Behind the Beard

This year, this Southern-style St. Nick has been working on his “close up.” At press time he had already received 120 Skype calls from children all around the world. (Opposite page) Santa’s favorite vacation destination? The Emerald Coast, of course. Photo courtesy Allison Yii
Behind the Beard Sandestin’s Usry keeps Christmas “Real” By Zandra Wolfgram

It’s not surprising to hear that Santa Claus lives in Niceville. He drives a Christmas-red VW beetle with “Jolly 1” on the license plate; has a dog named Maybelle; is fond of live theater, movies and working on puzzles to pass the time. He’s a bit of a self-professed recluse who’s “not much of a public figure,” but it works out because he “has a lot to think about” when he has downtime.

Meet Tommy Usry, Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort’s graphic designer, most of the time, and St. Nick most holiday seasons — at least this side of the North Pole.

Too modest to dare to claim greatness — just yet — Usry, a spry Santa with 10 years under his black leather belt, is just easing into his 50s. Careful not to rub any “seasoned” Santas the wrong way, Usry demurely says he “strives to be a great Santa” and one day, when the time is right and the beard is all white, his goal is to be known as “the Santa” to those who want to know.

With his wavy hair, bearded face, smiling blue eyes and a tummy any authentic Santa would give a red sack for, Usry is a natural. But donning his red velvet suit and his real leather boots, and cinching his thick, custom-made belt isn’t done cavalierly. “What might set me apart is I’m always Santa,” Usry says matter-of-factly. “When you’re not in character, you still have to be Santa in your mind and heart all year. I want to keep Christmas real to me, and that’s a year-round thing.”

His office, a.k.a “workshop,” decked with holiday cards, ornaments and Santa figurines, is proof positive that this St. Nick is in the spirit. And if that isn’t convincing, certainly the holiday carols that hum from his cheery red car year-round might be.

Proudly old-fashioned, Usry is fond of nostalgic notions such as courting, hand-crafted wooden toys and a good glass of homemade ice tea. He realizes he may sound a bit cynical about this day and age. “The twinkle in the eye of today’s generation Santa is not as bright as it used to be,” he observes. “He should be able to do more than just offer a sit on the lap. He should be able to interact more with kids, as well as adults.”

Usry gets that chance each holiday season when he performs Santa Tuck Ins, an exclusive holiday offering for Sandestin resort guests who want the jolly one to spend some quality time reading a holiday story and posing for a keepsake photo with their little ones before they are tucked in for the night. And, for the first time this year, little ones coming to Sandestin will be able to run down their wish list with Santa via Skype. 

But being Santa isn’t all just milk and cookies, for 10 years Usry has defied gravity (and tradition) by making his annual arrival to onlookers at Silver Sands Factory Stores via helicopter. Theatrics don’t faze this Santa. He has also made his entrance on a fire truck, horse and carriage and zip line. One year, thanks to local magician Rick Moore, he appeared right out of thin air. No sleigh is necessary for this seasonal superhero.

His farewells are just as memorable. After he’s filled each tiny palm with a candy cane from his “jingle bag,” he likes to drive off in his red VW Beetle humming with holiday tunes. “Sometimes a good send-off is even better than a grand entrance,” he says.

Whether he’s causing a stir coming or going, Usry’s authentic portrayal has not gone unnoticed. “Tommy is a treasure,” says Laurie Hobbs, director of public relations and marketing for Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. “He has a passion to be the best Santa ever, treating children with respect, attention and care.”

Usry is concerned for the future of “real” Santas. According to his colleagues in The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS), there are more Santas retiring than there are young St. Nicks coming into the fold. “In 10 years we could have a real Santa shortage,” Usry confides. Still, he tries to look at the bright side, saying, “It means more demand I guess.” And he refuses to be glum about it. For Usry, the only type of Santa worth his sleigh bells is one who is truly jovial. “I want to put the ‘J’ back in jolly,” he says with a grin.

Usry welcomes each wrinkle as he moves closer to his goal — being Santa au natural. Though his crown is brown, this Santa aficionado is willing to go to extremes to take his “Santa-ness to the next level.” Each fall he makes an annual appointment at a local salon to be “Santafied,” because he confesses, “even celebrities need a little help” to play the role of their dreams.

Driven and sustained by his “deep down faith,” Usry apparently wants to put the “S” back in the spirit of Christmas, too. “People say you can’t say the meaning of Christmas is through Santa, but you can,” he offers. “Santa is about being selfless, inspiring children, giving hope and trying to find the good in everyone."


Santa Sightings

  • Silver Sands Factory Stores, Dec. 3, 10:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.
    Grand Boulevard at Sandestin, Dec. 3, 10, 17, 24, 2–4 p.m.
    Destiny Worship Center, Dec. 17, 10 a.m.–noon