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Image: Santa Phil with baby girl
Portland Santa
"Santa Phil" has been playing the role of Santa Claus — and maintaining his natural, white beard — for the past 12 years. This year, he had to find a new place to set up shop.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 12/7/2011 8:26:56 AM ET 2011-12-07T13:26:56

In the Beach Boys’ hit “Santa’s Beard,” a 5-year-old tyke has a sad moment at the mall when he yanks the fake beard right off St. Nick’s chin.

You might say something similar is happening in Portland, Ore. — a place where the Santas don’t change much for decades at a time. Or at least they didn’t change much, until now.

This year, the Macy’s department store in downtown Portland opted to contract with a national vendor for its Santas rather than use the longtime Santas who have posed for photos with the same families for years. Parents, children and others who embrace the annual tradition have been shocked on two fronts: Where’s the Santa we know so well? And why is this new guy wearing a fake beard?

“I had been taking my kids there for 16 years — my youngest is 2 1/2 years old,” dad Nate Gibbons posted on Facebook. “Guess everything has to end, but they could at least use real beards!!!!!!!!!”

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A mom named Angela Keene McKennie shared similar sentiments on the same Facebook page, where Portland residents have been stewing over “Santagate.”

“We went to Macy's Santaland this year before we realized that a change had happened,” she wrote. “When we got there, the kids were confused that ‘the real Santa’ wasn’t there. Later, my 7-year-old said, ‘Mommy, I think he was wearing a fake beard.’ ”

In Portland, only a handful of locals have played the role of Santaland’s namesake for the past 50-plus years. Those men take the role seriously — grooming their luxurious natural beards year-round, maintaining a jolly demeanor, pretending to be “on vacation” when they bump into local kids around town during the summer months.

Vote: How important do you think it is for Santa Claus to have a real beard? (on this page)

Many families make a point of taking family photos with the same Santa year after year. Santa remains a constant figure who watches little kids grow up to be big kids, and is sometimes still around when those big kids grow up and have children of their own. One Santa worked for 25 years straight, said Joe Hawes, the man who’s been staffing Santaland with true-to-life Santas since the early 1980s.

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“I’ve been doing this my whole adult life, so it’s a real personal loss to me not to be involved with Santaland this year,” said Hawes, 54. “This year they notified us that, for the sake of corporate uniformity, they’re going to have the Santas look like they do on the East coast — costume-bearded Santas, so every Santa can look the same in every Macy’s store.”

In a statement to TODAY.com, Macy’s said its Santaland experience in Portland “has a new look while retaining its holiday traditions,” and “Santa is wearing a classic St. Nick suit.” Macy’s did not comment on the beard issue.

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When Hawes first started providing Santa-staffing services in Portland, Santaland was situated inside a Meier & Frank store. The store became a Macy’s in 2006. During the peak holiday season, either the “morning Santa” or the “afternoon Santa” would be present for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Parents would call ahead so they’d know when they could take family photographs with Santa Phil, a 12-year veteran, or Santa Tom, who’s played St. Nick for seven years.

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“These two Santas in particular are gentle souls, loving and caring — they’re just natural Santas,” Hawes said. “The family visit with Santa is such a personal thing. It’s not just a public display that’s inanimate. It’s personal and emotional, especially for young children, and for people who have built this into their annual family traditions, it’s very significant.”

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So many Portland residents have shown such devotion to Santa Phil and Santa Tom that Hawes’ company, Portland Santa, has found a new space for people to visit with them this year. From Dec. 14 to 24, the natural-bearded Santas will be on hand in a custom-built house in Pioneer Courtyard Square, right next to the big Christmas tree at the corner of Morrison and Broadway in downtown Portland.

“We are so gratefully overwhelmed by our customers, and both Santas have literally been brought to tears,” Hawes said. “They’re so happy to be back.”

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

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