DECATUR - Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without Santa Claus, and for Mike and Judy Dulaney of Decatur, the man in red and his wife, Mrs. Claus, have become a big part of their lives.
The Dulaneys have been dressing up as the jolly couple for decades, spreading holiday cheer to children and adults alike.
"This is my 30th year (as Santa)," said Mike Dulaney, who was decked out as Santa for "Breakfast with Santa" at the Children's Museum of Illinois earlier this month.
"One year, he just said, ‘You know what I've always wanted to do? Play Santa Claus,' " said Judy Dulaney, who has been accompanying him as Mrs. Claus for nearly 20 years. "We just love doing this."
And it shows. The two have put a lot of effort into their portrayal of Santa and Mrs. Claus, from their homemade costumes to the way they interact with kids.
"It was hard for us to find a costume we liked," Judy said. "He didn't want a typical suit, so I found a pattern and bought some nice fabric and made his costume myself."
Judy also fashioned a belly for her husband out of a pillowcase she stuffed, while they found his first wig and beard at Haines & Essick.
"He's gone through about seven or eight beards and wigs," she added. "They were hard to find in the beginning, but now we buy them at Dallas and Co. in Champaign. (His costume) is just a big conglomeration."
Mrs. Claus' costume was easier to make, Judy Dulaney said, but disguising herself, especially around friends and family, was much harder.
"Mike gets to cover his face with a beard, but Mrs. Claus doesn't cover her face, so when the grandkids were younger, I couldn't dress up as Mrs. Claus because I knew they'd recognize me."
While the Dulaneys have volunteered to dress up at many Christmas events, they enjoy parties with family and friends the most.
"Ninety-nine percent of what we do is at people's homes," Judy Dulaney said, adding that some of the pair's favorite memories have come from those occasions. "He has been left out in the rain before. One year, he rang the doorbell at a house and a little girl answered the door and said, ‘It's Santa!' and slammed the door; she was so excited."
The Dulaneys also have had the opportunity to see that same sense of wonder and excitement in their grandchildren.
"One of the cutest experiences we've had involved our granddaughter," Judy Dulaney said. "She was about 2 1/2 or 3 at the time. We were at a big family Christmas party, and he came out dressed up as Santa, and all of a sudden, she said, ‘That's my Papaw!' Of course, all of the adults gasped, but the other kids didn't seem to catch it.
"She was very good about it, too. She sat on (Mike's) lap and never asked him any questions about being Santa, and when he told (the kids) he had to leave, she said softly, ‘It's time for him to turn back into my Papaw.' It's like she knew someone's grandpa had to be Santa, and it just happened to be hers. It was this magical thing."
The Dulaneys said most kids are receptive to visiting with them and having their pictures taken, but certain age groups are more timid.
"The 2- and 3-year-olds are more shy," Mike Dulaney said, "and by 7 or 8, sometimes they think they're too old to visit Santa."
"The good thing about him is that he talks very quietly and doesn't force kids to come see him," Judy Dulaney said. "He doesn't want them afraid of Santa. Sometimes, having Mrs. Claus there helps, too. I usually have candy to hand out to (the kids)."
Mike Dulaney said that over the years, he's also learned to handle gift requests creatively.
"I don't promise anything," he said with a smile, acknowledging that he is often asked for pets, such as puppies, kittens and ponies.
"He usually says, ‘I'll see what I can do,' " Judy Dulaney said.
Putting people in the Christmas spirit is an enjoyable and fulfilling job for the Dulaneys, who note that sometimes the biggest lessons they learn about the season of giving come from visiting those who are ill or less fortunate.
"The only place we'll visit on Christmas Eve is usually St. Mary's (Hospital)" to visit the very ill, Judy Dulaney said.
"It's heart-wrenching, especially when someone says, ‘Santa, I just want to go home,' " Mike Dulaney said.
In sad and happy times, however, the Dulaneys said they can't think of a better job to have.
"The kids are the best part," Judy Dulaney said. "They're just unbelievable, and they get so excited. And after doing this for so many years now, we're starting to see second generations of kids."
Mike Dulaney agreed, saying there's no greater reward than making people happy at Christmastime.
"I had someone at one of the hospitals follow me around one year, and he kept asking me how much Santa gets paid," Mike Dulaney said. "After visiting with some of the kids, one came up to me and gave me a big hug and said, ‘I love you, Santa Claus,' and I said, ‘That's my payment.'
"What keep us going are the kids and their little faces."