As Santa Rick sees it, putting on the red suit and the white beard and ho-ho-ho-ing your way through the holidays isn’t just a job. It’s much more than that.
“It’s the most amazing thing you’ll ever experience,” Santa Rick said, “And it makes you a better person. … It changes you, and it’s the biggest responsibility you’ll ever have because it touches everybody. It’s not a job.”
Santa Rick — the name Rick Rosenthal puts on his business cards and website (SantaRick.com) and the name people called him as the north DeKalb resident chatted over lunch of matzo ball soup at a Toco Hills deli one recent afternoon — has been the living embodiment of Santa for years.
He’s Santa all the time. At age 66, he appears as the holiday spirit at parties and events year-round at such places as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta;, spreads holiday cheer on TV, at baseball games and photo shoots; and even operates his own school to teach others how to properly portray Santa.
“It’s important people realize what a big responsibility being Santa is,” Santa Rick said. “He’s different from anybody in the world. He doesn’t live forever, but your grandparents knew him and sat on his knee, too.”
And he has plenty to say about Santa. For one thing, Rosenthal, an Orthodox Jew himself, argues Santa isn’t just a Christian symbol. Santa Rick obviously has thought this through. When he starts talking about Santa, his words rush out in a tumble.
“Santa is different from Saint Nicholas,” he said. “There are two camps in Santa World. One camp thinks Santa is a religious figure and he should tell everybody the reason for the season. Another camp, that I happen to belong to, says that Santa is a toymaker and that he should provide hope, love and inspiration …
“Santa is a toymaker. That’s who he is. He loves you and he wants the best for everybody. He wants the best for you. … It doesn’t have anything to do with a specific religion. … Santa, he gets around. He’ll visit people of all religions. …
“It’s not about anything other than the children, and innocence, and believing in the best the world has to offer. That’s really what Santa is about to me.”
Rosenthal, who held various kinds of jobs through his life, decided to embody Santa as a career after his dad died in 2011. He was close to his father (“I had the best dad in the world,” he says.) and, following tradition, didn’t shave after his dad died, he said. His beard grew in white. He kept it for months.
One day when he was shopping in a Home Depot store, he realized a young boy was watching him from another aisle. The boy appeared awestruck. Rosenthal suddenly realized the boy thought the man with the bushy white beard must be Santa.
“He was staring right at me like a deer in the headlights,” Santa Rick said. “I walked over to him … and said, ‘Don’t tell anybody you saw Santa in Home Depot buying tools for the elves.’ The kid just froze. I knew what he was thinking. I said, ‘That’s it. I’m Santa.’ I knew it was a sign.”
Through the years, Santa Rick has developed rules for portraying Santa. He’s well-dressed and well-kempt. “Santa is very regal and pristine,” Santa Rick said.
And, of course, he’s a good listener. “People will tell you things they won’t tell your spouses, good and bad stuff,” he said. “People are very open and raw, actually, and they trust you 100 percent because you’re Santa. I can’t tell you how it feels to have people unconditionally love you because you’re Santa. You’re that guy.”
There are only a few things, Santa Rick said, that he absolutely would refuse to do as Santa — serve divorce papers, for instance, or hand out dismissal notices when employers are firing people. But the people who would ask Santa to do those kind of things surely belong on his “naughty list” anyway.
“I wouldn’t do that because I’m Santa and Santa wouldn’t do that.
“Santa is very real,” Santa Rick said. “Give him a chance, you’ll know it.”
Joe Earle is editor-at-large at Reporter Newspapers and has lived in metro Atlanta for over 30 years. If you know someone with an interesting story to tell who would make a good subject for an Around Town column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.