EFFINGHAM — It was the Saturday before Halloween and all through the Iron Horse Cafe a group of men with beards as white as snow were gathering.
They had rosy cheeks, broad faces and little round bellies that shook when they laughed like a bowl full of jelly.
They weren’t dressed all in fur from head to foot, but rather festive red and green shirts and vests that they wear when they’re not in the suit.
Nonetheless, the wink of their eyes and twist of their heads soon let passersby know who exactly they were.
Every year a group of Santas, known as Central Illinois Santas, gather for a meeting, along with Mrs. Clauses. This year the group met for the first time in Effingham.
The meetings are a support system for Santas, providing an opportunity to network and socialize and, of course, a good meal.
“Did you ever see a Santa that didn’t like to eat?” quipped Gloria Wendling, aka Mrs. Claus.
The Santas also like the attention they get when people notice who they are by their beards, which are real.
“I don’t have to have any red on at all,” said Roger Asplin of Altamont, who has been playing Santa for over 40 years.
Asplin’s wife, Rita, pointed out that each beard is unique.
“They each have their own look,” she said.
Some are long, and some are short. Some are curly and some are straight.
Mike Brake of Fisher begins trimming his billowy beard in January and shapes it as the year goes on.
“But I don’t cut any length off,” he said.
They each also have a distinctive style in how they dress. Some wore more traditional Santa attire to the meeting, while several donned holiday-themed Hawaiian shirts of which Brake said he has several. Brake calls it his trademark when he’s not in his Santa suit. They call themselves Summer Santas.
Brake has been playing Santa for about 28 years professionally, but said his Santa career started much earlier.
“I started in fifth grade. We had a play in school and I was the biggest guy,” he said.
The Santas get busy when November rolls around spreading Christmas cheer and listening to children’s wishes at events, ranging from company parties to family gatherings, often accompanied by Mrs. Claus. Many are the wives of Santa, however, some help other Santas during the holiday season.
Wendling of Nokomis is in charge of the regional group, which has been meeting for nearly 10 years. Wendling has been assuming the role of Mrs. Claus for 47 years, a tradition that started with her late husband.
Wendling’s husband was a tractor mechanic in the small town in which they lived when the town’s resident Santa quit. Her husband, who already had a beard, was asked to be Santa. The persona they believed suited him.
“He was jovial and built for it,” she said.
After reluctantly agreeing to assume the role, he became hooked, she said, and never quit.
“It gets in your skin to see the kids get excited. And they almost get to the point where they idolize you and that is just such a bragful for a Santa or Mrs. Clause. It gets in your blood and you can’t get away from it,” she said.
Wendling, who has been to Santa school four times, keeps busy year-round coordinating Santas with jobs available. But as the holidays approach, Wendling gets even busier as she tries to connect Santas with last-minute openings. She also serves as the Santas’ seamstress, sewing suits, vests and shirts for them.
Sometimes the Santas return the favor as one Santa introduced Wendling to another Santa who would become her boyfriend.
“He sent me a message that I should contact him. He said ‘I know somebody you need to meet,’” she said. “Those Santas look out for you.”
Ken Cleys has been portraying Santa for the past 18 years but felt he was always destined for the role. His last name in Flemish means Claus.
Cleys said another Santa inspired him after Cleys asked him why he played Santa.
“He looked at me with a little special twinkle in his eye and a special smile and said, ‘I get 10 times back more than I give.’ And that is what initially hooked me,” he said.
Dennis Curl and his wife have been portraying the famous couple for eight years. Dennis fell into the role after walking into a restaurant one day.
“Bunch of guys were sitting around a table. They all had beards. I had a short beard at that time. They said, ‘You got what it takes to do it. You can join us,’” he said.
Curl said he loves portraying the big guy, but for him Santa is more than a role.
“I am Santa,” he said.
Richard Worman retired from portraying Santa after 30 years. Even though he doesn’t actively make appearances anymore, he said children still love him — even without his Santa suit.
Roger Asplin said children also recognize him without the suit.
“You can be sitting in a place where there will be another fella right beside you in a white beard with white hair and kids will walk up to you and they’ll call you Santa. Kids can look you in the eye and see your heart quicker than you can feel it because they know you’re something special,” he said.
The Santas keep the Christmas spirit going year-round.
Asplin said he listens to Christmas music throughout the year and has a vast knowledge of Christmas-related trivia.
Don Baxter has two Christmas trees displayed in his home all year and said his fireplace is always covered in Christmas décor.
Larry Black of Windsor has a lot of toys in his house and sports a cane that resembles a candy cane.
Like his fellow Santas, Cleys admits there’s not much in his life that isn’t related to Christmas — even his wallet, which contains a sleigh driver’s license and Christmas-themed credit cards.
“My wife use to tell me I have OSD (Obsessive Santa Disorder). We all have it,” he said.