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UPDATE: Man killed in Gary-New Duluth shooting

Beards, bellies and awkwardness: Area men share what it’s like to be a Santa look-alike

Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com

He doesn't have a red suit, but he does have a red chamois shirt.

When he wears it: "Because of my beard, people pull the Santa card on me," said Bill Pribnow of Superior.

He generally doesn't say much when children react to him, but he pays attention if parents seem open to an exchange. "You want to be appropriate," he said.

Bill Pribnow

When Pribnow does engage, he asks kids if they're being good, and he reminds them to help their parents at home. "That's good for children to learn no matter who's telling them."

Pribnow, 57, started to look like Kris Kringle about three years ago. He has light hair, so his beard grew out white, but looking like Santa wasn't intentional. "I like my beard, so I don't expect it'll be going anywhere."

During the summer, he does have people asking if he should be at the North Pole. To that he says: "I'm out working in the field."

And as far as unsolicited lap-sitters, he's had adults "plunk down" and share their Christmas lists. When that happens, "You just assess the situation, and you humor them for a short while and then when it gets creepy, I'm like 'OK, get off me,' which usually doesn't take too long," he said.

When children engage, though, they're "enchanted."

One of his favorite exchanges is getting confused for the holiday by maybe-a-4-year-old. "His little neck was tilted all the way back, so he could talk to me, and he just patted me on the leg and he goes 'Hi, Christmas.' ... It was the cutest thing."

This wonderment is what this time of year is all about because, for Pribnow — who has a modest collection of Mr. Claus ornaments and small figurines — Santa represents the spirit of Christmas.

Yearlong Kringle

His stint as a Santa look-alike only lasted a year.

Bruce Ojard wanted to see how long he could go without shaving. "It covered most of my face. ... and the rest of my hair is white, too."

Bruce Ojard

During that year, Ojard, 66, of Duluth, regularly noticed children looking at him funny, but he only had one encounter. At Goodwill, a girl whispered to her mother that Santa was shopping.

"Ho ho ho, I'm shopping for you," he recalled saying to the child.

"She gave me a puzzled, yet strangely delighted look. Her mother, not so much," the Duluth man said in an email.

Generally, Ojard didn't care for looking like Saint Nicholas. When he was 5, he remembers Santa as kind of scary and scruffy-looking with bad breath. He also remembers a stuffed reindeer. ("I don't know if it was an actual taxidermied reindeer.")

Growing up, it was the tree that was was symbolic for him.

"My father died when I was really young. ... We had a lot of family gather around the Christmas tree, and it was really important to have a big, well-decorated tree," Ojard said.

All of this doesn't affect his overall view of Mr. Claus.

"It's a hopeful idea, isn't it?" he said.

Seasonal day job

Brian Thiry

Brian Thiry has been working as Santa at the Miller Hill Mall for seven years.

It can be really rewarding, but sometimes Thiry feels sorry for the children who are fearful. For the most part, it's all smiles and hugs.

Thiry, 68, of Duluth, said his beard started to turn in his early 40s. "After I retired, my belly started to grow. I kind of liked having this job. It gives me an excuse to keep the belly."

His beard used to be seasonal, but it's year-round now. To maintain it, he uses beard oil, horse mane detangler and a gel serum that makes it look sparkly in Santa photos.

Thiry didn't start out wanting to look like Kris Kringle, but he does now. Some of his friends refer to him as Santa, and he only feels pressure to be jolly off the clock and in public when there are kids around.

Sometimes, Thiry's wife will join the fun. If they're out and children are misbehaving, she will loudly ask him when he's headed to the North Pole.

"The kids will look up and see who's there, some of them immediately behave," Thiry said.

He's often mistaken for Mr. Claus off the clock. He has a Christmas-y hat that'll bring the compliments, and he has his own red get-up. "It's a beautiful suit, and it's hot. It's made for the outdoors."

As far as awkward run-ins, he doesn't have many, but people have asked for miracles. " 'My mother has cancer, can you help cure her.' "

"I give them sympathy, of course, and I tell them to pray to God, and then I will say, 'If I could do something, I sure would.' "

Handling moments like these was always instinctual for Thiry, and he never promises presents unless the parent is giving a cue. (He also never guarantees iPhones or live animals.)

Some stand-out requests: "A kid asked for an AK-47. I said, 'Well, you're not getting it from me.' " Also, garbage disposals, a dishwasher (because they didn't want to do dishes). A 13-year-old asked for a box of condoms, likely to show off for his friends, Thiry said. The most popular request this year are hatchimal toys, and he issues the customary response when asked about a BB gun. ("You'll shoot your eye out.")

Thiry leans on magic for questions about Christmas Eve travel or house access. ("I've got a magic key to open up any door.") These kids want to believe, and that makes it so much easier, he said.

Thiry likes the role he gets to play at work and during the off-season because it allows him to participate in a benevolent image.

"Santa Claus is the symbol of parents' love for their kids."

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346
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