Jim Trubey's life took a fateful turn a dozen years ago.
"I grew a beard, started letting my hair grow a little bit long — for a military man, that's kind of unusual," said Trubey, who retired from a career in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Trubey's granddaughter, Edith, looked up at him all those years ago and said, "You know, poppa, you could be Santa."
"That got me thinking about it," Trubey said.
The rest is history.
Trubey, who lives in LaFayette, Ga., with his wife, Jill, started to learn the trade of being a seasonal Santa.
He struck out on his own for a while, and then took a three-day course at The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, a nonprofit organization in Midland, Mich., that was founded in 1937 and says it's "the longest continuously running Santa Claus School in the world."
The business of being SantaView 9 Photos
Now, Trubey has a website, www.myfavorite-santa.com, on where customers can book him for photo shoots, advertising campaigns, special events and Christmas visits.
He loves playing Santa.
"It's about the most fun a guy can have," Trubey said as he and his wife traveled earlier this month around the St. Petersburg, Fla., area to make appearances, including at an elementary school there.
Trubey isn't the only Chattanooga-area man to adopt the Santa persona for pay or as a volunteer. There are enough Santas around here that they formed a loose-knit group called the Tri-State Santas, which meets at such places as the Golden Corral buffet restaurant.
"There's at least a couple dozen," said Richard Bonnington, who's in his sixth season hearing children's wishes at Santa's North Shore Workshop, which Bonnington runs inside the Knitting Mill Antiques building at 205 Manufacturers Road in North Chattanooga.
Bonnington, a former attorney and salesman, also fell into the job.
In 2003, Bonnington played Santa in the Oak Street Playhouse production of "Miracle on 34th Street." A 4-year-old girl was thrilled by Bonnington as Santa after he gave her a stuffed animal, and that experience inspired him.
"It just mushroomed from there," he said. "I've been a pro Santa for about 10 years."
Bonnington volunteered as Santa during the holiday season while working at Unum and its predecessor, Provident. After leaving Unum in 2006, he started working seasonal mall positions, spending weeks away from home in Elizabethtown, Ky., and in Anderson, S.C.
Bonnington also has taken classes that teach the art and craft of being a Santa. He learned from Tim Connaghan, who's the Santa for the Hollywood Santa Parade and has made many TV appearances, including on "The "Dr. Phil Show."
If you work really hard as a Santa, you can make $30,000 to $40,000 a year, Trubey said.
"I make nothing close to that," he said.
Bonnington's wife, Sherry, takes photographs while he visits with children, and they are able to deliver prints on the spot. Or parents can take their own pictures of a child on Bonnington's lap for $5 each.
"You can't live off it, but it's a supplement," Bonnington, who's retired, said of his seasonal business.
Tricks of Santa trade
Trubey and Bonnington both load up on vitamins before the Christmas season.
"It is not unusual to have a beautiful little one — they'll look up in your face, and every once in a while, you'll get a sneeze," Trubey said.
Bonnington always gets his flu shot, and swears by mega-doses of vitamin C.
"I've never gotten a cold during the Christmas season," he said.
One thing both men learned in their respective Santa schools is how to field kids' questions.
"You've got to have answers to all the questions," Bonnington said. "Where are the reindeer? They're at the airport."
The questions can take a sad — and serious — turn, both Santas say.
"I want my family to be happy — that's all I want," Trubey remembers one child asking him.
"A lot of them want BB guns, guns, horses and a real puppy," he said. "The answer to that one is, Santa's really not allowed to bring anything that mommy and daddy don't approve of. [Kids] handle that pretty well."
Growing a real beard is a must, if you're going to be Santa.
"We only hire naturally bearded Santas," said Stacey Keating, spokeswoman for Chattanooga's Hamilton Place and Northgate malls, which, like other malls owned by Chattanooga-based CBL and Associates, gets its staff of Santas through an outside company.
Bonnington and Trubey both sport beards year-round.
While a real beard may be de rigueur for a professional Santa, kids don't naturally sit on a jolly old man's lap and yank his facial hair.
"You almost have to really encourage them," Trubey said. "They often refuse to give the beard a tug."