Santa Claus recently made a quick jaunt from the North Pole to dine on beans, barbecue — and cookies, of course.

An offseason reunion at Bruentrup Heritage Farm in Maplewood brought together several dozen members of the North Star Santas, a Minnesota club that promotes professional Clauses.

And, no, they weren’t worried about confusing any kids who might have happened by.

“When we are all together, we tell kids that one of us is the real Santa and they have to figure out which one it is,” explained Santa Mickey (Mickey Michlitsch), 66, one of the organizers of the event. “We say the rest of us are his relatives.”

The rotund participants, some with a Mrs. Claus in tow, arrived at the potluck carrying games, trucks and dolls for their summer toy drive. Most were wearing warm weather garb — Santa-themed Hawaiian shirts, baggy red shorts and candy-striped knee socks.

“We call this Claus casual,” said Santa Carlucci (Carl Immediato), 70, who erupted into a “ho-ho-ho!” at his own joke.

But amid the handshakes, hugs and jokes about portliness, the summer get-together is as much about business as it is about socializing.

Despite what you may have been told when you were a kid, Santa doesn’t take summer off.

“These are our prime marketing months,” Michlitsch said. “This is when we find out the malls and house parties where we’ll be performing. We check out the competition and see where there might be jobs.”

Today’s Santas have to know how to promote themselves. They use individual websites, social media accounts, professional photos and business cards — one of which includes phone numbers for “toyshop” (home) and “sleigh” (cell).

In addition to being available for home visits, mall appearances, parades and corporate events, some cyber-savvy Santas now Skype sessions for children.

The gathering is also a way to welcome new Santas into the club, which sets a high bar for those who wear the beard. North Star Santas requires its members to have real beards, background checks and insurance. Members also are expected to adhere to a Christmas-worthy code of conduct.

“When we are out, we stick to a very strict Santa decorum,” said Santa Tom, 73, who declined to give a last name. “I will never drink alcohol in public, ever.”

Events like the reunion give Santas with less experience a chance to learn from the pros.

“We want to make sure the newer Santas are living up to the obligation,” Michlitsch said. “If they’re going to do it, they’ve got to do it right.”

Santa Minneappple (Mike Helde), a toyshop newcomer, said he’s “learned tips and techniques from the experienced guys. They check us out to know who to recommend if they get overbooked.”

Helde, 49, has greeted kids aboard the Holly Trolley (aka the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line) for the past five years. Born on Christmas Day, he always planned to play Santa at some point. But when his wife’s sister died of cancer five years ago, “That taught me how short life is. I said, ‘What am I waiting for?’ ”

Unlike the more senior Santas, Helde (an equity trader when he’s not in his sleigh) is still a natural brunette. He was quick to explain why he attended the picnic with dark roots showing.

“In the summer, my beard gets skunky looking. Bleaching makes the hair brittle, so this is when I give it a break,” he said. “In the Christmas season, I get it bleached every week to keep it snowy white. I can’t let kids see my roots!”

When you’re talking with a Santa, almost every conversation circles back to one thing — joy.

“There’s no greater experience than being with a starry-eyed kid. I make it playtime for them and for me,” said Santa Sid (Sid Fletcher). Fletcher is one of the founders of North Star Santas, which started 22 years ago when a quartet of Santas went out for lunch. It now has a roster of 130.

Now 63, Fletcher has 44 Christmases under his wide black belt. For the past 20 years, he’s been one of four Santas enthroned at the Mall of America. He figures he had 17,000 children on his lap last Christmas alone.

Many of the Santas are proud of their well-maintained beards and their custom outfits, and they say demonstrating an individual interpretation of the Jolly Old Elf is part of the job.

“You don’t pick Santa; Santa picks you,” explained Santa Carlucci, who came to the costume after waking from a dream about Santa 25 years ago.

“I had a good house, a good life, a good wife, but I had an epiphany that I hadn’t given back enough,” he said.

That prompted him to get his beard in shape and put together an outfit. Then he went to work as a volunteer, ringing the bell to raise money for the Salvation Army. “Right away, I was hooked,” he said.

Santa Chuck (Chuck Clausen), 69, has been Santa for two-thirds of his life. Clausen knows all about naughty; he’s a retired corrections officer at the Stillwater prison. He got started on Christmas Day 1970 when he was 22 and surprised his young nieces and nephews.

“I stopped at a roadside rest and put on a cheap Santa outfit, a Santa belly and a cotton beard. When I rang the doorbell at 4 in the morning, they totally believed I was Santa Claus,” he said with a smile.

As the decades passed, Clausen grew his own beard and midsection, and hired a professional seamstress to tailor his red velvet costume. But his reason for getting into the Santa suit hasn’t changed: “It’s just fun,” he said.

Joy is what brings the Clauses back year after year, they say. And it’s what connects them to their brethren.

“I never met a Santa that I didn’t like,” said Santa Spoons (Gary Spooner, a 78-year-old retired newspaper publisher). “When you do this, you take on the most beloved character in this world, and you have to take that to heart.

“Being Santa has made me a better man. ”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.