At this time of year, Santa is undoubtedly working around the clock at the North Pole, checking his "naughty or nice" list one last time and keeping the elves in order. It's a good thing he has helpers who can take his place and act as his eyes and ears in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
One of those helpers is Don Mord of Kandiyohi, who's been playing the role of Santa for 20 years. This year, Mord acted as Santa for the New London portion of the Kandiyohi Men's Club Santa 18-Wheeler Express. He loves putting on the red suit, the wig and the fake beard and listening to children divulge their deepest Christmas wishes.
Popular items on children's lists this year? "I hear a lot of kids ask for Legos," he said. "The older kids, the ones who probably don't still believe but whose parents want them to sit on Santa's lap, they like to ask for cell phones."
Other children have even bigger Christmas dreams. "I had one girl this year who asked for a pony," Mord said. "I asked if she had a place for it and if she could take care of a pony. Her response was 'no,' but she wouldn't change her mind. I just told her that someday, if she's lucky, she'll have time and room for a pony."
Mord said his favorite part of playing the big guy is when he knows the children who come to sit on his lap. When he can call them by name and ask them personal questions, he makes them believe.
"This year, I knew one of the kids personally, so I asked him if Batman was still his favorite comic book character," Mord said. "His mouth just dropped, and his eyes grew huge. He couldn't even speak. He just nodded."
Bob and Pat Clark of Willmar, who have played Santa and Mrs. Claus for seven years, also love to see the expressions on children's faces as they visit with Santa.
"We get the biggest kick out of seeing the smiles on kids' faces when they meet Santa," Bob Clark said. "To see their eyes light up, even if only for a brief time, is wonderful. It's probably more entertainment for us than it is for them."
Over the years, the two have seen and heard practically everything from the children they meet. Questions such as, "Where's your sleigh?" and "How cold is it at the North Pole?" threw them for a curveball at first, but now they can usually rattle off answers without thinking twice.
"So far, we haven't gotten caught," Bob Clark said. "We'll stumble or 'um' once in a while, but we're pretty good at thinking on our feet. Also, if I look stuck, Mrs. Claus usually steps in and bails me out."
Most children want to know where the reindeer are, Pat Clark said. When Santa gets asked that question, Mrs. Claus always steps in with the answer: "The reindeer are out in the fields with some elves. When Santa rings his bell, they'll come back and we'll leave."
The Clarks agree that Mrs. Claus' job is just as important as Santa's. Not all children feel comfortable talking to Santa, they said. Younger ones especially can be very intimidated by the jolly guy in the red suit.
"When they get scared, they know I'm going to protect them," Pat Clark said. "I'm the grandma figure to them. There are a lot of times when the picture will be the three of us, and the kid is sitting on my lap and not Santa's."
Despite some of its challenges, the chance to play one of the world's most iconic and beloved figures is something Bob Clark looks forward to every holiday season.
"We've all known Santa since we were little," he said. "No matter what age you are, you'll always have an attachment to the jolly fat man. Although it can be a lot of work, the kids always make it worth it. We both just love to do it."