When you meet Bruce Noble you can't help but notice the resemblance. He has twinkling eyes and apple cheeks, his belly shakes when he laughs, and of course he has a bushy white beard and a booming but friendly voice.
His wife, Marilyn Noble, who laughingly refers to herself as "the Insubordinate Claus," said when her husband recently retired as a family court judge, she noticed he was "fidgety" and "not adapting easily to retirement."
"We went out for a drive one day," she said. "And he said to me out of the blue, 'I'd like to go to Santa school.' So I said, 'Great idea.' And I looked it up on my phone, and I found him the Harvard of Santa schools."
Bruce has been one of Santa's helpers for more than 40 years — dressing up and visiting schools and nursing homes during the holiday season. Even though he already had a lot of experience, he wanted to improve.
At the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Medway, Mich., he was part of a class of 240 who all shared that Christmas wish.
"It is for people who have realized that they have a calling for this," Bruce said of Santa school. "And this is a way for them to learn to do better what they're already doing."
The three-day program included learning how to answer the difficult questions children ask, how to pilot a sleigh, and the best type of material for your red coat (it's wool and cashmere, not velvet).
Bruce said nearly all of the students at Santa school, like him, have been playing Santa for decades.
First time he played Santa 'was magic'
Bruce's first opportunity to play Santa came more than 40 years ago, when the janitor at a neighbourhood school, who always dressed up on the last day of classes before the Christmas holiday, was sick.
"So they said, 'Would you come to be Santa Claus? We've got the uniform.'"
He put on the sweater, flannel pyjama bottoms and beard the school had, and walked into an auditorium full of elementary school students.
"The kids were just wild," he said. "I did my first and, I thought, pretty good interpretation of Santa Claus and the place exploded."
From then on Bruce knew that being one of Santa's helpers was something he wanted to continue doing.
"It was magic. And I didn't get a chance to do a whole lot except say hello to everybody and pass out candy canes as they were on their way out. But that was enough for me. It was wonderful."
The men and women he met at Santa school came from all different walks of life, he said, but they all shared the same sentiment about playing the role of St. Nick for a few weeks every year: "I like this. I like what happens to me when I'm doing this."
Tips and tricks for playing the perfect Santa
At Santa school Bruce got a long list of "pointers" for perfecting the fine art of playing such an important role. There was voice coaching and tips on how to groom your wig and beard. The three-day course also included a lengthy session during which the most experienced Santas shared tips for handling the trickiest of questions from children.
"They want to know what reindeer eat, they want to know how you get from one place to another in a sleigh," Bruce said, offering examples of the questions Santas must be prepared for.
However, Bruce said they also discussed some of the more delicate questions children ask.
"There's no cookie cutter answer when somebody says, 'Santa, can you make my parents stop fighting … or the other one, 'Santa — my Grampie died. Can you make him come home for Christmas?'"
"You can't have a pat answer," Bruce said. "But it's obviously very nice to have the benefit of 240 other people who say, 'I remember when I had that question.'"
The Santa school classes also included hands-on training in how to pilot a replica, mechanical sleigh.
Bruce shares a video of his own session where he can be heard calling out enthusiastically to the mechanical reindeer, "To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall — now dash away dash away dash away all," as his classmates erupt into applause.
'When he got off the plane, he was Santa'
The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School has been operating since 1937, and Bruce feels lucky that he was accepted to the ivy league of Santa schools.
Many of those he met attend every year, or every few years — in an effort to be the very best Santa they can in their corner of the world.
Bruce has been offering virtual visits from the Fredericton Public Library, which he describes as "so much fun," although he invoked the "privacy of the sleigh" when asked for details about what they talked about.
He errs who thinks Santa comes in through the chimney. He enters through the heart. - Charles W. Howard, 1937
He did reveal that he is given some information about the children he meets that is as unique as they are.
Details such as, "She likes mysteries, monkey bars and learning French," and, "He loves Elmo, bears and the moon," which helps Bruce connect with even the most skeptical kids.
Notes from parents thank him for his "five star performance" and include comments such as, "That was great! Both kids literally hugged the phone."
When asked why this job means so much to him, Bruce gets tears in his eyes as he quotes Charles W. Howard, the founder of the Santa School who played Santa on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float from 1948 to 1965.
"He errs who thinks Santa comes in through the chimney. He enters through the heart."
Marilyn said her husband was always a wonderful Santa Claus, but since his graduation from Santa school, she has seen a transformation.
"When he left, he was a reluctantly retired person," she said. "And when he got off the plane, he was Santa."