Santa Claus is on vacation right now. During his offseason — approximately January through November — you can call him Stan Garinger. At home in Lake Highlands, he wears casual khakis under a blue T-shirt, his bushy grey-white beard grazing the collar. When he shakes your hand and smiles, you’ll swear that, behind wire-rimmed spectacles, there is a twinkle in his eye. During December, when he sports the familiar red and white suit, you might spot him at the St. Pat’s Shamrock Jingle Bell Run, J.J’s Café, Top Golf or Whole Foods, with eager tots on his knees and in line at his feet, waiting to spill their holiday wishes.
How did you become Santa?
It started a few years ago. I had always had a beard. In the past several years it went greyer and lighter. I also became slowly more robust in the midriff in recent years. It was before Christmas and I was at the shoe store in Preston Center, DSW, and my wife (who has no desire to explore her inner Mrs. Claus and is known year round as Sue Garinger), was shopping, and I was hanging out. And there was this little girl, about 4, hiding from her mom between the pillars. She gets right near where I am standing, looks up at me, looks over and sees her mom looking around for her, then she pops out of her hiding place, looks back at me and says, “Santa Claus!” I just kind of smiled, and thought, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” That’s the one that got the idea going.
So then you had a year to prepare?
Around May of that next year, I did start to let the beard grow — but without any real plan. Our friends and neighbors own Scott Exteriors, a local construction-material store, which also is where Sue has a job. I walked into the store that November and Christine Scott looked at me and said, “You have to be our Santa Claus.” I told her I didn’t have a suit. She had one. In return for being their Santa, she let me borrow it, and I picked up a couple more gigs. Since then, each year, I’ve gotten a few more jobs. At the St. Patrick’s event, I walk around and hand out candy. At JJ’s Café, the second weekend of December, kids sit in my lap and tell me what they want, and we have our pictures taken.
What did it feel like to become Santa?
It was fun. I like kids. We have four of our own, all between the ages of 25 and 35 now, but no prospects of any grandchildren anytime soon. So maybe this is my grandkid fix? I don’t know. Before retirement, I spent more than 30 years as a computer programmer. This is a chance for me to do something different. Creative, imaginative — that was something I had never really been.
What do the kids ask you for?
It’s funny, because I do not keep up with the latest trends and technology or the hot new toys of the season, so a lot of times the moms have to help me out, by explaining what the kids are talking about. Sue thinks I should brush up more on the trendy toys. But I usually just nod and say “uh-huh” and smile, and the kids don’t catch on to my lack of knowledge. They are just happy and excited, and I go along. That’s the fun part.
What’s the not-fun part?
That would be when Mom hands me a baby that is terrified of me — when the child is screaming and she says, ‘It’s OK, just let me get this picture.’ Also the suit — it’s made of polyester and fleece — can get pretty warm. And traffic seems to get worse the closer it gets to Christmas, though the longest I’ve ever traveled for a job is to the Bishop Arts District in Oak Cliff.
Screaming, excited kids tend to lose control of their bladders — has that …?
No, that hasn’t happened. Yet.
Any atypical encounters?
Well, this one wasn’t unpleasant, but unexpected. The first year at JJ’s Café, the morning of my appearance, there was a group of ladies meeting at the restaurant — about 20 of them, all with, like me, grey or white hair — and they all wanted a picture with me. Another time, Sue and I were on a cruise, and I was down getting coffee one morning when a woman in her 50s and her mother, who had to be in her 70s, tapped me on the shoulder and asked to take a photo with me. They wanted to show the grandkids that Santa was on their cruise. Around Christmastime, more people recognize me as Santa, but it happens year round, even in July.
Do the children ever question your authenticity?
I’ve had kids ask me if I am the real Santa. I invite them to pull the beard. A little boy at church knows me as Stan during the year and Santa at Christmastime — he just says, yeah, he’s Stan now, he’s on vacation. It’s just better to believe. If you don’t believe, you won’t receive!
Is there some kind of special Santa training?
There is, and there are Santa organizations. In fact, I was at the Balloon Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico recently and I ran into a man with a beard like mine and he was wearing a Santa T-shirt and we struck up a conversation. He said, “I see you’re getting ready for the season.” And we laughed and he asked me if I was in a Santa group and he invited me to join and to a seminar he was teaching.
Will you join?
I don’t think so. They are like Santas unions, and I would rather keep it fun and stick to the neighborhood. I am not looking to make a second career or a full-scale money making business out of this.
What is your favorite Christmas movie?
What other holiday traditions do you have?
I am part of the men’s chorus at Lake Highlands United Methodist Church. Our pageant is Dec. 6.
Any other hobbies you have that we should know about?
Gardening. I have loved gardening all my life. I have some okra, bell peppers and eggplant out there now, and if the ground would dry a little, I would be able to have a fall garden.
*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.