Behind the Beard: Cooper ’79 Captures Images, Stories of Professional Santa Clauses

santa book

Ron Cooper ’79 is the author and photographer of We Are Santa.

A couple years ago, Ron Cooper ’79, a retired corporate executive-turned-travel, documentary, and portrait photographer, was in New Mexico to photograph cowboys, Civil War re-enactors, gunslingers, and snake-handlers. After completing the shoot, one of the subjects asked if he could show Cooper a very different character that he also portrayed.

“I agreed and he went to change. He came back as Santa Claus in a terrific Western-style Santa suit, complete with bolo tie. As it turns out, he had a side gig during the holiday season as Santa Claus at a shopping mall in Albuquerque,” Cooper recalled. “Not long after that, I saw a news story about the Charles W. Howard Santa School, a venerable institution that’s been around since 1937 and has trained hundreds of professional Santas. Then I learned that Santa Claus is the most photographed character in the world. I’ve always been interested in meeting and photographing people who follow their passions, especially when those passions take them outside of, or beyond, the realm of their daily lives.”

And so began Cooper’s latest journey around the country to photograph and interview professional Santa Clauses, which resulted in his recently published book We Are Santa: Portraits and Profiles (Princeton Architectural Press, 2020). The book features portraits and brief profiles of 50 Santas, along with more in-depth background pieces on 10 Santas and one Mrs. Claus, plus stories about the history of Santa Claus, costumes, and Santa’s encounters with children. It has been featured in Parade magazine as “One of the Best New Christmas Books to Get You in the Holiday Spirit” and in The Washington Post‘s list of “Feel-Good Books Guaranteed to Lift Your Spirits.” Proceeds from the book will be donated to the Children’s Hospital of Colorado, which Cooper and his wife have long supported. Several of his photographs are on permanent display in the hospital’s facilities.

While all the professional Santas photographed by Cooper embody the character in ways that honor important characteristics like kindness, charity, and inclusiveness, Cooper noted many added creative flairs to their suits that reflect regional, historical, ethnic, and other differences.

While all the professional Santas photographed by Cooper embody the character in ways that honor important characteristics like kindness, charity, and inclusiveness, many add creative flair to their suits, reflecting regional, historical, ethnic, and other differences, Cooper said. Pictured is Santa Barry Swindall. (All photos by Ron Cooper ’79)

A sociology major at Wesleyan, Cooper has always been interested in cultures and people, and over his career, which has involved extensive travel in the U.S. and overseas, he has photographed re-enactors, cosplayers, clowns, drag queens, and geishas.

“I’m fascinated by people—what makes each of us unique, and the common threads that bind us to one another, however varied our circumstances, lifestyle, appearance, and faith may be,” he said.

Though the Santa project is different than his usual work and he admits that he began the project “with some skepticism about the motivations of the men who portray Santa,” Cooper said he came to find that the “vast majority of the professional Santas I met are dedicated, professional, and committed. They do this for the right reasons.”

“These men are all deeply committed to embodying the character of Santa Claus year after year. Some have been doing it for decades while others are fairly new to the role. Almost to a person, they are very enthusiastic about continuing to be Santa as long as they can. Many view this as a ‘calling,’ not as a ‘profession,’ and although the men I met are paid for their appearances as Santa, almost none do it for the money. In fact, virtually all donate a meaningful portion of their time to various charitable and volunteer activities to which they bring the spirit of Santa and the holiday season,” said Cooper. “As you can imagine, this year’s limitations due to the virus have been a huge disappointment to many of the Santas who have had to reduce or curtail their activities.”

Though most Santas are serious about their part in carrying on holiday traditions, Cooper found that few are outwardly religious. All he spoke with were accepting of children of diverse faiths, and as a group they were primarily concerned with goodwill, kindness, charity, and the holiday spirit.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the beards are (nearly) all real. Cooper noted that the professional Santas’ trade association is the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

James Nuckles, from Atlanta, Ga. is one of the relatively few African-American Santas, according to Cooper. Nuckles told Cooper that both white and Black children have asserted that he's not the real Santa Claus because he's not white. Nuckles responds by asking them, "What color is Santa? How do you know?" He usually tells these naysayers about the historical Saint Nicholas, who is often depicted as dark-skinned.

James Nuckles, from Atlanta, Ga., is one of the relatively few African American Santas, according to Cooper. Nuckles told Cooper that both white and Black children have asserted that he’s not the real Santa Claus because he’s not white. Nuckles responds by asking them, “What color is Santa? How do you know?” He usually tells these naysayers about the historical Saint Nicholas, who is often depicted as dark-skinned.

Cooper notes that many of the men portraying Santa are not outwardly religious or even Christian. Rick Rosenthal of Atlanta, Georgia is an Orthodox Jew who has been a professional Santa for many years. His rabbi calls him Santa Rick "Frozenthal."

Cooper notes that many of the men portraying Santa are not outwardly religious or even Christian. Rick Rosenthal of Atlanta, Ga., is an Orthodox Jew who has been a professional Santa for many years. His rabbi calls him Santa Rick “Frozenthal.”