Darrell Baier stood at the bottom of the staircase and braced himself.
Each hand on the railing.
One foot on the first step.
Behind him clanked the glasses of the Kenai American Legion’s beer drinkers and cigarette smokers.
Above kids chanted his name.
“Santa, Santa, Santa,” they clamored, urged on by one of the organizers.
Like a rock star bouncing and leaping across the stage, Baier — dressed to the nines in his red suit, white beard and rosy cheeks — climbed up the stairs, leaped through the door and into the warmth of youthful exuberance.
Santa Claus has arrived.
Earlier, however, the Louisiana native and Alaska transplant was just himself.
“Can I buy Santa a beer?” a hostess asked him as he prepared a hot dog with mustard in his street clothes.
Politely declining, Baier sat down and turned his attention to the Army versus Navy football game on the big screen.
He’s 58 years old, but “according to legend” he’s really a little over 4,000 years old, he said jokingly.
“I’m lucky to be here, in fact I’ve not been here a couple of times,” he said.
He’s got a heart condition, he explained. It essentially caused him to retire from his work as a fabricator and welder in the oil field.
“After I had a couple heart attacks I couldn’t find any work in the oil field around here,” he said.
In May a year ago, Baier was standing at his sink when his heart quit, he said. The last thing he remembered was his vision closing in. He was still propped against the sink and it wasn’t until he fell backward and hit the floor that his weight jolted his heart into restarting, or so the doctors told him.
He was previously told he wouldn’t live to be an old man.
But those thoughts are far away as he works the crowd.
“Oh, what are you being so shy for?” he leans in and asks a young girl propped up on his knee.
He’s been Santa for five years now. After coming back to Alaska from Hawaii several years ago, Baier attended a Christmas party where there was a different Santa. That Santa, however, wouldn’t commit to the next year’s gig. Baier answered the call.
“I love it,” he said, wiping mustard from his white beard. “It’s fun. It’s educational. It’s heartbreaking — that’s when I don’t like being Santa.”
The job has a way of showing a man all sides of life, he contends. One year, a girl about 10 or 11 years old told him one of the most heartbreaking things he’s heard, he said.
“She came and told me all she wanted for Christmas was her daddy to keep his job and make sure they had a house to live in,” he said. “That tears at you, dude. That’s why I don’t want to be Santa. There’s nothing you can do.”
In January, Baier will trim his beard to stubble. In his younger years it was jet black, but now it’s white as snow, just like his hair he has trimmed at the same time. He doesn’t start growing the beard out again until June.
“It grows like a tumbleweed,” he said.
However, with his hair and beard trimmed away, he still spends the summer months deflecting questions from curious children.
“They’ll look at me and I’ll say, ‘Oh, you think I’m Santa don’t you?’” he said. “‘Well I’m not, I’m Uncle Darrell.’”
He’s met other Santas in the area, but there’s not a mutual friendship among them by any means.
“It’s more of a competition somewhat,” he said. “You know, who has the better hair, whiter hair, matching eyebrows? I’m not going to color my beard because I’m not going to be something I ain’t.”
A few days before Christmas, Baier was in his kitchen — he was done appearing for the season and was devoting himself to cooking up some Louisiana-style chili with green onion and jalapeño corn bread.
He said he’d be spending the holiday alone this year.
“That’s fine — it’ll be nice and quiet,” he said.
Did he buy himself a gift?
“Of course,” he said. “A man buys what he wants for Christmas. I went and bought me a brand-new Craftsman power drill. I love my tools.”
So what’s the most important thing a proper Santa needs? A big laugh? The rosiest cheeks? A well-groomed beard and well-trimmed suit?
“Anyone can sit up there and ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ ... but you’ve got to have something with the kids,” he explained. “When they sit down there, a lot of them are doubtful because one reason or another. ... You’ve got to have a rapport with the kids, something that will make them tell you their innermost secrets, you know?
“They’ll tell Santa stuff they won’t tell mommy and daddy.”
After a recent appearance, a little girl came up and gave him a big hug.
“She said, ‘You know what makes me sad Santa?’ I said, ‘No, what’s that?’ She said, ‘It’s that a lot of people stop believing in you,’” he said. “I said that when she gets older she’ll stop believing in an old fat man like me too. Christmas is not about an old fat man sitting here ... it’s the spirit.”
But, there’s also humor in Baier’s newfound passion. There are a lot of mean boys and girls that sit on his lap “that even admit they’ve been mean,” he said with a laugh.
“Some of them will lie like hell too, but then you get those that will just tug at your heart,” he said. “I never do these, get up and leave with a dry eye. You can’t, not if you’ve got a heart.”