Above: Larry “Santa Magic” Talbert with Loganville resident Clayton, then 3, dressed up as an elf, who was very excited to spend time with Santa Claus. Photo by Brand of Beautiful Photography by Jenna Wade.

Spencer Wood, 5, of Auburn, climbed up on Santa’s lap like a champ. He’s been on that lap before. He smiled for the camera.

“Tell Santa what you want for Christmas,” called out photographer Lindsey Vander Iest, of Lovi Blush photography, who had Santa Rick Rosenthal lined up with appointments for the day.

Spencer turned to Santa Claus and gave him a real challenge, saying he wants a “Thinga-ma-jigger.” (That’s the flying machine from PBS’s “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That.”) Santa made no promises, just chatted with Spencer about flying for a happy minute or two.

Santa Rick Rosenthal and children
Santa Rick Rosenthal takes a back route to score a photo with Teagan Bastecki, 3, and her brother JR Bastecki, 1, of Suwanee, during a photo shoot with Lindsey Vander Iest of Lovi Blush photography. The kids weren’t too thrilled about having a close encounter with the big guy in the red suit. Photo by Phil Mosier.

Then he was on to an even tougher challenge: Teagan Bastecki, 3, and her brother, J.R. Bastecki, 1, of Suwanee, whose howling made it clear they wanted nothing to do with him. Santa Rick waited until they thought he was gone and snuck up behind the unaware, still crying children, peeking over their heads for a photo their parents loved. Christmas photo — Done.

50 years as Santa

Now in his 50th year of being Santa Claus, Santa Rick has lots of tricks up his sleeve and a lap with lots of mileage on it. “Thousands and thousands and thousands” of people have perched there, he guessed, chuckling at the question. “Tens of thousands, perhaps.”

That’s perfectly fine with him. He loves being Santa, which he does full-time and year-round. Over the years, he’s mentored other Santas and been an instructor at Santa schools, teaching others how to follow in his bootsteps.

In 2016, he opened his own school, the Northern Lights Santa Academy, billed as the largest Santa Claus school in the Southeast. In three years, more than 600 students have attended the school’s two- or three-day sessions, held at local hotels in spring and fall. Its stated mission: “To help you be the best Santa, Mrs. Claus or Elf you can be.”

“Being Santa is the biggest responsibility anybody could have,” said Rosenthal, 66, who’s been Santa for the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Falcons since 2013. “People who aren’t huggers hug Santa. They tell you stuff they wouldn’t tell anybody else.”

For Rosenthal — or “Mr. Frozenthal” as kids in his Toco Hills neighborhood like to call him — the Santa life is serious business.

“There’s a Santa industry now,” said Rosenthal, who is a Santa agent, deploying Santas, Mrs. Santas and Elves across the country for jobs throughout the year. “Santas have been around for hundreds of years but it was just anybody in a red suit. A professionally trained Santa is a different animal,” he said.

Rosenthal’s Santa Claus consulting work has attracted an international clientele. In mid-November, he was headed to Hong Kong for the opening of the IFC Mall’s experiential Santa Academy: “Bringing out the Santa in you.” He helped curate and develop the seasonal installation at the high-end mall, part of the International Finance Centre.

In his Northern Lights classes, Santas and professionals from outside the Santa community share their expertise in areas ranging from storytelling, improvisation and magic to social media, makeup and hair, developmental disabilities, contracts and law.

Speaking of law, Santa Rick’s bio mentions that he has an independent background check conducted annually and that he carries a $4 million Santa liability insurance policy.

“We live in a very litigious society,” Rosenthal said. “If a child asks you to pray with him, you could get sued.”

Santa’s life has gotten complicated, but some things never change, such as the impact Santa Claus can have on people. Ansley Johnson, special events coordinator at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), has worked with Santa Rick and other volunteers from his team such as Joe “Santa Jeaux” Pridgen, of Buford, for the three years she’s been on the job.

“They’re some of the most generous, kindhearted people, very quick to say yes and quick to give of themselves,” she said. On a typical Christmas Day, CHOA’s Egleston Hospital will have about 200 to 220 patients in its beds, including about 60 babies, she said. Santa helps create a sense of normalcy for families at that time, she said.

Rosenthal would agree. “For centuries, society has relied on Santa to create the magic of Christmas,” he says on his school’s website.

“Santa makes you smile, brings out the best in people,” he said. “Santa provides hope, inspiration and goodwill in the spirit of Christmas — and you don’t have to be Christian to do that.”

Santa Rick Rosental and Spencer
Spencer Wood, 5, of Auburn, poses with Santa Rick Rosenthal for Lindsey Vander Iest of Lovi Blush photography. Photo by Phil Mosier.

A rare breed of Santa

Santa Rick is a rather unusual Santa Claus. He happens to be an Orthodox Jew. Rosenthal said people find that “fascinating for the most part, whether they’re fellow Santas or clients.”

“I’m not going to say that there hasn’t been someone that was not sure how to handle that,” he said. “But for the most part, people think that’s really cool.”

It works for him because he doesn’t see Santa as a religious figure. “I’m a firm believer that Santa is a spiritual guy,” Rosenthal said. “I don’t believe he’s a religious figure. If he was, he would be Catholic, Protestant or Methodist and he would go to that church.”

He has just landed his first ever booking for a Jewish event. A family has hired him to light the Hanukkah menorah. The parents are Russian immigrants who have experienced religious persecution and want their children to be familiar not only with Judaism, but with other religions, Rosenthal said.

“They were thrilled to find out that I was Jewish,” he said.

Rosenthal was a 16-year-old kid at Atlanta’s Briarcliff High School when he decided it would be fun to be Santa. He started by taking bags of little bagels to hang on his friends’ Christmas trees. Over the years, he continued to find opportunities to be Santa while pursuing a life of entrepreneurship that started when he was 6 years old, and raced to help women in his apartment complex carry their groceries.

Seven years ago, after letting his beard grow out, he was in a Home Depot store, near a child who was screaming at his father, who was ignoring him. He looked at the boy and when he saw the way he stared back, he knew the boy was wondering if he was Santa.

Rosenthal seized the opportunity, saying, “Shh, don’t tell anybody you saw Santa at Home Depot buying tools for the elves to make toys.”

“After that, the boy froze,” Rosenthal said, “like he’d had an encounter with an alien.” He decided then that he would make being Santa his full-time career.

A tiny trampoline

One of the most critical topics of class discussion at Northern Lights is communication skills — how to interact with people of all ages and how to “deflect and redirect” when someone makes a tough request.

“You will be asked every horrible thing in life, and [the person asking] may be four years old or 90 years old,” Rosenthal said. “You have to be totally nonjudgmental.”

Santa Rick Rosenthal and reindeer
Santa Rick Rosenthal pets one of the reindeer at the Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm in Clare, Mich. after attending the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Mich. in October. Photo by Tracy Rosenthal.

He recalled a four-year-old who wanted nothing for himself for Christmas. All he asked Santa Rick for was a tiny trampoline — forming a little circle with one hand to show the size — for his baby brother, who had passed away.

“I told him I would have my elves make a trampoline for his brother…and if we could find heaven, I’d take it to him,” Rosenthal said.

“I always say ‘Santa loves you,’ and you hug them if you can,” he said, of the people who come to visit with him. “You usually only have two to five minutes with each person. …In those two minutes you want to make someone feel they’ve been heard, they’ve been loved.”

To do that well, for Rosenthal, means education. Constant, year-round and life-long. That can be as simple, he said, as standing in front of a mirror and practicing a face laugh and a belly laugh or taking acting, juggling, magic or even modeling classes.

Or, of course, enrolling in a Santa school, something Rosenthal still does religiously. He attends several schools around the country as a student every year, despite his decades of experience.

He and his wife Tracy recently returned to Atlanta from their second trip to the 81-year-old Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Mich. “Charles Howard is a very inspiring and refreshing school. …They don’t talk business at all. It’s just about being Santa and having a good time,” Rosenthal said. “When you come out of there, you’re ready to take on the season.”

‘I deal with Santas all day long’

Tracy, who married Rosenthal in 2013 after a 20-year friendship, is no Mrs. Claus. “He’s much younger than me at heart,” she said.

She’s more of what she calls a “restaurant widow,” stepping away or heading without him to the car when Rosenthal, even in plain clothes, is inevitably approached by children. She said she doesn’t want to ruin the Santa mystique or tarnish Santa’s reputation.

“I am not a Mrs. Claus, and I’m also about 15 years younger than him,” she said. “I don’t want any confusion about ‘why is Santa with this woman’.”

Formerly in the corporate world, Tracy runs their National Santa Agency, booking holiday characters for everything from studio photo shoots to birthdays, anniversaries and other private, community and corporate events. Their Santas deliver presents and cars and marriage proposals and visit with patients in hospitals and hospices.

“I deal with Santas all day long,” Tracy said. “It’s enjoyable and there’s never a dull moment.”

One of their Santas is Lawrenceville resident Larry Talbert, owner of Talbert Insurance Services in Duluth. Talbert enrolled at Northern Lights after Rosenthal was the third Santa he’d met who told him he ought to join their ranks.

Since 2016, he’s been “Santa Magic,” incorporating his amateur magic skills into his Santa work and teaching magic as a guest instructor at Northern Lights. His wife, Marjorie, who had also encouraged him to become Santa, joined him at Santa school and is his Mrs. Claus. He said she was an elf for the Atlanta Braves’ Christmas in July event last summer.

Santa Jeaux
Joe “Santa Jeaux” Pridgen

She said she enjoys telling children about Santa while they wait in line to see him, and “loves taking care of Santa and making sure that he stays healthy.”

“My favorite thing is the way the kids look at you,” said Talbert, 54. “They all love you. That happens continuously.”

“Santa Jeaux,” 70, is another Northern Lights alumnus and guest instructor. He said he became a Santa because he loves to bring laughter and joy to people of all ages.

He is one of the Santas who visits children every Christmas morning at Egleston Hospital. He also does live video chats with children there and at Scottish Rite Hospital twice in December.

Hospital visits can be difficult, Rosenthal said. “God forbid you have a child who’s dying,” he said. “They wouldn’t invite a stranger in, but they’d invite Santa in, and he comes.”

Santa Rick’s scheduled public appearances

Sundays, Dec. 2, Dec. 9, Dec. 16 and Dec. 23, varying hours. The Outlet Shoppes at Atlanta, 915 Ridgewalk Parkway, in Woodstock. Info: theoutletshoppesatatlanta.com.

Sunday, Dec. 1, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Seed Factory, in the Westside Provisions District. 1100 Howell Mill Road N.W., Atlanta. Info: seedfactoryatlanta.com.


Northern Lights Santa Academy class
Newly graduated Santas, Mrs. Santas and Elves pose for a photo of the Northern Lights Santa Academy’s Class of Sept. 2018 at the Atlanta Marriott Evergreen Conference Resort in Stone Mountain Park. Photo by Nick Cardello, courtesy of Northern Lights Santa Academy.

‘Santa doesn’t scratch himself’

Santa do’s and don’ts, from Santa Rick

Rick “Santa Rick” Rosenthal, founder and dean of Atlanta’s Northern Lights Santa Academy, is a big-time stickler about Santas, whom he believes should be “regal and pristine.”

“You have to know how to be Santa, inside and outside and all around him,” he said. For example, “Santa doesn’t scratch himself wherever he itches,” Rosenthal said. “He doesn’t drink anything but water or milk, except in America he can have a Coke.”

Santa’s suit should be “luxurious,” he said, adding that quality suits typically run from $800 to $1,200 but can go for much higher. The belt should be of thick, high-grade leather “with a fantastic buckle,” he said.

In his ideal Santa world, the beard either needs to be real or look real and needs to be as white as snow and perfectly trimmed. Rosenthal said he spends plenty of “emasculating” time at a hair salon getting his own hair bleached.

“My hair has to be beautiful, like a 20-year-old model’s on a Clairol box,” he said.

Santa must also know his back story and be prepared to handle the kind of questions he might get from a 4-year-old who asks for an iPhone 7 for Christmas. That actually happens, he said.

“Children are getting smarter,” Rosenthal said. “You have to know how to answer their questions like, ‘If you’re Santa, what’s my name?’”

He likes to reply with something like “Peppermint,” and tell the child that’s their name in North Pole language. “You can’t break character, even with parents,” Rosenthal said.

Santa Rick says he doesn’t like to say he’s “Santa to the Stars,” but he is, sort of. His clients include some of Atlanta’s large law firms. He’s been Santa at Hollywood parties, and he’s become part of the holiday traditions being built at Buckhead’s The Whitley hotel, formerly the Ritz-Carlton, which issued this statement about Santa Rick:

“His presence and disposition really enhance the festive atmosphere at our Christmas events, and we’re excited he’ll be visiting us this year for our Children’s Tea with Santa as well as our Christmas Day brunch. Our team loves working with him, and we know he’ll be a holiday highlight for years to come as we create special memories and Whitley traditions for Atlantans and travelers.”

But whether he’s hobnobbing with the rich and famous or volunteering as Santa Rick for the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta or others in need, he’s still just Santa, he says.

“You don’t just wake up as Santa. When you put on the suit, it changes you. The suit magnifies the way you feel. You start to be, for me, anyway. You becomeSanta,” he said. “There’s nothing more challenging and more rewarding in the whole world.”

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.