Christmas in April? Why hundreds of Santa Clauses are in Memphis this week

One of the world's top Claus conventions, the International Santa Celebration, which begins Thursday in Memphis, is not limited to Kris Kringles.

"This is open to anybody in the Christmas community," said Stephen Arnold of Arlington, president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, the convention's host organization.

"It's good for Mrs. Clauses," he said. "It's good for elves. It's good for reindeer handlers."

Howard Graham of Maryland is among the 300-plus Kris Kringles coming to Memphis this week for the International Santa Celebration.
Howard Graham of Maryland is among the 300-plus Kris Kringles coming to Memphis this week for the International Santa Celebration.

"We have 42 workshops," said Celebration events chair Howard Graham of Elkton, Maryland, a Radio City Music Hall Santa for 12 years in New York. He said attendee Santas will get tips on such topics as red suit storage, beard maintenance, and jolly laughter.

“When you’ve got somebody with a burly voice just shouting ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ that has a tendency to scare children," Graham said. "We teach people you don’t have to be loud. Subtle is better.”

"Subtle" is perhaps not a word one associates with large men with full white beards who work in red fur-trimmed suits. But the 300-plus Kris Kringles who will attend the convention mostly will dress down (relatively speaking) in what the Santa trade calls "Christmas casual," namely, red or green shirts and pants, with holiday-themed patterns.

"I've got a couple of shirts with prancing reindeer on them," said Arnold, 73. But no matter how incognito, "We definitely look like Santa Clauses. I mean, when I go to Taco Bell, people say, 'Hi, Santa.'"

'Santa Claus 365 days a year'

Held every two years since 2012, the International Santa Celebration makes its debut stop in Memphis Thursday through Sunday at the Sheraton Downtown Memphis and adjacent Renasant Convention Center.

The Santas will gather at the convention center for workshops, seminars and meals. "They're big eaters," Arnold said, noting that the evening Saturday meal is "a traditional Christmas dinner, with turkey and dressing and potatoes and pumpkin pie."

Vendors in the large hall — which is open to the public — will sell Santa suits, boots, beard bleach and other mostly Christmas-and/or-Claus-connected products.

A longtime Memphis Kris Kringle, Stephen Arnold is president of the International Brotherhood of Bearded Santas.
A longtime Memphis Kris Kringle, Stephen Arnold is president of the International Brotherhood of Bearded Santas.

Thursday night, Arnold said, close to 300 Mr. and Mrs. Clauses will board two riverboats for a party on the Mississippi. Friday night, they'll induct seven new members into the Santa Claus Hall of Fame. Saturday, they'll attend a public fundraising concert showcasing Elvis, Dolly and Kenny (Rogers) impersonators. Sunday afternoon, they'll gather for a parade down Beale Street.

But don't expect the wild antics associated with conventioneers in movies and television programs. "We're not bar-hopping, it's not a Santapalooza or anything," Arnold said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a 'Bad Santa.'"

"We don't drink in public, we don't smoke in public," Graham said. In fact, “Within our organization, probably 95 percent of the Santas are true to the persona of Santa Claus 365 days a year."

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'You want to portray a Santa that’s real'

The jolly old elves in attendance mostly will be — like Arnold and Graham — "professional" Kris Kringles: bearded men who, during "Santa season," work as volunteer or paid Santas at malls, churches, children's hospitals, corporate parties, home parties and more.

Most of the St. Nicks are members of the International Brotherhood of Bearded Santas, a trade organization with some 2,250 members in 40 chapters around the world, representing many ages and ethnicities. Arnold said Santas at the Celebration will fly here (via airplane, not sleigh) from such locations as Norway, Australia and Japan.

"There's a French Santa coming," Arnold said. "The Israeli Santa had to beg out, what with everything going on over there."

Whatever a Santa's origin, his mission is the same. "It’s the twinkle in the child’s eye and the smile on their face that you’re looking for," Graham said. "We know that there’s a time and date when that child is going to stop believing, but you want to portray a Santa that’s real. You want to see a child who's maybe a little apprehensive or skeptical become excited to meet Santa."

As its name suggests, the International Brotherhood of Bearded Santas is heavy with authentically bearded Santas, including many retirees who began to cultivate their own crops of chin brush once they no longer felt compelled to be cleanshaven for the office. However, Santas who favor what in the trade are known as "traditional" or "designer" beards — i.e., beards held on by "glue" (spirit gum) or a strap — are welcome.

It's a lot of work to be Santa

Even bearded Santas may need help to achieve the classic Christmas look. Graham, a former Loeb’s home store manager, is 71, yet his beard isn’t naturally snowy. "People don't realize the upkeep it takes to have a white beard and white hair all the time," he said. “A lot of us go through a process where we have to bleach our hair and beard every 10 days in season, to keep it white."

Also, that Santa suit is heavy — and hot. "There's special chemicals for a spray to take out that perspiration odor," said Arnold, who, in addition, hangs his outfit on a "wetsuit hanger" equipped with a motorized fan that helps it dry.

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According to Memphis Travel, the Santa Celebration will add an estimated $753,000 to the Memphis economy. But Stephen Arnold's son, John Arnold, a 52-year-old second-generation Saint Nick who lives in Martinez, California, said the Santas will share more than dollars.

"Our world and our country could definitely benefit from embracing some of the tenets prescribed by Santa," he said, "in terms of loving and accepting everyone."

In addition, convention visitors should be aware of a tantalizing possibility, according to Arnold: "Amongst all those Santas might be the real one."

International Santa Celebration 2024

Thursday through Sunday, April 25-28, Renasant Convention Center.

Free public admission starting at 9 a.m. each day into the 16,000-square-foot hall of vendors: Santa, Christmas and holiday items for sale.

8 p.m. Saturday, Renasant Convention Center: "Legends of Rock & Roll" concert starring Elvis tribute artist Doug Church, plus Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers tribute artists. Tickets: $35. Proceeds go to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Noon Sunday: Santa Claus parade on Beale Street.

Visit for more information.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Why are so many Santa Clauses in Memphis? Santa Celebration is in town