Bob “Santa” Kyle: 20 Years Behind The Beard

For many of us, the post-Christmas period is one of inevitable anti-climax. There had been the gathering, the tree-trimming and the gift-giving. Then the re-united disperse. The tree is unceremoniously un-trimmed. Toys soon lose their novelty.

But what’s it like for Santa? The mother of all melancholia? A welcome respite from the seasonal exertion?

A bit of both, as it turns out.

“When it’s over, I’m a little sad, and I’m a little glad too,” acknowledges 74-year-old Bob Kyle, arguably Tampa’s most pre-eminent Santa. “The children are always special, and it’s fun to see the teenagers get in the spirit too,” says Kyle. “It’s really an invigorating month, and it’s my way of giving back. But, yes, a bit tiring by Christmas.”

The Town N’ Country resident, who is also one of the area’s leading arborists, has been playing Santa for the last 20 years. From Tampa’s Festival of Trees and the Santa Fest Parade in downtown to Sweetwater Park, Clay Elementary and Girl Scout Troop 1498. And a bunch of schools, churches, senior-care facilities and neighborhood stops in between. He has been known to change into costume on the job — hustle to an event — and then resume landscaping or tree-trouble shooting.

He has long-time, “elf” assistants and an elaborately decorated float. Moreover, Kyle is a Claus lookalike. A dead-ringer for the Kris Kringle character in “Miracle on 34th Street,” which happens to be his favorite Christmas movie.

For “Kris Kyle Kringle,” it’s all about the “magic.” Santa is as real as you wish to believe,” he tells all those who need telling. “When you believe, he lives in your heart forever.”

Kyle began doing Santa, he recalls in a, yes, jolly laugh, when his beard turned white. He trims it drastically each January. For the rest of the year, he foregoes any more such trimmings — or haircuts.

And the verisimilitude is always worth it, says Kyle. Santa does have his skeptics.

Kyle remembers an especially persistent little boy at Tampa’s Festival of Trees about five years ago. Flat-out, the kid said he didn’t believe in Santa. Kyle replied: “That’s ok; Santa believes in you. And someday you’ll do the magic yourself.”

The tough little tyke wasn’t buying it. He reiterated that Santa “wasn’t real.”

Kyle then played his tonsorial trump card.

“If you really think that, then pull on Santa’s beard.”

He did. And not all that gingerly.

“That was it; I had him,” says Kyle. “He came up behind me later on and whispered, ‘You’re cool.'”

Over the years, Kyle has observed predictable patterns. For one thing, kids are still kids.

“You see true feelings,” says Kyle. “And it’s not just that Santa brings gifts. You can see the look of absolute joy. There’s nothing like the joy a child can experience. That’s very moving.”

And however joyous, some children will always test you, explains Kyle, and many tend to reflect the economic times. A bit more buoyant when times are good. More likely to ask for, say, G.I. Joe than a Playstation, when times are tougher. No one, interestingly enough, has asked for cowboy stuff in more than a decade.

But kids don’t just get a hug and candy and Santa’s ear.

Sometimes it’s up to Santa to moderate their wish lists and manage their expectations.”Occasionally they ask for guns,” he says. “And I steer them to something else. Or they want an electric guitar, and I play up a wooden one. I can also get preachy, I guess. I tell them about bike helmets and where not to ride their scooters.”

He’s also been known to politely lecture on the merits of pet responsibility.

Santa will also try to personalize requests as best he can. He will mention that Barbies, for example, come in safari outfits, and evening gowns and bathing suits. And there are all kinds of trucks.

Sometimes he prods the overly shy with special, memory-jogging “brainfood” that looks not unlike ordinary candy canes.

“On your toes”

While Santa slips in his share of counseling, he also has learned a thing or two after 20 years of on-the-job Clausing. “You gotta constantly be on your toes,” he says. “And you just can’t blame everything on the elves.”

One child, for example, was incredulous about his wristwatch. His — by now — stock answer: “Rudolph gets mad if I’m late.”

And speaking of, so where exactly were Rudolph and the rest of the reindeer? Why weren’t they there?

“I tell them that the reindeer are magic, and they are parked on a cloud,” says Kyle. And for the more precocious: “The FAA says the reindeer and sleigh have to stay parked.”

Kyle also has learned to temper his preference for coffee while in character.

A certain little girl prompted the change. After motioning to Santa to lean down for some serious whispering, she confided: “You forgot to brush your teeth.”

He now munches candy canes when he gets the coffee urge.

But sometimes the wide-eyed and innocent request that which is way beyond Santa’s purview — or mythical powers.

“Sometimes I get some real tear-jerkers,” says Kyle. “They want Santa to help their mom and dad get back together. Or to make their grandmother well.

“I tell them that Santa doesn’t work that kind of magic. That’s God’s kind of magic.

“They seem to understand,” notes Kyle. “And I think they feel better for telling me and knowing they’re doing everything they can.”

Other than that, just another seasonal day at the office for Santa. Lots of listening, counseling and credibility proving.

And magic. And joy. And hope.

Now more than ever.

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