Darin Ries is a life-long Catholic living near Fargo, North Dakota. He’s a father of nine children, ranging in age from 21 years to 10 months old.
He’s a big guy, with a big beard. He could almost pass as Santa, except that his beard is red.
But last year, around Thanksgiving, a strange thing began to happen. Darin’s beard started to change.
Darin is only 49. But as Christmas got closer and closer, his beard got whiter and whiter.
To Darin’s children, especially the younger ones, it was clear what was happening. Their dad was becoming Santa.
And when they saw him don the classic red-and-white suit, they knew they were right.
Darin had so much fun being Santa last year that he decided to make it an annual tradition. He plays Santa at private parties and community events, too.
What is it like being Santa as a Catholic? Is there a spirituality of Santa?
Darin spoke with The Pillar about his experiences being Santa, his opinion on fake-beard Santas, and why he believes Santa can play a positive role in Catholic families.
That conversation is below. It has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to start playing Santa? How did you get into it?
We've got nine kids, and we always try to make Christmas very special and exciting for the kids, and the Santa thing has always been a part of it in our family, but I wanted to kind of control the narrative a little bit more.
I decided to kind of have a little fun with it last year. I started gradually bleaching my beard after Thanksgiving. You can only take it a couple of shades each time, so it takes many treatments to get it done.
My kids were convinced that dad was turning into Santa.
The older kids, we kind of let them know what was going on and what we were doing, because they're onto the Santa thing, so they kind of bought into it and tried to help push along the narrative of, "Dad's becoming Santa. Did you see that big white patch in his beard?" And things like that. And so they were around the first time I put on the suit and the younger kids were not, but even the older kids were super, super excited, and had a lot of fun. They all wanted to get pictures of sitting on Santa's lap and all that type of stuff.
The younger ones, the first time they saw me in the suit, they were like, "I knew it, I knew. I knew you were Santa." They were super, super excited about it. So we said, "Oh, you can't tell anybody. This is our family secret." But of course, they tell everybody they can that their dad's Santa.
And then you decided to do other gigs, too?
As I realized how much that this was actually going to cost to turn myself into Santa, I said, "Well, let's see if I can maybe get a gig or two to help offset the cost of this." It's a couple thousand bucks, basically, if you're going to buy a quality suit. There's a number of places on the web [which offer them].
So I just advertised out on Facebook that I would be willing to come to people's home, do a drop-in Santa visit if people had parties going on or whatever, and in the small town that we were living in at the time, word kind of spread and I had an opportunity to do a number of visits for people, and it was fun.
You just show up at an appointed time and kind of bust into the house and ho, ho, ho and surprise the kids and just have a lot of fun with it, and you're in and out in about 15 or 20 minutes after having a little visit with the kids.
I did a number of community event type things too, where they had a Santa at a community center or something like that, a couple of photo shoots in a photo studio, those types of things.
With an emphasis on good safe environment policies, a Santa has to think about whether to invite kids to sit on his lap. What's your approach?
I will let kids sit on my lap if they want to, but I generally don't ask them to. In the day and age that we live, I’m very careful about that. And I'm always very careful about where my hands are and all that type of stuff… you got to always see my hands in the picture, right? Just because I want to make sure I'm being very safe.
So, if kids want, and usually the little kids, the preschool age and kindergartners and such, they do want to sit on Santa's lap, which is totally fine. I’ve got nine kids and a couple of grandkids. The older kids, I usually have them sit next to me and I just lean over and talk to them and stuff. Just don't want to give any sense of impropriety.
Have you ever had a kid start crying?
Oh, yeah. The little ones do all the time. Somewhere around [age] two to three, it's very common. That big scary guy with a beard, "I don't know who this is."
But the older kids, they very rarely do. You'll get a shy one or something like that who doesn't want to come talk to me, wants to stand off at a distance and just kind of watch, but usually they'll warm up and sneak their way over, and next thing you know, you're having a conversation with them. So I just kind of take it slow and easy and let them decide how they want to do it.
What kinds of things do the kids usually ask for?
There are a lot of kids that ask for dogs and cats and ponies and things along those lines. I don't want to promise anything to begin with, but I always tell them that Santa has a very strict ‘no live animals in the sleigh’ policy because they make a mess. So, there's that.
Most of it, quite honestly, is the run-of-the-mill toys or video games and things along those lines.
The ones that give you pause are like last year, I had a little girl [who] was about 5 who came to me and said, "The only thing I want for Christmas is for my daddy to get better. He has cancer. And they said he was going to die."
That was really hard. I said, "Well, Santa can't fix that. I'm sorry. But what we can do is we can pray for him."
And I got down on my knees right there with her and we prayed for her dad, and I said, "It's in Jesus' hands, and he'll take care of your dad one way or the other, and he'll take care of you. But you have to have faith that there's a reason that Jesus wants things to happen, even if we can't understand it."
And I just tried to explain it to her the best I could on a five-year-old's level, because she's looking for answers and she's looking for somebody to fix this, and obviously I can't, but I do the best I can to turn them to the person who can.
Have you ever had anybody try to challenge the idea that Santa's real?
I have. It’s the older kids, and you can tell when you talk to them that they know what's going on.
I make sure that I'm not speaking so that other kids can hear, because I don't want to blow it for anybody else, but I'll just tell them the whole idea of Santa is based off Saint Nicholas. And I’ll give them the story of Saint Nicholas, about how he helped people by giving them the gold and stuff.
[I’ll] give a very high-level synopsis of that, and say really that Santa Claus has become the personification of giving of ourselves to others in the way that Christ wants us to give. So, every person who puts on this suit, yes, they're not the mythical Santa Claus that runs around on a sleigh behind reindeer and stuff, but they're here to offer the living personification of that Christmas spirit of giving of ourselves to others.
You’re a real-beard Santa. What do you think of all those fake-beard Santas out there?
They're trying to do a good job. They're doing it for the same reason I'm doing it, and just because they don't have the full beard themselves, that's okay.
I guess the biggest difference is kids can spot a fake beard a mile away. And one of the comments that I had from a kid last year is, “I know Santa can't be everywhere, but I know you're the real Santa - your beard is real, and every other Santa I see is just wearing a fake beard.” Kids pick up on that and they see that. They don't think the fake-beard Santas are real. They know.
Have you developed a certain “Santa style” - your voice, physical presence, mannerisms?
I don't know that I've consciously developed a style, but I did a gig this past weekend at a community thing, and the lady from Alliance Club came up to me and said, "You know, I've been running this thing for 50 years and you're the best Santa I've ever seen."
I don't know exactly why that is, but I get those comments a lot of times, and I think it's just because I'm so comfortable with kids, because I love kids and I have my own and a lot of them are the same age as these kids that are coming to see me. So it's a very natural thing for me.
I'm not afraid at all as Santa to get down on my hands and knees and sit on the floor next to a kid if that's where they want to be, and just approach them where they're at and be respectful of what they want. But I think that's what you do as a parent, so I guess that's my Santa style, if you will, is to approach kids with love and care just like I would any other kid as a parent.
Would you say that there's any kind of spirituality in your being Santa? Does your faith inform your Santa-ing? Or does your Santa-ing inform your faith, especially around Christmas time?
I think my faith drives how I approach it. I really try, anytime I have an opportunity, to kind of evangelize through Santa.
I have the light hair and beard and stuff, and I go out to Walmart or wherever and kids will kind of look at [me] funny. And a lot of times, I'll wink at them and they light up because they think they've just discovered Santa sneaking around Walmart.
So I have these little coins I carry with me. On one side it says, "I met Santa" and "I made the nice list," and on the other side it says, "Remember the reason for the season." So I try to, if I can, tell them, "Remember to thank Jesus on Christmas, because it's his birthday," and things along those lines.
And like I said, anytime that somebody wants to know who Santa is, I kind of tell them that we're the personification of that giving spirit that Christmas is really all about.
Sometimes parents debate whether to do the whole Santa thing with their kids. They may be concerned it’s dishonest, or it’s taking away from the real meaning of Christmas. What do you have to say about that?
You can get really wrapped up in the commercial aspect of Christmas. Just past Halloween, you're going to Walmart and all the Christmas stuff is out, and things like that. We try not to get wrapped up in the commercial nature of Christmas.
But I don't think there's any harm in the concept of Santa. We talk about how it's the personification of that spirit of Christmas. God loved us so much he gave the ultimate gift; his only son. So, Christmas for us should be not about receiving so much as giving gifts to others.
But also God gives us the opportunity to see him and be with him in heaven, and I think Santa is a kind of foreshadowing of that for kids, to help them understand that if I live a certain way and if I'm good, there's a reward for that in terms that they can understand. Because a four-year-old or a five-year-old doesn't understand the afterlife and what that is, but they understand the naughty and nice list. So, using that as a teaching tool to teach virtue and to teach kids about the right way to live and cause-and-effect and all those types of things, I think is good.
Our four-year-old right now is a typical four-year-old boy, he's into everything and into trouble, and he wants to be good. He wants to be a good boy - he wants to be the nice elf, as he puts it, he doesn't want to be a naughty elf. And at heart he is a good boy, but he is a four-year-old. He has impulse control issues and whatever else. So, I gave him one of those Santa coins when he was doing a particularly good job, and I've actually used that as a motivator for him, saying, "Well, if you stay on the nice list, you get the coin, but if you start doing naughty stuff, then Santa, or Daddy's got to take the Santa coin back because you're naughty.”
And so that coin's changing hands back-and-forth between him and me three or four times a day sometimes, but he's really working on trying to control his impulses to smack his brother or do whatever else because of Santa and because of that reward that he gets at the end.
I think for us, that's what our whole spirituality is about. The Church is a hospital for sinners, and it gives us the opportunity when we're on the naughty list to come and confess and get off the naughty list, and going back-and-forth and back-and-forth. So, it's just a way to help teach them about virtue and forgiveness and working towards that end goal that the toddlers and the little kids can understand.