When we set out for an exclusive interview with the city’s Santa, we were concerned it may dampen the belief of children but found it hard to deny the magic in this jolly Saint Nick ourselves.

Photography by Tina Sargeant

The Lakelander: How did you come up with this ruse as a pastor named Tom Hicks? What do you tell people about him?

Santa Claus: It started about 14 years ago, when a church needed a Santa Claus for an event. I like to say that God built me to be a Santa Claus by giving me the body for it! So I got the suit for that event and I’ve been Santa every year since. Over the last two years I’ve been a professional Santa and my wife, Cindy, has been Mrs. Claus. We’re graduates of the International University of Santa Claus (IUSC) with bachelor’s degrees in SantaClausology. That’s what really launched this professional Santa work for us.

TL: You have to tell us a little more about this IUSC.

SC: The school is taught by Santa Tim Connaghan who is the Santa of the Hollywood Christmas parade and the National Santa for the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots. Tom travels around the country and takes the school with him. It comes to Tampa every year. Cindy — Mrs. Claus — and I attended and had an absolutely wonderful time. I connected with other Santas there and even joined the Palm Tree Santas, the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (IBRBS – ibrbsantas.org). To be a card-carrying member in good standing, you must have a real beard; it separates us from the guys who wear fake beards! You really have to commit to it. I used to cut my beard after Christmas, but now it has a year-and-a-half of growth. There’s an interesting fact about beard growth: based on your genetics, it will stop growing at a certain point. This is as long as mine will ever be, and that’s OK because it takes a lot of work. My hair had already gone pretty gray, but I’ve helped it along a little.

For parents, we have a business card with me on one side and Mrs. Claus on the back. But for kids, I have Santa’s driver’s license that doesn’t have any alter ego information on it. The driver’s license number is 03-15-270, which is St. Nicholas’ birthday.

TL: What’s your favorite part of your sleigh-riding gig?

SC: Bringing joy to the kids’ faces. It’s when you see the sparkle in their eyes, seeing them be happy. Especially when you might not think they have much to be happy about. We’ve visited some tough schools in Lakeland. Once, I was asked to visit a school where all the troubled kids were sent. I had a bit of fear and trepidation about it; I didn’t know what to expect when the principal said they had never had a visit from Santa. Mrs. Claus and I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. But the children had written letters to Santa and so, one by one, they would sit on Santa’s lap and we’d read the letter. We talked about being naughty and nice, how they were doing. When I left, I gave the kids hugs, and many of them hugged liked they had never been hugged before and didn’t want to let go. The teachers had the kids make little ornaments, and two of those kids gave their ornaments to us. And now those ornaments hang on our tree every year. When we left that school, we felt like we were the blessed ones!

TL: Where can we see and take pictures with Santa this season?

SC: You can see me in the Lakeland Christmas parade. I’ll also be at the Lakeland Police Department’s Cops for Kids on December 14th. Every Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving until I take my worldwide trip, I’ll be at Lowry Park Zoo. Several schools have invited me to visit, and I’ll be doing some events at First Alliance Church. I’ve even booked a couple of home visits including a Christmas Eve visit before my departure.

TL: You are busy! By the way, that Castle Grayskull you gave me when I was six is going for about $300 on eBay right now. Can I have another one?

SC: Sorry, the elves stopped production on that toy long ago!

TL: What are some of the funniest requests you’ve received from kids?

SC: There’s one kid who always comes in with a joke of some sort. One year, all he wanted was a jar of pickles. The next year, he sat on my lap and asked me for a new behind because his had a crack.

Of course, there are many requests that break your heart. There was a girl last year that asked for money. I’m always a little curious when kids ask for money, so I wanted to know why that was her request. She wanted to buy her mother a present and didn’t have any money to do so.

Mostly, kids ask for tablets or cell phones. But I really like it when they ask for a simple, classic toy like a jump rope. As you can imagine, requests fall all over the spectrum!

TL: What do you wish for at this time of year?

SC: Peace on earth and good will toward men — it was the proclamation at Jesus’ birth. You see a little bit more of it at this time of year. But I hope it would be year-round. I even listen to Christmas music all year long.

By the way, I have a Naughty or Nice app on my phone that I let kids use. They press “Scan” and it reveals if they’ve been naughty or nice. They always seem to like that. I also have the North Pole’s weather on my phone’s screen so I know what to expect. It’s five degrees there right now. There’s also a countdown to Christmas.

TL: What’s your advice for people who want to get off the naughty list and on the nice one?

SC: Get busy quick! [laughs]. There are a lot of people pushing the limits right now, and time is running out. Just be good to one another. Just like I tell the kids: be good to your brothers and sisters.