By Greg Gelpi
Children walk up to him cautiously and give his beard a little tug.
His graying beard, more salt than pepper, adds to his round face, warm eyes and jovial nature, all trademarks of Santa's helper.
"A lot of kids will see me in the store and say, 'Hey mommy. There's Santa Claus,"' Herbert Erholm, 67, said. "I'll smile and look at them and say 'Yeah, I'm watching you.'"
Erholm, a retired New Jersey police officer from Forest Park, has undergone a steady transformation each year for more than 15 years to become Santa Claus for the Jonesboro Christmas Parade.
Since Santa himself is putting the final touches on toys for the world's children and tuning up the old sleigh, Erholm serves as Santa's helper, letting his boss know who has been good and who has been bad.
From traditional gifts to more out of this world ideas, such as rockets, children plop into his lap and detail their Christmas fantasies.
"Mostly, they get their eyes wide open," Erholm said, expressing their "awe" at speaking with him. "I do it just for the kids. I don't do it for hire."
Although he's a candidate for a hip replacement, that won't stop Santa's helper from spreading the Christmas spirit.
"That's what I told my doctor," Erholm said. "I can't do anything until after the first of the year. Santa Claus has too many places to be."
His grandchildren, ages 7 and 9, discovered his connections to Santa last year and dress up as elves, Santa's helper's helpers.
Erholm has appeared at schools, events and parades, he said, including Saturday's parade in Jonesboro.
Letting his beard grow out, stuffing his cheeks with cotton balls and dying his hair to match that of the real Santa Claus, Erholm said it will take him more than a hour to dress the part of jolly old St. Nick, so that he can ride atop a fire engine Saturday.
"You can't just jump into it," he said. "You have to do it just right."
Festivities start at 10 a.m. Saturday for the Christmas activities. The parade will roll at 4:30 p.m., and a street dance will follow with arts and crafts, food and vendors.
According to The-North-Pole.com, the tradition of Santa Claus was brought to this county in the 17th century based on the Dutch legend of Sinter Klaas. Santa became "his fully Americanized form" in Clement Clarke Moore's The Night Before Christmas in 1823.
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