BAXTER - It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
The mall is buzzing with holiday shoppers and children are lined up to visit Santa Claus. Well, not the real Santa Claus of course. While Santa is working steadily at the North Pole in these days before Christmas, pseudo-Santas stand in, taking gift orders from children around the world and reporting back to the real jolly fat man.
At the Westgate Mall in Brainerd/Baxter, Charlie Berns is the faux Santa, and an experienced one at that. Thousands of children have plopped on his knee for the past 20 years, revealing their greatest desires.
Berns, 78, looks forward to putting on the red Santa suit every year, and proudly says he has to wear a "belly booster" because his belly isn't quite jolly enough.
Although Berns isn't the real Santa Claus, he's the first to admit his white beard and rosy cheeks can even make non-believers do a double-take.
"I get recognized by my beard wherever I go," he said. "I'm a popular guy this time of year."
Berns stops shaving from Memorial Day until after Christmas each year to ensure his white beard will be full enough to resemble Santa's.
Berns said even before his hair was white, he still portrayed Santa often, showing up at day-care centers and even delivering Christmas gifts to people's homes.
"I look forward to (being Santa) every year," Berns said. "I enjoy the kids."
Favorite Christmas carol: "Silent Night."
Favorite holiday treat: "I'm a guy that'll eat most anything."
Favorite reindeer: Rudolph.
Best thing about the holiday season: "I enjoy seeing all the decorations in the stores."
Strangest gift someone has asked for this year: A treehouse.
Worst thing about playing the Easter Bunny: The hot bunny suit.
Biggest change you've seen in kids through the years: "I think they're better behaved than when I first started."
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Like Santa, Berns enjoys woodworking and has a wood shop behind his Baxter home. He's made most of the furniture in his home himself, and is currently finishing up his latest creation, a toy box to be given to a yearning child.
Remember, Berns isn't the real Santa Claus.
Berns moved to Baxter in 1973 and worked as assistant manager for National Foods, a grocery store that was in the Advanced Auto Parts building on Washington Street in Brainerd. He is a widower and has three children, but doesn't see them often.
Dressing up as Santa and seeing children's eyes light up when they see him is what drives Berns to put on the Santa suit each year.
On the busiest days, Berns said about 100 children line the mall's hallway, waiting their turn to tell him what they want for Christmas.
"It makes me feel real good that they come in to see Santa Claus," he said.
This year, Berns said the most popular gift children are requesting is the Xbox 360, but the classic requests of ponies and remote-controlled cars also rank high on the list.
Berns also judges the Westgate Mall's holiday decorating contest and in March he dresses up as the mall's Easter Bunny.
"That's what keeps me going, this little job of being Santa Claus - and the Easter Bunny," he said.
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