Between his big black mop of hair, matching beard and preference for travelling around the Okanagan on his Harley Davidson, most people wouldn’t have pegged Tom Kliner as the ideal stand-in for the jolly man in a big red suit.
He wasn’t even sure if it made sense 20-plus years ago when he first answered a job ad looking for a Santa stand-in at a Kelowna mall.
But he stepped into a pair of boots fit for Kris Kringle and never looked back. He’s now known best as Santa Tom.
“It took me six to seven years to realize I looked like Santa,” he said Friday, or the day before his busiest night of the year, Christmas Eve.
It’s a job he’s taken seriously from day one: learning how to turn black hair white, donning bespoke Santa suits that only a real Grinch would question and perfecting conversation starters for people from ages one to 100 into a warm chat.
In the years that have passed, these things made Kliner a shoo-in for many of Kelowna’s top-tier Christmas events and why, this week, he was given an honour from an organization that “celebrates, studies, and preserves the historical documentation of the many men and women who have greatly contributed to the Legend of Santa Claus.”
Kliner was inducted into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame, a community where thousands of professional Santas, Mrs. Clauses and helpers from around the world are members.
It’s an honour he’s proud of in part because it acknowledges all the work he’s done to elevate those who spread holiday cheer while being a Santa.
Kliner is the founder of an organization called Santas Across the Globe and the Fraternity of International Real Bearded Santas. Over the years, Kliner has brought many Santas, Mrs. Clauses, Elves and others in the Christmas industry together as well as helped mentor newcomers to the secrets of the North Pole.
Doing the job with professionalism is something Kliner has always been proud of and he said most others who take on the role are just as passionate about it.
He’s also been proud of the relationships he’s built over the years.
“There are a lot of kids I have seen year after year,” he said.
“I will recognize them while I’m out, and I know their names. One fella I used to work for as Santa year after year and his children are getting older.”
He said some kids tend to play along even as their belief in St. Nick becomes more complicated but one of these boys was borderline rolling his eyes at Kliner.
“I started talking to him and asked him what he was into and he said, ‘I like magic.’”
That’s when Kliner knew he had him.
He asked if he was going to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, who Kilner knew had a love for magic, and whether he enjoyed the magic set he got the year earlier.
Right then, he said, the boy’s eyes widened and his belief in all the joy of the season was restored.
Moments like those stick with him, and he’s had many.
“Some of these kids are now coming back to him with their own kids,” he said.
“There’s nothing like seeing the world through the eyes of a child. Everything is new, the world is a good place, and that sums up (the job). They come up and their eyes are full of wonder. It’s great.”
He’s been asked many times over the years when he’s going to give up the suit and walk away from the job. And to each person he replies, “When I can’t do it anymore.”
Saturday is the last day of Kliner’s Santa season, and when he’s done, he will kick up his feet and enjoy all the holidays have to offer.
Maybe make a few plans for the year ahead, as well. If you see him out and about between now and next Christmas, however, remember that part of the magic of the season lives in the mystery. So he may slink away in order to help little ones keep suspending disbelief a little longer.