Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus’ beard is real

Mark Nettleship, International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas member, has been bringing cheer for 40 years
December 23, 2022

For the past two months, my every-other-week turn for a column has fallen on the Friday of two major holidays – Halloween and Thanksgiving. In both instances, I wrote about something that had nothing to do with either subject.

I knew that wasn’t going to be the case this month when I ran into Mark Nettleship, Bernice Newman and Mike Carey dressed as Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and Hermie the Elf at the Community Unity Dinner in Rehoboth Beach a few weeks ago. The event tends to be one that attracts adults, so the trio wasn’t too busy granting Christmas wishes, but they came prepared with Christmas magic just in case – a container of “snow” from the North Pole; a Christmas light that only lit up when everyone in the group held hands; a full-sized sleigh. The cherry on top (or maybe in this case the red bulb on top of Rudolf’s nose) was when Nettleship presented me his business card, which said he’s a member of the IBRBS’s Mid-Atlantic chapter.

Now, I want you to stop reading this column for a second and think about what IBRBS could possibly stand for. If you guessed International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, then I’ve got a handshake for you next time we cross paths, because I had no idea what it was until I asked him.

I followed up with Nettleship not too long after the dinner and we met up at the McDonald’s on Route 113 in Milford. He didn’t show up for the interview dressed as Santa, but he was wearing a red jacket with “Do You Believe in SC” embroidered on the left chest. He said he always wears something red.

Nettleship, 64, said he first played the role of Santa at the age of 24, when someone from his apartment complex asked him to for the kids. It came easy, he said, because he’s a big guy – he stands 6-feet-6-inches, has had a beard since he was 17 and was already turning gray.

“I was completely gray by the time I was 25,” he said.

Nettleship grew up near Baltimore. He said Newman and Carey are longtime friends from the area who have been working with him for years. He moved to Felton a few years ago after – I swear he said this – he fixed up a few sleighs and was able to make a down payment on a new house. He still travels back to Maryland’s Western Shore frequently – he was heading to Baltimore soon after our interview was over.

Nettleship said he comes from a family who not only enjoyed giving back to the community, but thought giving back to the community was a necessary part of being a part of that community. He said his parents owned a restaurant for decades, and they would feed the homeless on Thanksgiving, Christmas and every other Thursday.

“It’s so rewarding,” he said.

Nettleship takes that same feeling of community to his Santa assignments.

“You just never know what someone is going through when you’re talking with them,” he said.

There’s always the ornery adolescent or the grumpy adult, but Nettleship said he tries to distract them by asking questions and listening. 

“You never know what someone is going through,” he repeated. “I just try to get them out of their hateful mood; to bring them a little cheer. I try to show them that the magic of Christmas is here, in their heart.”

During the interview, Nettleship produced a few two-sided, half-dollar-sized gold coins with “Believe” on one side and “I met Santa; I made the nice list” on the other. He said he carries 50 to 100 of them almost all the time and he might give out 10,000 coins in a year.

Having embraced his Santa Clausness years ago, Nettleship knows he looks like Santa. He gave a perfect example. Following each holiday season, Nettleship and a handful of other Santas often gather someplace warm to unwind, because six weeks of ho-ho-hoing around the Mid-Atlantic is stressful.

“It’s hard not to notice us when we’re walking around acting all jolly,” he said.

The real reason I reached out to Nettleship was that I wanted him to draw a hard line in the sand on real beards versus fake beards, but he refused to talk ill of other Santas. Instead, he said it’s more about effort than authenticity when it comes to the beards.

“There are good fakes and there are bad fakes. When I see a Santa with a bad fake, I’m probably going to ask them to upgrade to one made out of yak hair,” he said. “At conventions, the next generation of guys who are interested in becoming Santas – guys who are 18 or 19 years old – look like they’re 45 by the time they’re all done getting a beard and makeup on. There are designer beards out there that when they’re on, a person can’t tell they’re fake.”

Nettleship may appreciate effort, but he’s always going to keep his beard. He said it stays long all year.

“I’ll trim up the edges, but I’ve never shaved it off, so it stays nice and soft,” he said.

Joke of the Week:

This week isn’t all about Christmas – the eight nights of Hanukkah began Dec. 19 and the winter solstice was Dec. 21. Mother Nature took the opportunity to play a joke on us with the recent winter temperatures, so I chose a joke related to Hanukkah. As always, send jokes to

Q: What do you call a speck that falls into the latke pan?

A: An unidentified frying object.


  • Chris Flood has lived in or visited family in Delaware his whole life. He grew up in Maine, but a block of scrapple was always in the freezer of his parents’ house during his childhood. Contact him at

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