Cover Story

Spotsylvania resident Dale Brown shares his insights on the extraordinary experience of ...

Being Santa

Story and photos by Laura Emery, Field Editor


Dale 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 Spotsylvania ’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 complexion.

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 their face.”  

Granddaughter 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 Suit

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 Santa

Nathan 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.

Being 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 Christmas?’”

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.”

Santa’s First Appearance

When one of Brown’s fellow members of the Northern Virginia 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 explains.

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.

Childhood Christmas Memories

One 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 a make­shift 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

After donning his Santa suit and boots, Dale Brown pauses to check his image twice.

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 reveals.

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.”  


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