As Doug and Lynn Starcher put on costumes to transform into Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, she helped him affix a pillow to his stomach with duct tape, strap on a big black belt, and secure the unruly wig covering his head and much of his face.
Doug returned the favor by tying his wife’s Mrs. Claus dress in the back and straightening her red, faux-fur-lined cap.
“There’s no other way to do this other than by helping each other,” Doug said, laughing.
What sets the Starchers and other local couples apart from the sea of Santas to be found during the holiday season is that they’re a real-life couple who unite to help bring magic to the masses. They say it’s something special they do together.
Doug, 65, initially took on the role solo in 2020, when Downtown Bellingham Partnership asked him to portray the big guy in red as a way to activate events during the pandemic. The first year, “Santa” was in a tent in the alley behind Boundary Bay Brewery and people could drive through or walk up to take photos.
Lynn, 75, came aboard the following year as Mrs. Claus, and the couple’s appearance Nov. 26 at the Boundary Bay deck was the best-attended yet.
“There are kids that we’ve been the only Santa they’ve ever known,” Doug said.
“And then there are kids who have seen several Santas, so they want to know ‘Are you the real Santa?’ and ‘Can I see your sleigh?’” Lynn added. “So you have to think fast, right? I’ll tell them, ‘Well, Santa is magical, so when he lands the sleigh, he magics it away so you can’t see it — and does the same thing with the reindeer.’”
Doug said most of the kids they meet are duly enchanted, while others are just going along with the ruse as they tell the Clauses what they want for Christmas. Either way, he said, he and Lynn are both mindful of keeping the Santa secret intact.
“I can’t walk into the restaurant and take off my beard and eat a hamburger,” he said.
The duo will appear from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9 at Culture Cafe in downtown Bellingham, and the event is open to kids, adults and even dogs. Hot chocolate will be provided, and food and drink can be purchased.
A couple of tips the Starchers use to pull off their roles is calming down scared kids by having them count down “1-2-3, pizza!” when they’re getting photos taken, and using their costumes to help them get into character.
For Lynn, she transforms into Mrs. Claus when the dress comes on. For Doug, it’s the Santa hat.
When asked what other advice they’d give to wannabes, Doug was quick with an answer.
“Don’t do it if you don’t want to try and make it magic,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. And you’ve got to have fun. You can’t be cranky and do this — that’s impossible.”
“That would be like Scrooge doing it before his transformation,” Lynn added.
A labor of love
When Shannon and Peter Day started their gig as Santa Claus and “Missus” Claus (Shannon’s spelling) for Fairhaven Winterfest 10 years ago, Peter already had previously taken on the role at the former Harley’s shop in downtown Bellingham.
“The trick is being very patient with children and trying not to force them to sit on my lap,” Peter, 59, said of his Santa evolution.
Shannon, 49, added they always provide a bench so kids can sit near Santa, not necessarily on his lap, and encourage families to get in on the photo opportunities. She also tells the parents that if big people are brave, little people will be brave.
Up to this point, Shannon said, portraying the spouses from the North Pole has been a “labor of love” for them.
Although this is the first year they won’t be part of Fairhaven Winterfest, the Days have been doing private events this month and will be at a public “Cookies and Cocoa with Santa” holiday party from 2–3:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9 in Blaine at American Legion Post #86. Missus Claus will venture out without Santa for a Christmas Carol-Oke! event at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 21 at the Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon, where she’ll be in the lobby beforehand for photo-ops.
“Be nice to the people you’re waiting in line with,” Shannon said when asked what families visiting the Clauses with children should be aware of. “Set the kids up that this is magic. If you have kids that still believe, I’m as real as you want me to be.”
She also advises that visitors meeting with any holiday doppelgängers be kind to each other, as well as to Santa and his helpers. Also, if you put a child in Santa’s lap, don’t let them have a candy cane in hand.
“It’s the bane of the beard,” Shannon said.
Another hard-and-fast rule they have is that they will never tell the kids asking for live animals as gifts that they’ll get them.
“You can ask for the moon, but not for a kitten,” Shannon said, pointing out it’s too big of a commitment.
Peter and Shannon were involved with The Upfront Theatre in Bellingham for many years, and they say knowing how to improvise was key to nailing their roles.
“I think the biggest thing is not being too gregarious,” Peter said, noting he’s more apt to draw out a “hello” for 20 seconds than belting out “ho-ho-ho” on a regular basis. “Be a little of yourself, but don’t be intimidating. Let them come to you.”
Shannon said to make the couple’s characters even more believable, they’ve stopped wearing gloves during Santa meetups so people can see their wedding rings.
“As hard as everything is, Peter and I have been married for 28 years,” she said. “I’m not me without him, and he’s not him without me.”