Prior to coming to Cullman, long-time WFMH Radio personality and local high school sports broadcaster Jimmy Dale Burgess was refining his on-air skills in Mesquite, Texas.

It was during a visit to the Town Square Shopping Mall in Mesquite during the Christmas of 1977 that Burgess made the decision to don the uniform for the very first time. No, not a military uniform or a policeman's uniform, but rather a uniform which has special significance at this time of the year -- the red, white and black attire of an official Santa's helper.

For the past 28 years, Burgess, who assists the Cullman City Parks and Recreation Department with its annual "Phone Calls from Santa Claus" program has dressed the part of Santa at both public and private functions.

"Debbie and I had been married about two years and Jeff was just a baby. We went to the mall and I saw this sign that said 'Need Santa Helpers. It was kind of funny. Debbie said, 'You ought to do that,' but I wasn't so sure. Then they told me it paid $8 an hour and I asked them where was the application," Burgess said. "They called me in less than an hour and so I played Santa at the mall for about nine days. It started out as a way to get a little extra money for Christmas, but after doing it for a little while and interacting with the kids and experiencing that I was hooked."

Burgess' services as a Santa's helper were in such demand that he eventually bought his own Santa suit. He's currently on his second suit.

"I've played the part of Santa somewhere nearly every year since then, at family Christmases or at the nursing home where my grandmother was at in Van, Texas," Burgess said. "It continued after we moved to Cullman and about five years ago I was asked to help with the 'Phone Calls from Santa' program and I've been helping with that ever since."

Parents provide the parks and recreation department with their child's Christmas list and then schedule a day and time for Santa to call.

"We really put on a show for the kids. I have jingle bells I ring, I'll have Rudolph there with me. The kids get so excited and the more excited they get the better," Burgess said. "It really is a lot of fun. It keeps me young and in the spirit of Christmas."

Because it is virtually impossible for the jolly ol' elf himself to make all of those personal appearances at Christmas, Burgess said there will always be a need for Santa helpers and as long as he can "ho, ho, ho", Burgess said he plans to continue playing the part of St. Nick.

The same can be said of Ed Jochum, husband of Ingle Park Director Angie Jochum.

Ed Jochum has been playing the role of Santa for the parks and recreation department's annual Christmas in the Park for the past 14 years.

'I've been the Santa for Christmas in the Park ever since we started that program. We also started the Calls from Santa program and I made some of those calls along with Jimmy Dale and others," Jochum said.

If you ever saw him, Jochum said you wouldn't have to ask why he chose to be a Santa's helper.

"I guess I look like Santa. Of course, my hair was brown and my beard was gray when I started 14 years ago. Now everything matches the real Santa Claus. The hair and beard are both white," Jochum said.

For the past three or four years, Jochum has made his entry to Christmas in the Park aboard his red trike motorcycle.

"The kids really love that," Jochum said.

He estimates that between 130 and 150 children attended Christmas in the Park this year.

"I get a big kick out of it when a child will ask if I'm the real Santa and they'll want to tug on my beard to see if it's real," Jochum said. "When I tell them to go ahead and pull on it and they do, you should see the surprise in their eyes. After that they usually warm right up to me."

As for what the kids are asking for this Christmas, Jochum said video games top most children's lists.

"Last year it was computers. This year it's video games," Jochum said. "I still get some requests for the traditional toys like baby dolls and remote control cars, BB guns and skateboards. Whenever a child asks for a skateboard I take the opportunity to stress safety and I insist that they wear a helmet and knee pads whenever they ride to be safe."

The biggest thrill of all, Jochum said, is seeing the children's faces.

"Seeing those smiling, happy faces is what keeps me coming back," Jochum said. "

Josh Duncan, 28, a dispatcher for CARTS in Cullman, has been a Santa's helper for less than 14 days, let along 14 or 28 years. Still, Duncan says he can already tell its something he'd like to continue doing in the future.

One of the Santa's helpers for the Cullman County Parks and Recreation's annual Parade of Lights at Sportsman Lake Park, Duncan said it really has been a fun experience.

"We had close to 200 kids come through the park on Dec. 16 and another 250 or so on the 17th, which are usually our big weekends just before Christmas," Duncan said. "I ask the kids if they have been good and what they want for Christmas -- the usual things."

The only time Duncan says he was really nervous playing Santa was the night his sister Christina Duncan brought his nephew Cameron, 5, to see him.

"It was really pretty funny. He didn't know it was me at first. The whole time he was sitting on my lap he kept looking at me," Duncan said. "After we finished I watched him as he was getting some hot chocolate from the concession stand and he would still look over and stare at me. Finally, I heard him tell his mommy, 'Santa sounds like Uncle Josh.'"

Kids are smart, Duncan said. Some give him a hard time wanting to know if he's real and if his beard is real.

"They're really hard to fool, but the sweet kids outnumber those who aren't so sweet," Duncan said. "And they'll ask for anything and everything. One little girl asked me to fix it where she could spend Christmas with her grandmother and a little boy asked me to bring his dad some golf clubs. You hear it all."

Perhaps the quickest Duncan had to think on his feet was in response to one little boy's question about the sleigh and eight tiny reindeer displayed on top of the concession stand where Santa sits and greets the children.

"The lighted display has Rudolph in the back nearest the sleigh instead of in his usual place out front," Duncan said. "This one little boy asked when Rudolph wasn't leading the sleigh so I told him that Rudolph is getting on up in years and I had to move him back in the rotation so he wouldn't have to work so hard."

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