The beard is real
And so is 'Santa's' connection to children

By Lynn R. Parks

Christopher DuBree had his doubts. So he gave Santa's beard a pull, just to see what would happen.
And Santa retaliated.
"If you pull on my beard, then I pull your hair," said Santa, alias David Hockenberry, Seaford. Speechless, Christopher, 8, went back to his mother.
But his sister still was not sure. "How many elves do you have?" asked Alex, 7.
"I'm not sure," said Santa. "I lost a couple, but then I got a couple new ones."
"How many reindeer do you have?"
"Nine. Can you name them?" And in a hurry, like a father calling his children in from outside: RudolphDasherDancerPrancerVixen CometCupidDonderBlitzen.
"Does that feel like a pillow to you?" asked Santa, poking himself in the stomach. "Is that beard fake? Then what is not real about me?"
Grinning, almost jumping up and down, Alex accepted a candy cane from Santa's green velvet bag and a business card, red and white and bearing a telephone number. "Give me a call," he said. "That is a local exchange, but all calls are transferred to the North Pole."
Soon, Christopher was back. "I'm sorry," he said. He too left with a candy cane and a business card.
"Most kids want to believe," said Hockenberry, who was visiting with families at Sal's restaurant in the Seaford Village shopping center. "When they pull my beard, most of the time adults have put them up to it."

It is not just the suit
Hockenberry, 51, has been playing Santa Claus for nine Christmases. Or rather, "I don't play Santa," he says. "I become Santa."
The stomach is real; Hockenberry weighs 280 pounds and his waist is "50 inches plus."
The beard also is real, but is not naturally white. Hockenberry has a standing appointment with his hairdresser for the Saturday after Thanksgiving for a bleach job, eyebrows included, that takes up to four hours.
The suit is red velvet, trimmed in imitation white fox fur. The belt, four inches wide, is leather and the belt buckle,
bearing the initials SC, is silver, plated with nickel and chrome. The glasses are round.
"When I put on the suit, I feel like Santa," said Hockenberry. "I believe it. It feels like [the change] happens on its own. It happens for a reason."

But it's not just the red velvet. "When I am not in the suit, I am still recognized," he said. Dressed in his work clothes - jeans, a red long-sleeved shirt and suspenders that "just happen to have pictures of me on them" - he is approached by children who want to tell him they have been good. "I went to Disneyworld last year and I had on a short-sleeved shirt, shorts and a red golf cap," Hockenberry said. "Every time I stood still, I had a line of kids. I signed more autographs than [Mickey Mouse]."

Patience of a saint
Hockenberry grew up in Lockhaven, Pa., and attended Lockhaven State University, where he studied psychology. After working as a bartender for a while, he came to Seaford, where he got a job with Fluor Daniel Construction Co. He is warehouse supervisor at the DuPont plant site. His wife Margaret "Peggy" works for a printing company in New Jersey.
During the Christmas season, Hockenberry as Santa puts in up to 10 hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, between two and four hours on weekdays. He visits restaurants, beauty parlors, offices and private homes.
"I refuse to do a mall," he said. "You just don't get the time to spend with the kids. Here I can sit and kids get to interact with Santa. I think it makes all the difference in the world."
Hockenberry said that at one private party, he spent two hours on a porch- "And it was cold"- convincing a little girl that he was nothing to be scared of. By the end of the party, she was sitting on his lap, reading a Dr. Seuss book to him.
"Her mother came out and said, 'You have the patience of a saint.' 'Yes, I do,' I told her."
And in return, Hockenberry asks for nothing.
"I don't charge a dime," he said. "I will accept donations toward the costs of gasoline and candy canes. I buy 1,800 candy canes each year."

Part of childhood
Veronica Miller, 6, who was visiting with Santa at Sal's, was happy to get a candy cane. But she was even happier to get a chance to talk with Santa, to ask him about the magic dust he has to temporarily put out fires in fireplaces and the magic feed he has to summon reindeer. And to tell him about friends she has who say Santa is not real. "I tell them that if they don't believe in Santa, they won't get any presents," she said.
Hockenberry did not confirm that. But he did tell her, "If you don't believe that Santa Claus is real, you are missing out on a whole part of your childhood."
"When you stop believing in Santa Claus, you stop believing in a lot of things," he said later. "You lose your childhood, and childhood is too short."
Hockenberry has no plans to hang up his velvet suit. Every year, he makes improvements to his outfit and now he is looking for a pair of leather slouch boots, "extra wide," to replace the work boots he wears.
"I look forward to this season all year long," he said. "The rest of the year, I am just a construction worker.
"My wife and I don't have any kids," he added. "But I have all the kids in the world. I have been Father Christmas."