role in their business, Santa Clausen’s.
“I’m really glad she’s getting more involved,” he said. “A lot of the little ones, the 1½-year-olds, they’re the screamers. They don’t want to sit on my lap, but they’ll sit on hers. I usually ask for a bench so we can sit side by side.”
He urges parents not to force frightened children to sit with him. “It’s just not worth it,” he said. “It’ll come. When they’re 3, 4, 5 years old, they’re going to want to run right up to me and sit on my lap. They have long lists.”
And what about those requests?
“You learn not to promise. When they ask for something, you say, ‘Oh, yes, I’ll see what I can do. I won’t make any promises, but I’ll try.’ That’s all they’re looking for,” Clausen said. “And when they say, ‘I want a horse,’ you say, ‘Well, you know, I don’t really do live animals. I’m in toys.’ Mrs. Claus is in clothes, I’m in toys. Parents do live animals.”
The goal, always, is to keep the sense of magic about Christmas, he said.
“I don’t do it solely for the money,” he said. “There’s money in it, but I usually about break even on the balance sheet, when it comes down to it.”
That’s not the point anyway, he said. “It’s seeing the kids have fun, watching their faces light up. And the adults in the room — it brings joy to them, too.”
Jingling all the way.