His job may seem unorthodox to some, but for Rick Rosenthal, being Santa is just who he is.
The 66-year-old Jewish man from Atlanta, Georgia, better known as “Santa Rick,” stands out in his orthodox community with his beard white as snow, classic red suit, and jolly personality.
“I’m Santa all the time now,” Rosenthal said. “My whole orthodox neighborhood calls me Santa. I’m always in red. I wear a red shirt to shul. You know you’re looking at Santa, not a rabbi.”
To Rosenthal, Santa is not a religious figure but he is spiritual.
“Being Santa is truly a humbling experience and an honor because everybody loves you, everybody trusts you, everybody knows you, and you are universally accepted for two reasons: Santa is one of the most recognized faces in the world, the other is Jesus, and he is the most photographed person in the world – ahead of queens and presidents,” he said. “Because you’re Santa you have a unique opportunity because Santa is the one guy that makes everybody feel better.”
Being Orthodox and Santa does have its limits, though.
“I don’t drive on Sabbath, and every once in a while Christmas Eve is on Shabbos,” he explained. “I’ve walked to jobs on Sabbath…I’m really doing a mitzvah. I’m not getting paid. I don’t get paid on Sabbath.”
And it doesn’t come without criticism but Rosenthal said it falls in line with Judaism the same way orthodox doctors and other professions have exceptions and he believes it’s his way of making the world a better place as a light unto the world.
“For the naysayers, I say they should look inward and consider what their agenda is and then look out and see the light,” he said. “They should ask themselves ‘Why do I feel this way?’ I talk about hope and inspiration and toys.”
Rosenthal started dressing up as a Santa when he was a teenager, 50 years ago, because he thought it would be fun and cute.
“I had a horrible designer beard because back in the 60s those beards looked like a run-over opossum,” he said.
But it all changed for him seven years ago after both his parents died. His beard grew in white, and he was at the checkout at Home Depot. It was spring – not Christmastime – and a little boy saw him as Santa.
“His reaction was so strong that I realized at that point that I’m just going to be Santa all year round,” Rosenthal said. “It was a life-changing experience.”
Today he runs a school, the Northern Lights Santa Academy, in Atlanta, where they train people to be the jolly old fellow, Mrs. Claus, or elves.
“America grew up with a guy in a red suit – that’s not what Santa is anymore – but Santa today is professionally trained and educated, and rather than as a prop…he’s engaging and entertaining and magical because Santa can do anything because he’s Santa.”
Rosenthal’s academy is the only school that offers a special needs workshop and has more instructors than any other school as well as bringing in experts from the field, including lawyers, professional storytellers, and a rocket scientist, who actually explained how Santa gets around the world in one day.
The first thing they learn is how to look like Santa. Next, they learn how to talk like Santa.
“Santa has to talk in a way that people can understand him whether they’re four or 94 – if he’s not believable then he’s not Santa. It doesn’t mean you have to believe what I say – I can explain how reindeer fly in a logical way – but if it’s not believable it’s not Santa,” he said. “The truth of the matter is little children and senior citizens know that Santa’s real – it’s the middle-aged people that get confused but that’s ok, you don’t have to be a believer, you just have to stay on the nice list rather than the naughty list, to get your presents.”