Richmond’s Santa Bob isn’t your traditional Santa — and with in his delightfully down-to-earth personality, he makes Christmas extra-special for each child he meets.
Christmas season is upon us again, the so-called most wonderful time of the year. But for local professional Santa Claus Bob Saintsing, known as Santa Bob while on the job, it’s also the busiest time of the year — he’s probably suiting up as we speak, preparing for another breakfast with Santa or a private event.
Saintsing has only been in the Santa game for about four years, but he’s already been appointed as the City of Richmond’s official Santa Claus for its two main holiday ventures, at the Main Street Station and for the Grand Illumination. “It’s a big feather for the cap,” says Saintsing.
Last season, he worked the Winter Market at the Gallery of Main Street Station, standing alongside Mayor Levar Stoney at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the outdoor ice rink, and leading the marching band and dancing elf procession into the station. This is his first year as the Santa for Grand Illumination, since the City of Richmond is taking over the event in 2019 after The James Center hosted it for the past 34 years.
But Saintsing is more than a public figure — he’s a businessman. On his website, there’s a list of several different services you can book Santa Bob for, including private parties, personal photo ops, advertising, and even a FaceTime call with Santa for the youngsters. Santa Bob also offers a service called “Sneak-A-Peek at Santa,” in which he books a few home visits on the night of Christmas Eve, so that some lucky little ones in the Richmond area get the memorable experience of watching Santa Claus place their gifts under the tree and eat the cookies they left out for him.
“There’s a lot of money in advertising as a Santa,” says Saintsing. “But the aspect of the job that I really love is interacting with the children.” A lot of the conversations Santa Bob has had with the little ones over the years endearingly remind him of Art Linkletter’s famous House Party segment, “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Saintsing hates for the Santa experience to feel rushed.
“I genuinely get a kick out of what they have to say, and I know it’s an important moment for them,” he says. “At so many places I’ve worked, I’ve been told ‘Santa, you’ve got to move it along,’ but I like to engage the child.”
This year is Santa Bob’s busiest season yet, to the extent that he had to order a third suit. “I’m a heavy perspire-er,” Saintsing laughs. “Say sweat and I’ll do it.” So the thick, heavy suits have to be washed after each use, and need at least two days to air dry — which means with only two suits, he’d be putting on a damp one anytime he has a third consecutive booking. So if you want to gauge how successful a pro Santa really is, ask him how many suits he owns, especially since a quality Santa suit ordered straight from a Hollywood outfitter can cost a couple thousand dollars. “I would love for it to become busier, so that I can order a fourth suit next year,” says Saintsing.
But around Halloween, before the holiday madness had begun, Saintsing was able to make time to grant RVA Mag an interview with Santa Claus. During the first 11 months of the year, he runs his own mobile custom picture framing service, called Want It Framed. Saintsing hopes to retire from that in the next few years, but having always said he’d work until the day he dies, Santa Bob is his retirement. His identity was unmistakable when he arrived for the interview looking exactly how one would imagine the real Santa Claus off-duty; a red sweater, a big ring emblazoned with “SC,” and a full white beard.
“I wear a lot of red now,” he says.
Saintsing’s beard, which he’s had for 45 years, is au-naturel at collarbone length, with threads of silvery and ashy grey running throughout. His opposition to bleaching it or donning a fake beard is an uncommon decision within the commercial Santa community, since the consensus seems to be that an authentic Santa’s beard is long and perfectly white. “There are some nice fake beards out there made of Yak hair that look real,” he says. “But if you look closely, you can still see that little bit of mesh glued to the skin, and that’s the kind of kid I was. I would look for things like that.”
For Santa Bob, it really is all about the children. When visiting with him, they don’t sit on his lap — they sit on a knee-height, retro chrome stool with a red cushion and bow. He’s only had one crier to date, and it was early in his Santa career. The tears were caused by the parent forcing the unwilling child to sit on Santa Bob’s lap for a picture. That incident spurred the use of the stool. “I’ve never had a child decline to sit on it,” he says. “I think it’s better for everyone that way, including me.”
Santa Bob doesn’t put on too much of a theatrical persona either. He talks to the children in his regular voice, and doesn’t pretend to be 475 years old or have magical powers. “I put on the suit, but my message and the conversation isn’t an act,” says Saintsing. “And I’ve never been a fan of walking into a room and bellowing ‘HO, HO, HO!’ as loudly as possible. It can be frightening.”
But Santa Bob’s most unorthodox characteristic of all might be his honesty. “When you’re telling them one lie after another, you’re playing a game with their minds,” Saintsing says. “I’ll stretch the truth, but I don’t like to lie.” With Richmond being a relatively small city, he’s had encounters as Santa with children that had seen him around as just Bob. He tells them “Yes, that was me, I live right here in Virginia and only work in the North Pole. It’s too cold for me up there.” Saintsing was once confronted on the stool by a child that somehow knew of his daughter, and was baffled by how Santa could possibly be a father. He told the child, “There’s not just one Santa, because no one lives for 400 years. Every now and then Santa has to retire and a new one takes over.”
When confronted with the inevitable young skeptic, Saintsing also handles that difficult discussion with honesty. He says to the older ones, “Look, we all know there’s no Santa, don’t we? But do you know who the real Santa Claus was?”
When they say no, he gives them a brief history on Saint Nicholas and how he evolved to become Santa Claus, then asks them if they like how it feels to give gifts. They’ve always answered yes, so he leaves them with the sentiment “That’s what Santa is all about. He’s just a symbol of giving. But promise me you won’t ruin it for the younger ones.”
Saintsing goes against the grain of traditional Santa behavior in a handful of ways, because he cares more about the child’s experience than staying true to a formula — even though he is a graduate of formal Christmas college, and an active member in local and online Santa communities.
Yes, Christmas college exists, but it isn’t as absurd as it sounds. It’s an annual 3-4 day summit for professional Santas and Mrs. Clauses where issues and difficult circumstances that could potentially arise on the job are discussed, in order to crowdsource solutions and suggestions. “You hear a lot of war stories,” says Saintsing.
Saintsing graduated from the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in 2018. Located in Michigan and established by a Macy’s Santa, it’s known as “the Harvard of Christmas colleges.” He’s a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which mostly serves as a resource for tips and tricks on how to maintain a quality Santa beard. He also participates in the state’s chapter of Virginia Santas, attending luncheons and events.
One of the most common topics of discussion at these meetings and luncheons is how to deal with the scenario when a child tells you something deeply disturbing, illegal, or dangerous that’s going on in their lives. “Children confide in Santa,” he says. “He’s seen as someone trustworthy.” It hasn’t happened to Santa Bob yet, and he’s not entirely sure how he’ll deal with it if it does. “I keep saying ‘if it happens,’ but other Santas tell me that no, it’s not ‘if’, it’s ‘when’ it happens.”
So far, the most upsetting and difficult questions he’s gotten from children are the ones that expose the underlying socio-economic reality of Christmas. He’s been asked things like “Why does Billy get all of this stuff for Christmas and I don’t?” Saintsing still doesn’t know how to best answer that one, but he takes a page out of his own book and tries to address it with some honesty. He usually says, “Well, two of Santa’s most valuable helpers are your parents. There are things that your parents don’t want us to bring you, and there are things they don’t feel that you’re old or responsible enough for yet.”
Despite being such a natural at it, Saintsing never once considered becoming a Santa until a chance encounter in a restaurant. A few years ago, after his wife and daughter had convinced him to grow out his beard, which he’d previously kept cropped closely, a little boy was leaving the restaurant where Saintsing was eating with his family. The child locked eyes with him and was smiling but visibly shaking as he walked by. A few moments later, the family returned to the row of booths and approached Saintsing. The mom translated the boy’s nervously garbled speech, “He wants to know if you’re Santa Claus.” He knows it sounds like it’s straight from a Hallmark movie, but it’s the truth.
Saintsing admits that before that experience, he had never been much of Christmas fan. “I believed in Santa when I was little, but I found out he wasn’t real during a tumultuous period in my family’s life, so I think I resented Christmas from then on,” he says. After his daughter was born, his Christmas spirit was revived and he climbed a 35-foot step ladder to decorate the holiday tree. But as his daughter got older and stopped believing in Santa, the number of lights dwindled. In those last few years before he became Santa Bob, he hadn’t put any Christmas lights up at all… but that little boy in the restaurant altered the course of his future. He turned to his wife right after it happened, and said, “You know, I think Santa’s going to be a part of my life.”
Saintsing would like to become a year-round Santa in retirement, possibly sporting Hawaiian shirts with his beard and red hat. Apparently Santa work can be quite lucrative; Saintsing says that somewhere, there is a year-round Santa — and the community won’t divulge who or where he is — who made $150,000 last year. While the salary would certainly be nice, Saintsing would just like to live comfortably. He doesn’t want to become invested in money and lose sight of Santa’s message.
Recently, a friend of his daughter’s who now works in Chesterfield County Public Schools contacted him about visiting her school, but didn’t think they could afford Santa Bob’s rates. “As a knee-jerk response, I told her not to worry about it and that I’d halve the rates,” says Saintsing. But he woke up the next morning shocked by what he had said.
“‘I thought ‘Where did that come from?’ This is about a school, and one with a lot of underprivileged students.” So, he sent her another email waiving the hourly rate entirely. “I was stuck in business mode, and to me, that’s a sign of getting in too deep,” he says. “Santa is all about giving.”