For the past six years, Gene Burnett has taken on the role of Santa Claus for local events such as the Christmas Light Up Parade and Pontiac’s Santa House. He never pictured himself as someone who would take on the role of Jolly Old Saint Nick, but when his wife, Pam, who served as director for the P.R.O.U.D. of Illinois Marketplace at the time of suggesting the idea, he didn’t refuse.
    “We worked in the Santa House together as Mr. and Mrs. Claus,” Burnett said. “I never dreamed that I would take on the role.”
    As a child, Burnett can recall visiting Santa, but he never realized what the job would entail until he started taking on the role.
    “I did some research on playing Santa Claus before I started volunteering,” Burnett said. “I quickly learned that there is an unspoken psychology to taking on the role that you recognize when you’re behind the beard.”
    While in costume, one of Burnett’s biggest rules is to give children time to talk. During that time, he also encourages parents to take photos. These days, he says most people choose to use their cellphones.
    Not every child who goes to see Santa is old enough to understand the experience. Typically, if the child is one year old or younger, Burnett says they won’t have a lot to ask Santa for.
    “When they are that young, they sit there with a look of awe or wonder on their face,” Burnett said. “They can’t really talk, so the parent is often just coming in for a ‘first Christmas’ photo or that type of thing.
    “I’ve also found that if a child is in a bad mood, you can’t change it. Sometimes they might warm up a little bit over time, but even if they had a bad experience, I try to make a connection by giving them a wave or a high-five.”
    One way that Burnett has helped children overcome their fear of Santa, is by having a second chair next to his so that a parent can be within arm’s reach of the child during the visit.
    “Especially if it’s an infant,” Burnett said. “Having mom next to me can make all the difference in the world. Also, when they get older, they feel more comfortable sitting in the chair next to Santa instead of in his lap, so that extra chair has come in handy.”
    Part of what makes Burnett so good at his job is his background in teaching. Burnett was a teacher at Pontiac Township High School for more than 30 years and served as chairman of the high school’s social studies department during that time.
    “I always make sure to talk to the kids about how they are doing in school,” Burnett said. “Over time you get to know who their teachers are, what grade they are in and what they are doing in school.
    “They are very familiar with being in school and I use that as a connection to help the younger children feel more at ease with talking to Santa,” Burnett said. “The other benefit of teaching at PTHS is, I recognize a lot of the parents from when I had them in school as students. So, I can sometimes surprise the child, by dropping the name of their mom or dad into the conversation.”
    To those who wonder what it’s like to wear the full Santa suit for hours at a time, Burnett said it doesn’t get too hot, but the beard can be a little bit itchy.
    “I don’t really get uncomfortable in the outfit,” Burnett said. “I’m so focused on what I’m doing, that I don’t really notice anything else. To get myself in the right mindset, I like to listen to Christmas music on the radio or reflect on some of the Hallmark Christmas movies I’ve watched.”
    For the most part, Burnett said people don’t recognize him as Santa Claus. Sometimes a parent will ask, “are you Gene Burnett?” and he will give an affirmative nod.
    “Because I taught so much, parents will recognize me as their former teacher,” Burnett said. “They say they can tell by the voice, but I don’t think my voice is very distinctive.”
    Ultimately, Burnett said the key to being a good Santa is establishing a connection with the child.
    “If you can establish a connection with students and develop a positive relationship, they’re going to have a great visit,” Burnett said. “You create that little bit of magic by connecting with them and all of a sudden, a child who might have been skeptical about the experience will enjoy it.”
    What really touches Burnett’s heart, are the parents who will sometimes stop by after their child’s Santa visit to thank him for his time.
    “A few years ago, a mother stopped by to thank me for helping her son continue to believe in Santa,” Burnett said. “It’s great to hear the feedback from people.”