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Santa's Off-Season Means Counting the Days Till Christmas

By Brigid Schulte
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page C05

Santa Claus has an unlisted number. Finding him in the post-holiday doldrums of January requires a drive to his peach-colored townhouse in Fairfax County's Kingstowne.

The green Ford van parked out front reads "5ANTAC." He peeks through the Venetian blinds upstairs and, after a few moments, answers the door.

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He was surfing the Web, he explains.

He's wearing black slippers, green sweat pants and gold-rimmed spectacles. His great belly strains against a white T-shirt. His usual long white beard is trimmed. His white hair, which until just a few weeks ago fell luxuriously to his neck, is clipped short. This, he will explain, is his off-season Kenny Rogers look.

Inside, in a compact living room containing Santa statues and Nutcracker dolls, he shows you the oversize brass Santa key he carries, the one he twirls for children in answer to their questions about how he gets into houses without chimneys.

Then he asks if you want to see his new wedding pictures. Mrs. Claus, he assures you, is no dumpy granny in a bun.

Donald De Lap, 65, is a professional Santa. In December, nobody can get enough of him -- the Elks lodge, company parties. He has 15 or 20 bookings at $100 an hour.

But by January, he's old news.

"To come down off being Santa . . . " he says as he pauses, shifts in his easy chair and sighs. "I think it would be even worse if I didn't shave off my beard and cut my hair."

If he doesn't trim his beard -- which he starts growing June 1 -- people call out, "Why are you still here?"

This January is better. He's planning a Caribbean cruise honeymoon with Mrs. Claus -- Karen Bundy, a svelte blonde who's 16 years his junior.

From the photos, their Dec. 18 wedding looks more like it took place at the North Pole than the VFW Hall. Both De Lap and Bundy wore Santa suits, hers a fur-trimmed miniskirt. Tiny candy canes sprinkled her bouquet. They took their vows standing on a snowflake-speckled red Christmas tree skirt under an arch of poinsettias and white lights. Tiny green Christmas trees and a Rudolph graced their wedding cake.

The couple didn't ask for gifts. They asked guests to make donations to children's charities. About the only un-Santa-like moment came when the preacher used De Lap's name for the vows.

"Probably half the people there found out what my real name was right then," he says, chuckling. "Everyone calls me Santa."

He wasn't always Santa. He was a trim, clean-shaven Army man for 20 years. He was wounded in Vietnam, patrolled the Demilitarized Zone in Korea and the border in Germany and served in the honor guard at Arlington National Cemetery. He did maintenance work after that.

His transformation began when his knees gave out. He retired. Two knee replacement surgeries left him sedentary. And, he says, patting his ample stomach, "I like my eats."

Then his wife of 36 years died about Christmastime six years ago. The holiday became unbearable. His twin brother, Dave, was making a good living in California as a shopping mall Santa -- some make as much as $35,000 in 30 days -- so he began to grow a beard. "I was so heartbroken," he says. "I needed to do something to keep active."

He got hooked on the joy in kids' faces. Now it's pretty much all he does. In the off-season, he reads books, such as "101 Questions to Ask Santa." He cruises the Internet for tidbits -- such as the flying reindeer must be female because males lose their antlers in November. He watches children's television to keep up with the latest toys.

He pours some homemade eggnog, offers one of Mrs. Claus's peanut logs and sends you on your way.

"There's only 353 days to Christmas!"


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