To this day, Kelly McKenna is still not sure why his Loveland next-door neighbors asked him to be Santa for a Christmas party.
He wasn’t portly or even especially chunky: He had to put a pillow in his pants and another on his belly to look the part. He was bald. He didn’t even have a beard.
Maybe it was his laugh, the kind of “bowl full of jelly” chuckle that would lead you to assume he practices it. Maybe they knew, somehow, that McKenna grew up in a household that loved the holidays: His father started decorating in the fall by putting hay bales in the front yard to match the creepy scarecrow back when Halloween decorations were uncommon. Or maybe he was just old enough—he was in his early 60s—and couldn’t be worse than the last Santa they hired. They had to coach the last guy during the party.
McKenna never had to be coached.
“If you have it in your heart, that’s good enough,” he says.
What he does know is that his story is pretty typical among Santas across the country. They don’t pick the role. The role picks them.
“Everyone I know was asked,” says McKenna, who is now 66.
Six years later, he’s now Santa for the Fort Collins Downtown Development Authority and shows up in his red, fur-trimmed suit from noon-6 p.m. Friday through Sunday in Old Town Square, starting on Black Friday and ending on Christmas Eve. Last year, he saw nearly 3,500 families.
“Santa Kelly is THE Santa,” says Krista Knott, administrative manager for the DDA. “He’s the real deal, so we have to hire him.”
McKenna also plays Santa for three families every year on Christmas Eve as part of their tradition. He’ll take on the role for anyone else if he has time. He’ll even visit children who are in hospice a few days before Christmas, moments he calls “an honor.”
It’s a job he takes seriously. His suits now are tailor-made, he wears custom rings and his beard is lush and ragged and real. He even belongs to a real-bearded Santa association: the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas. However, his wife has made him trim off a few inches every season ever since people started mistaking him for a ZZ Top band member.
McKenna wears a red blazer and a green shirt to meetings about playing Santa, even if it’s public. It’s not the full suit—he saves that for the holiday season—but it’s real enough that he gets stopped all the time, even in early October, at locations such as coffee shops, where a little boy once gaped at him. Maintaining a good image is important, he says, even if it’s not cheap.
“Kids know when you’re cheap,” he says. “They just know it’s fake.”
The kids are the reason he does it, and that’s what you’d expect to hear, except he also loves to hear their stories. They say the darnedest things, he says. But what about their parents?
“I love the interaction with most moms and dads,” McKenna says.
Kids say funny things, but their honesty can be a little overwhelming (after all, they trust Santa). It reaffirms his belief that adults need Santa too.
Last year, a little girl told him her only wish was for her mother to have a happy Christmas. McKenna asked her to take him to her mom. He leaned down, looked the woman in the eye and told her he knew things weren’t going well. The woman began bawling on his shoulder, and he held her until she stopped crying.
Talks like that can run a little long, and his “helpers” will remind him that the line is growing. He ignores them in those moments.
“I’ll hold up the line,” he says. “Christmas is not always positive.”
McKenna still has a regular job as a customer representative for Veritiv, a packaging company he’s been with for 40 years. He enjoys it, but some days are long, and that’s true of Santa as well. On Christmas Eve night, when his duties are done, he’s ready to hang up his suit.
He recalls many moments of joy leading up to Santa’s biggest day. Until then, even before Thanksgiving, if you see him, regardless of your age, he invites you to say hello. You might even get a candy cane. He may not have chosen to be Santa, but he now believes it’s his most important role.
“I’ll always make time to make your day,” he says.