Doug Keesey and Rick Rosenthal are known in Arctic circles (and greater Atlanta) as Santa Doug and Santa Rick.

Rick and Doug are two of Georgia's most popular Santa Clauses, entertaining the young and young at heart at events across the city.

Santa Rick (left) and Santa Doug (right) working their Christmas magic. Photos courtesy of Santa Rick/(left) and William Graves Photography/Santa Doug (right), used with permission.


I went looking for the inside scoop on Santa Claus to discover how the "cookies are made" so to speak.

My conversations with these holly, jolly gentlemen revealed some surprising Santa secrets and tricks of the trade. It's easy to see why kids adore them so much. Here are seven surprising things I learned chatting with two of the men behind the magic:

1. Why become Santa? Holiday cheer is a helluva drug.

"It becomes a calling for a lot of people," Santa Rick says. "Most people don't choose to be Santa, Santa chooses them."

That's the case for Santa Rick, 64, who's been Santa for 47 years. He started out with a full black beard under his fake one, but now he relies on the real thing. He's a trained mediator and arbiter, a skill that comes in handy when kids get a case of the gimmes.

Photo courtesy of Santa Rick.

As for Santa Doug, it's his second season as the Big Guy. He has a soft white beard and loves kids, so he thought he'd give Santa work a try when he retired from his video production business. A friend, who is also a Santa, said, "Why wait?" So, at just past 50 years old, Santa Doug was born.

What keeps them coming back? You don't find that kind of genuine happiness just anywhere.

"One of the things that really keeps me going is knowing that I'm helping families develop memories that will last for years to come, something that will really be special for them in the future," Santa Doug says. "That's not something you get to do every day. What a privilege to be in a position to be that kind of blessing to others!"

Photo courtesy of Santa Doug.

2. You don't know busy until you take a look at Santa's calendar.

There's more to being Santa Claus than long shifts at shopping malls. Santa Rick appears year-round as the man himself, helping out with birthday parties, special announcements, and potentially a spring wedding. There are two gigs he won't take though.

"I will deliver anything but divorce papers and termination papers," Santa Rick says. "I'm a Santa with a sense of humor, but it's gotta be in good taste."

Of course, the holiday season is their busiest time of year. Rick and Doug work parades, private parties, corporate gigs, home visits, fundraisers, schools, and hospitals. Santa Rick doubles as a Santa booking agent and routes nearly 100 local Santas to events across the metro area.

"I get pretty busy, honestly, I think 'Wow, the schedule is just going to be very difficult, and I don't know if I have the energy, and I'm tired and wish I could stay home,'" Santa Doug says. "But then I get out there and see that kid that is just awestruck by Santa walking in the door and you think, 'OK, that's why I'm here.'"

Santa Doug appears in a local parade. Photo courtesy of Santa Doug.

3. There are schools to learn how to be Santa. But one of them is essentially Harvard.

Anyone can dress like Santa, but truly becoming Santa takes some practice. There are Santa Schools across the country that open their doors to teach people how to bring the big guy to life. Classes include how to dress, how to answer tough questions, how to set up a Santa business, and even how to make simple toys.

Santa Rick leading a class at Northern Lights Santa Academy. Photo courtesy of Santa Rick.

The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan, is widely considered the premiere Santa school, boasting a traditional higher education application process and a waiting list.

After mentoring and teaching at Santa Schools, Santa Rick opened his own school, Northern Lights Santa Academy, which held their inaugural session this year.  While he's proud to teach the next generation of Clauses, he hopes they each bring their own unique style to their work.

"Does [attending Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School] make you a good Santa? No, it just means you got a good education," Santa Rick says. "What makes you the best is you. You have to figure out how to utilize the information ... to make you the best Santa you can be."

The Northern Lights Santa Academy is in session! Photo courtesy of Santa Rick.

4. Santa Claus hears some seriously silly stuff, and sometimes even he can't keep it together.

Kids are nothing if not honest, so Santa Rick and Santa Doug have heard it all. One child who (definitely already had one at home) asked for a toilet this year. Another hoped the baby his mother was carrying was a boy, and not a girl, prompting surprised faces from everyone in the room who didn't know his mother was expecting.

"You really do laugh, and it shuts you down, you're just laughing so hard," Santa Rick says. "You just get told these hysterical stories."

Photo courtesy of Santa Doug.

5. But Santa is also a kind, loving ear in tough and tender moments too.  

For many kids and their families, Christmas isn't the most wonderful time of the year. Santa Rick and Santa Doug have both heard some emotional requests from kids and the young at heart. Some wish for peace on Earth. Others ask for a relative in the hospital to get well. A mother had a teary encounter with Santa Rick while her son was deployed. And last year, a child asked Santa Doug to help get his parents back together.

"There's not much you can say, as Santa, to things like that," Santa Doug says. "All I could do was say, 'Santa understands. I know how you feel and I'm very sorry, but Santa loves you ... and it will be all right.' I think he just kinda wanted Santa to hear and understand."

Photo courtesy of Santa Doug.

6. Santa would dominate an improv class, as the big guy has to be quick on his feet.

When you're working with kids, you have to stay ready. That's why Santa has an answer for everything. Even if a child asks for one thing, Santa knows better than to make any promises. Instead, Santa Rick usually tells the kids: "I'm gonna talk to the elves about that ... but did you know the elves are very busy? They make the presents and put them in a box and then they wrap it and sometimes they forget what's in there. You might end up with a pogo stick."

What happens if Santa Rick and his Santa buddies go out for lunch and a child sees a half-dozen Santas in one place? Don't worry, they've thought of that too. "We say it's a Claus family reunion," he says with a big laugh, clearly nailing the whole, "bowlful of jelly" business.

Photo courtesy of Santa Rick.

7. Santa is about more than presents. He's all about hope.

For kids of all ages, Santa is more than a toymaker, gift-giver, or elf-in-chief. He's magic personified. He's a jolly old reminder  to never stop believing in the impossible.

"What Santa really does is he inspires hope," Santa Rick says. "We have to have hope to go on and that's really what Santa is. He's a toymaker, but he gives people hope and belief in the best of the best."

After this year, we could all use a little magic. Between international conflict, a tiring election, and Santa's own home melting away, there's a lot to be scared or worried about. But this is the season to hope, dream, and plan. To look ahead to the future with optimism and hope, even in the face of doubt.

No matter your age, background, or faith tradition, it feels good to believe in the impossible. After all, hope is the one thing Santa always delivers.

Photo courtesy of Santa Rick.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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