This time of year, Santa stand-ins are as much a holiday staple as icicle lights and inflatable snowmen. But not every guy with a red suit has what it takes to convincingly transform into the most iconic figure of the season. The best, like Birkmier (Jack, to his friends), have a real, chest-length white beard -- and a holiday spirit that's just as authentic.
Every Saturday and Sunday around 11 a.m., 76-year-old Birkmier begins the process of turning into Ol' Twinkle Eyes for his Santa stint at Dart's Tree Farm in Southold, a role he's played since 1987 or 1988 -- he can't remember, exactly. All he knows is when he tried to retire a couple of years ago, the phone rang off the hook.
"Lots and lots of people were asking for him," remembers tree-farm owner Ed Dart. "When he stops working, I don't know what I'm going to do. I have a beard, I'm about his size, but I don't think I can fill his boots."
In late spring and summer, Dart says, he always looks for Birkmier whenever he drives by his house, to see if he's started to grow his beard. "If he's starting to show a white shadow, then I know he's coming back."
'A VERY CHILDLIKE ATTITUDE'
Child cynics are a challenge, Birkmier says, as his wife of 54 years, Gayle, twirls the ends of his mustache into fat spirals, then secures each with a hair clip.
"I listen to the weather every day," Birkmier confides, noting that a snow prediction made a believer of one 10-year-old. "I said, 'If you wake up and there's eight inches of snow, will you believe me?' " The girl reluctantly agreed. The overnight snowstorm came, and the next day, she was back at the North Fork tree farm, excitedly reciting: "You are Santa!"
Her father was a little less overjoyed. "Tell Santa how long it took for us to get here," Birkmier remembers the Massapequa Park resident muttering.
Back in the kitchen of their Southold bed-and-breakfast, called Willow Hill House, Gayle Birkmier gently removes the clips from her husband's mustache curls, and hair sprays them into submission.
Truth be told, Birkmier -- the father of five and grandfather of more than a dozen -- has always had a soft spot for playing Santa. Before a heart attack forced him to retire from the Long Island Rail Road, he'd wear a Santa hat and jacket to work, hanging out the window to the delight of children on the platform.
Birkmier ditches his Dickies overalls and United States Marine Corps cap -- he farmed for some extra income when his kids were smaller, and he was in the Corps in the 1950s -- and dons a bright-yellow Notre Dame jacket. Lacking the requisite jelly belly, Birkmier stashes a small embroidered pillow under the snug jacket and slips on his professional-grade Santa costume, a gift from his daughters three decades ago.
"Jack is an instinctive person," says Gayle Birkmier as she dabs what her husband calls "the war paint" on his cheeks and the tip of his nose. "He has a very childlike attitude toward the world."
WORKING HIS MAGIC
But being Santa has its sobering realities. When a little girl expressed doubt over his authenticity, Birkmier invited her to pull his beard. And pull she did -- "so hard, I was on my knees and had tears in my eyes." Managing gift expectations is slightly more subtle; when one young visitor asked for a dog for Christmas, Birkmier quickly confided that "Santa doesn't let anything on the sleigh that breathes." He appreciates parents that position themselves in eyeshot so he can quickly look up from a lapside request and get a quick yes or no.
A few more finishing touches -- a strap of bells around his shoulders, a spring of holly clipped from the backyard -- and Birkman's transformation is complete. Just before noon, he drives his truck around the corner to Dart's.
"He's the real deal," declares an appreciative Chris DeRonde, 35, of Lindenhurst, who had brought along Lance, 1 1/2; Hunter, 3; Kayla, 5, and Fabian, 16. "He's got the voice, too. You go to the mall and some of those guys are pathetic."
Santa may drive a sleigh, but Southold's version has learned a lot from 27 years as a railroad man. "It's different every day. Anything can happen," Birkmier says of his old job. "You don't walk into the office . . . you walk into the world." And in his Santa role, it's more of the same.
SANTA by the numbers
WORK SHIFT Noon to 4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving.
TIME REQUIRED FOR HIS TRANSFORMATION 1 hour (30 minutes if he rushes)
DAYS SPENT GROWING HIS BEARD EACH YEAR 234. Because his wife hates his beard, Birkmier starts growing it on May 5 -- the day after their wedding anniversary. After midnight Mass, in the wee hours of Dec. 25, he shaves it off.
NUMBER OF GRANDCHILDREN HE PRACTICED ON 14.
MOST DIFFICULT AGE FOR LAP-SITTING 2. Toddlers are just naturally afraid of strangers, never mind those in furry red getups, so Birkmier doesn't push it. "It's the moms and dads you have to fight. I say, 'He's crying, lady. Come back next year. I'll be here.' "