WOODBURY, Minn. (CNS) -- Bob Mathewson got a celebrity's welcome at St. Ambrose of Woodbury Catholic School one early December morning.
All it took were three simple words: "Ho ho ho."
Well, the bright red velvet suit and white beard had a little something to do with it, too.
Not to mention the bell jingling in his hand. As he made his way across the parking lot, a group of students just outside one of the school doors caught sight of him. They erupted in cheers as they hustled toward him.
Santa had arrived. In more than two decades of portraying the jolly gift giver, Mathewson, 59, appears to be a perfect replica, complete with a handmade suit, white hair and a real beard, plus a robust laugh made extra jolly from hundreds of gigs, skill building at Santa schools and a heart for bringing joy -- plus the true meaning of Christmas -- to children.
He delivers this message intentionally to as many audiences as he can, most explicitly with a custom-made belt buckle displaying the Nativity scene. He had it hand-painted with bright colors so it would stand out against his red velvet suit.
He took a day off from his job in cemetery operations and maintenance at Epiphany Church in Coon Rapids to visit St. Ambrose Dec. 4.
"Bob was born to be Santa Claus," said Father Thomas Dufner, pastor of Epiphany, where Mathewson is a member.
"He's got the build for it, he's got the beard for it, he's got the joy for it," the priest told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. "And, he loves the Lord and he loves the little kids."
And, they love him. Smiles and looks of awe and wonder lit up the faces of around 80 preschoolers at St. Ambrose's Early Childhood Education Center as they gathered to meet him and bring up toys they had brought in to donate to St. Joseph's Home for Children in Minneapolis.
Anne Huber, the education center's director, said Mathewson comes in "ready to engage the kids on their level" and "teach the kids "that it's not about getting gifts, but giving gifts."
"We just love him," Huber added. "He's so good with the kids. He's trying to serve the same purpose we are, and that is spreading the joy in trying to help others."
Mathewson's role as Santa began at a restaurant in the late 1980s. A store assistant manager at the time, he was asked to play Santa at a company party.
Though he did not yet have the white hair and beard, he "had the jollyness," said his wife, Nancy, who plays Mrs. ("Nana") Claus occasionally.
His next time in a red suit came when he was hired at Epiphany in 1997 and was recruited to play Santa at a Christmas party for fourth graders.
The joy on the kids' faces, and the joy he felt inside, led him to decide "this is something that I wanted to pursue and do more of."
Mathewson built his Santa skills and reputation over the next two-plus decades, and he now books more than 60 appearances annually.
A key part of his portrayal of Santa, and what people believe sets him apart, is his passion for expressing the true meaning of Christmas -- the birth of Christ. He tailors that message to his audience, using the warmth of his role to make that truth attractive and inviting.
"We talk about how grateful we are," said Mathewson, who became Catholic in 2000 and is a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus. "There's a little thing I do once in a while. I tell them not only God loves them, but Santa and Mrs. Claus do, too."
He connects the gift giving of the Christmas season to the gifts the Magi gave to the infant Jesus, and to the gift Jesus is to all of humanity.
"I'm not afraid to show what my belief is," he said, noting that most of the response to this has been positive.
Mathewson has honed his craft over the years by attending Santa schools and conventions, rubbing velvet shoulders with up to 100 Kris Kringles at a time.
One key to his success is a deep belly laugh that expresses on the outside what he feels on the inside. Sometimes, the red suit transforms his own mood.
"I can be feeling down, I can be feeling under the weather," he said. "And, I put on that suit, and it's like I'm a totally different person."
For Mathewson, underneath the red suit lies a desire to spread the joy of the Christmas season -- and its Christian meaning.
"It's hard for me to describe because it's just me," he said of the laughs, the smiles and the high-fives he likes to give children. "I feel peaceful doing it. It's not the best 'ho ho ho' every time."
But, it has a quality Mrs. Claus summed up in one word: "Heart.”