resident Dale Brown shares his insights
on the extraordinary experience of ...
and photos by Laura Emery,
Brown of Spotsylvania.
When Dale Brown steps into his suit,
he has big boots to fill.
“I don’t feel like I am impersonating him, dressing up as him,
or playing him. When I put on the suit, I feel like I become Santa
Claus,” he says.
The bright-red suspender suit, red
jacket with fur lining, black boots, Santa Claus hat, and crisp white
gloves transform this shy, unassuming Spotsylvania man.
When in the suit, Brown’s blue eyes
suddenly have a sparkle, his laughs come from deeper within his chest, and
his cheeks take on a rosier hue.
His lap has been host to children of
every age, and his knees have dandled babies until they giggle with glee.
Children, says Brown, know him when they see him. “I’ll be out in a
store in my street clothes minding my own business and some young child
will come up to me and say, ‘Are you Santa Claus?’” To which he
usually says, “What do you think?” This response often elicits a
knowing smile. “The child will say, ‘You are!’ ” Brown explains,
with a chuckle.
His friends know him as Dale Brown, a
retiree from the public-opinion-polling industry and archeology
enthusiast. He serves on boards, gets involved in the community, and
spends time with his family and friends during most of the year.
But, come Christmastime, he takes on a
new personality. He’s
’s Santa Claus. And, as an added bonus, he looks good in red. The color
complements his soft, snowy-white beard, dancing blue eyes, and ruddy
When he’s in his full Santa Claus
attire, his presence is palpable. The magic of this man — whether it’s
the persona or simply the red suit — fills the room. Children excitedly
clamor to sit on his lap, and adults reminisce about childhood memories
involving Santa Claus. It doesn’t seem to matter whether people believe
in Santa Claus or not because, says Brown, “Everyone gets a smile on
Nancy Bernhardt gives her own special Santa some sugar.
While he may laugh a lot with
children, Brown notes that he is not a “ho-ho-ho-ing Santa” because
the raucous laughter frightens some children. “I will ho-ho on demand,
though,” he playfully adds. For the most part, says Brown, he interacts
with the children in the same gentle manner he would his own
grandchildren. “I don’t try to put on a show,” he explains. “Kids
are more perceptive than people give them credit for; they see right
through the artificial stuff.”
He’s usually spotted around town
with jingle bells, ribbons, ornaments, and treats in hand at preschools,
elementary schools, Scout gatherings, and nursing homes. At a nursing home
last year while handing out small gifts, Brown says one 96-year-old woman
was so delighted to see Santa Claus that she kept asking where she should
send her money to pay for Santa’s visit. “It was nice to know that
seeing Santa Claus had made her day a little brighter,” he says.
In years past, Brown has also been
involved with a group that helps young, teenage mothers in difficult
situations. “Some of the mothers are unmarried, or have been abused by
their boyfriends or husbands. Ultimately, the children suffer when in
these kinds of situations. So, it was nice to be able to hand out quality
gifts, purchased by the organization, to these kids. These weren’t
trinkets; these were day-to-day things that these children truly needed
— things many of us take for granted. They were so grateful.”
The Man Beneath the
Before the first weekend in December,
Brown is just an average guy – certainly not one adept at effortlessly
slipping down chimneys and cruising around town with gravity-defying
reindeer — although, he readily admits to a predilection for munching on
midnight snacks of cookies and milk.
He may not be able to turn down
cookies and milk, but Brown’s true passion lies in his volunteer work.
As a part of the George Washington Ferry Farm archaeology program, Brown
spends many hours in the field doing volunteer excavation work. He is also
a volunteer for the Smithsonian’s forensic anthropology program, and is
a board member for Friends of Wilderness Battlefield.
He’s even involved part-time with a group that specializes in
ground-penetrating radar (also known as GPR; a geophysical method that
uses radar pulses to image the subsurface) in order to locate old
cemeteries and buildings.
In his spare time, Brown carves
walking sticks. It takes a minimum of four hours to create the simpler
sticks; Brown has spent as many as 60 hours on the more elaborate ones.
“I give them as gifts,” he says.
The Business of Being
Wheeler, 2, studies the gift Santa offers him while contentedly
sampling a jingle bell.
Brown has been donning the familiar
red costume for nearly 20 years, and it’s become a part of him. “When
I see the excitement and wonder in their eyes, I have to be Santa Claus. I
can’t let them down,” he says. Brown takes the time to bone up on
children’s literature, movies, and toys. He says, with a laugh, “Santa
has to know these things.”
Sometimes, he even has a little extra
bit of fun with his role. For instance, one time Brown was approached by a
dubious young boy whose name he already knew. “The boy didn’t know
that I knew his name, but he was trying to test me to make sure I was
really Santa Claus. So, he asked me if I knew what his name was.”
Santa came up with a few names
starting with the letter “M” — to all of which the boy fervently
shook his head and said, “No, that’s not my name!” Brown then asked,
“Is it Rumpelstiltskin?” Again, the boy shook his head — a look of
disappointment creeping onto his face.
“Well then, Matthew, I simply
can’t think of any other names!” Brown said, dramatically throwing his
arms up in the air. “You got it! That’s my name! You know my name!”
the boy joyously exclaimed, his face lighting up.
Santa involves the enlightening experience of hearing the
often-candid wishes and secrets of children like Donavin Mills, 5.
Another enjoyable part of Brown’s
job involves being amused at how honest kids can be. For example, last
year Brown was portraying Santa Claus at an event where a young girl was
about to sit on his lap. Brown recounts that she was in her Christmas
best; her blonde hair was beautifully done up with ribbons, and she wore a
bright-red Christmas dress.
“She got up on my lap, and I found
out her name. Then, I told her that I was sure she’d been a good
girl,” explains Brown. “She hesitated for a second, and then said,
‘Well, no. I sometimes get in trouble at school.’ I smiled at her
honesty, and then we talked about it for a little bit. Finally, I said,
‘Well, do you think you could try not to misbehave from now until
Again, the little girl seriously
pondered the question. Then, finally said, “I don’t know if I can do
that, Santa. Sometimes my ‘me’ just does it.”
When one of Brown’s fellow members
chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia asked if he’d dress up
as Santa Claus for a holiday party, Brown was amused at the thought and
agreed to it. Not wanting to look too “commercial,” Brown found a red,
plus-sized women’s pantsuit on clearance at a local store. His wife,
Paula, added some finishing touches and – voilà! – Brown became the
man in red.
That was nearly 20 years ago.
Since then, the Santa suit was pulled
out for events here and there. “At first, I didn’t go out looking for
occasions to be Santa Claus — but if the opportunity came up, then that
was fine with me,” Brown says, adding, “But the more I did it, the
more I began to really enjoy it.”
For Brown’s biggest fans, his three
daughters and five grandchildren (ranging from age 2 to 14), the dramatic
transition was slightly confusing at first. “At a certain age, the older
grandchildren became a little bit confused as to who was Santa and who was
Pap-Pap. But, they handled it well – and they just love it now,” he
In 1999, a local professional
photographer asked Brown if he’d like to pose as Santa Claus for
portraits and Christmas cards. He quickly agreed to it, and has been doing
it ever since.
Now, being Santa Claus keeps Brown
busy. Several months before Christmas, he spends the bulk of his mornings
on the telephone scheduling holiday appearances. At times, Brown’s
schedule gets so booked that, much to his disappointment, he finds it
difficult to meet everyone’s needs.
of the perks of the job is a steady diet of milk and cookies.
Born in western Pennsylvania, Brown was one of six children. His father was a security guard at a
local factory, most often working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, and
working most weekends and holidays for the extra pay. For the Brown boys,
it was a special event for their father to be present either on Christmas
Eve or Christmas morning. “He always tried his best to be there, but it
wasn’t always possible,” Brown explains.
As a young child growing up in a house
with a band of boys, Santa Claus was a large part of their holiday
tradition. The family would relax on Christmas Eve, and then open presents
on Christmas morning. “We would revel in all the wonderful things our
parents had gotten us, the gifts we had gotten each other from the
five-and-dime store, and the things Santa had given us. Santa was always
there, and always very generous,” he says.
Brown’s most vivid Christmas memory
as a child involves a year he was sick on Christmas Eve. His parents made
bed for him by pulling a couple of chairs together in front of the
Christmas tree. Though the excitement and anticipation
of the morning’s events were on his mind, Brown eventually fell asleep
in the glowing light of the holiday tree. “It was so hard to go to
sleep,” he remembers. “But I did. And when I woke up the next morning,
Santa had been there. I remember being so surprised and impressed that he
could sneak in and out without my knowing it. I remember thinking, ‘What
a sneaky guy!’”
A New Man
donning his Santa suit and boots, Dale Brown pauses to check his
Brown has dealt with lifelong shyness,
which is something he has just recently been able to overcome. “All my
life, I have always been very shy. I never wanted to be out front or the
center of attention. Even as an adult, I styled myself professionally as
the kind of guy you put in the back room and let him go to work,” he
When Brown puts on the red suit, his
shyness seems to melt away. “I guess it’s what I missed out on all my
life by being shy. As Santa, I get to be the center of attention and out
front talking to people. As Santa, I am not shy,” he says, the self-realization seemingly new in the
moment. “It’s a great feeling ... being Santa, and having the ability
to make children happy,” he says.
When the kids are happy, explains
Brown, the adults associated with them get the overflow of that joy; they,
too, get to bask in the glow of a child’s excitement about Christmas.
“It’s like tossing a pebble in the water and watching the ripples flow
out through the kids to their siblings, parents, and grandparents,”
Brown further explains.
“I’m not saying I’m the one and
only Santa. When I put on the suit, though, I become Santa. People enjoy
it because of the magical charm associated with Santa Claus. I think, in
the backs of their minds, most kids of a certain age know that Santa is
not a real thing; it’s an idea. Anybody can be Santa Claus.”