By Rich Adams
Roger Wyersberg never intended to become a professional Santa Claus.
When he was music director at Ovid-Elsie Area Schools and the Christmas concert season came around, he could depend on a friend to appear as Santa. One year the friend was unable to participate as the jolly old elf and offered to loan his suit, beard and hair wigs to Wyersberg.
“I really enjoyed the fact that my new temporary persona could bring so much joy to so many so quickly,” Wyersberg explained.Fast forward to 2003, when he was in a grocery store and saw a mother and her two children approaching.
“The children’s eyes got as big as saucers,” he said, explaining he was prematurely gray at age 51 and his full beard likely played a role in the children’s attention. He spotted them later in his shopping trip, and the mother asked if her son could ask a question.
“Are you Santa Claus?”
“My response was ‘No, but I AM his brother. I am excited to share with him how good both you and your sister have been for your mother here in the store. Keep up the great work,’” Wyersberg said. “I felt I had dodged a bullet, but the experience made me inquisitive. There must be someplace I can go or something I can read to find out more about how to respond and react in situations like I had just experienced.”
A quick Google search for Santa schools led him to the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, the oldest school of its kind.
“I was so surprised something like this existed no more than 40 miles from my house, and I had never heard of it,” Wyersberg said.
The class for 2003 was full, so he enrolled in 2004.
“My life has not been the same,” Wyersberg said. “The first year I attended, there were 84 Santas and Mrs. Clauses. Since 2004, I have only missed one or two years of classes.”
Wyersberg said he learns much at the three-day Santa school, including how to talk in a way that won’t scare children, a bit of sign language, storytelling, how to hone his laugh, how to hold children on his lap, how to handle media interviews and what to never promise a child.
“The most important lesson is Santa doesn’t enter through a chimney or hearth; Santa enters through the heart,” he said. “For me, making the persona of Santa as uniform as possible from Santa to Santa … truly makes the chance of believability last so much longer.
“When I am in character, it is not about me. It is all about how to make the exchange and experience memorable, positive and hoping that no matter what they may be facing in life, they can have a few moments of joy to take with them because of our visit,” Wyersberg added.
Wyersberg grew up in the Detroit area and went to college at Michigan State University. He then taught music for 30 years at Ovid-Elsie and another 11 years at Saginaw Valley State University.
“Not only have I served as Santa, I am a contract musician who has performed with groups in Bay City and Saginaw as well as performed with my own group, the Maple River Brass Quintet,” he said.
Wyersberg has advice to anyone interested in becoming a “Brother in Red,” as he put it.
“Be humble, be a good listener. Know that it is a service,” he said. “It is always about who I can help to have a better day, a better week, a better Christmas. Know that when you wear that suit, you have an awesome responsibility to uphold the traditions and all that Santa represents.”
Wyersberg has served as a mall Santa, the Santa for the Ashley Country Christmas and Polar Express excursions. He portrayed Santa for packagefromsanta.com, in television commercials and in parades, and he has been Santa in both the Midland and Bay City Santa houses.