At a certain age, many men dye their gray hair a younger-looking color. But Vern Brischke does the opposite: He dyes his reddish-brown hair gray and silver.
For the last four years, Brischke has added a red suit and a hearty “Ho ho ho!” and made a lot of smiles appear around the Monterey Peninsula as a man named Santa Claus.
“I want people to still have the belief,” he says. “I try to bring happiness through Santa.”
By day, the 56-year-old P.G. resident runs Pacific Grove Millworks in Sand City, making nearly anything out of wood, from custom cabinets and desks to doors and bed frames. During the holidays, he often dons a Santa hat and streams holiday tunes while working.
“I want people to know that Santa Claus does live in Monterey,” Brischke says. “When he is not Santa, he’s in his workshop with his elves!”
His “elves” also enjoy it.
“It’s fun,” says shop assistant Osvaldo Maldonado. “The boss is always happy.”
Preparation for Santa season starts in spring. This year, Brischke started growing out his beard and hair March 1. Before his first event as St. Nick on Dec. 1, he sauntered into Oya Salon in Monterey to get it colored gray.
“At first I was a little scared to do it, because I wasn’t sure how I was going to make him Santa Claus,” Oya stylist Brittany Myers says. “You don’t get clients like that everyday.”
Brischke is friends with Myers’ grandparents, who recommended her to dye his beard. This is her second season doing it and she has perfected the color concoction along the way.
“I mixed a few dyes to get that perfect Santa white and added silver to reflect the light, so it glints a little bit,” Myers says. “With his beard, it is kind of tricky because it is coarse hair, so we had to do it three or four times.”
The other parts of the costume are easy; Brischke can be ready in five minutes. But even in plain clothes he is often approached for a photo—and he’s more than happy to oblige. “There are a lot of people who need a smile,” he says.
In December, it’s hard for Brischke to go anywhere without getting stopped. Once, in a P.G. grocery store, two young boys were acting up. Their dad motioned for them to turn around; Brischke said, “You kids have been misbehaving.”
The dad looked into his sons’ huge eyes and told them, “I told you Santa was watching at all times!”
The reactions aren’t only from children. During his first event as Santa four years ago at Ave Maria Convalescent Hospital in Monterey, Brischke recalls, an old woman who was looking at his beard asked if it was real. Brischke told her to pull on it. She cackled, “It’s real!”
During a trip down Highway 101, Brischke was near Pismo Beach when a group of college kids matched his speed so they could take a picture.
“You wonder what it is that strikes that emotion in someone,” he says.
Whatever it is, Brischke’s all about spreading it around. “Sometimes I put my suit on and walk around Cannery Row,” he says.
Recently, he was relaxing in the spa at Monterey’s In Shape gym. A mom and her young daughter were swimming in the pool, and the daughter kept looking curiously in his direction.
Brischke noticed and said, “What do you want to ask me?”
The girl said, “Are you Santa? I think so, but my mom doesn’t.”
Aside from public appearances, Brischke dons the costume for company holiday parties and private events, including three on Christmas Eve.
He does them all for free, even though he appears as Santa nearly every day from Dec. 1 through Christmas Eve, and he sometimes books as many as five appearances a day. “You really have to give yourself at no cost,” he says. “If you get a smile from someone, that is what it’s all about.”
Just like Santa, Brischke considers the rest he gets after Christmas a gift itself. (He traditionally shaves his beard on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.)
What he gives isn’t modeled after holiday movies or stories. “I do it my own way,” he says. “I don’t want to sound and act like anyone else.”
Back at Pacific Grove Millworks, Roberto Macias agrees. He has worked alongside Brischke for 10 years and says the first time he saw his boss dress up, he thought Brischke was the real deal.
“Between my glasses, beard and blue eyes, there’s a twinkle,” Brischke says
But his heart has something to do with it too.
To request Vern Brischke as Santa Claus next holiday season, email Vbrischke@gmail.com. For more on Pacific Grove Millworks, call 392-1229.