Howdy and a Ho Ho Ho
By Babs Rodriguez
Photos by Ralph Lauer
He’s got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle. And what could be a better soundtrack for Cowboy Santa?
We meet him in front of the Cowtown Coliseum, his red velvet suit accented with a green waistcoat. A white Stetson keeps the cold rain from splattering his gold-rimmed spectacles. The silver beard is a shining beacon on a dreary day.
We watch as Cowboy Santa delivers big doses of happiness wherever his bespoke red-and-white stingray cowboy boots take him on a chilly Monday morning in the Fort Worth Stockyards. Nearby construction workers at the new ice-skating rink smile and snap pictures; restaurant workers on their way to work smile and nod. His fancy footwear is more than a fashion statement. “Stingray is durable and hard to scuff,” he says. “One hazard of the job is having dozens of children step on your feet every day.”
Alter ego Mike “Mickey” Richardson knows this from more than 20 years as Cowboy Santa, a tenure that began at World Cutting Horse Association shows in Fort Worth. For a time, he made his arrival aboard a buffalo, but other bookings have included revved-up entrances on a motorcycle while wearing his signature red leathers. Whatever the event, Richardson — blue eyes twinkling — creates Christmas magic.
We witnessed his power at the nearby Hotel Drover, where a small redheaded boy caught sight of the celebrity and immediately began hyperventilating. Cowboy Santa leaned forward, in what we later learned is a calming move when wrangling excited kids, and softly asked the boy his name. Much spluttering ensued until Mom, equally flushed with excitement, answered. Santa suggested the boy might like to stand next to him. “You never force them to sit on your knee,” he told us. “But often they clamber up after you chat a minute.”
The gleeful ginger struck a pose just long enough for his parents to snap photos, then began running in circles like a puppy chasing its tail. “It’s Santa, it’s Santa, it’s Santa,” he chanted. Asked what he wanted for Christmas, the boy paused then exclaimed: “A piano!” Santa nodded his head with a no-problem solemnity and the family turned to leave, grins equally wide on all faces.
Richardson, who grew up in Alvarado, says of becoming Santa, “It was an unexpected turn, especially for a former Marine.” It was a chance meeting with a well-established Santa at Kevin Costner’s South Dakota ranch that forever altered Richardson’s path. The seasoned professional encouraged Richardson, there as a historical reenactor, to take advantage of his showstopping beard (now naturally silver; bleaching was involved in earlier years), and soon after tapped him to fill a booking at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Stints at Fort Worth-area malls followed and segued into engagements at special events and corporate parties. But because keeping a list of naughty and nice folks requires Santa to be everywhere at once, Richardson grew a business along with his whiskers. North Pole Productions now represents nine “naturally bearded” Santas, three of whom also identify as “Cowboy” Santas. All of the “brother Santas” are educated at Richardson’s North Pole University, where lessons include how to properly hold a child (fingers together and hands visible), folklore (he must know all the reindeer names) and a few trade secrets about ensuring a good photograph. Encouraging some gentle whisker tugging always confirms that Santa is the real deal.
The 79-year-old says his heart is vested in creating memories. “Making children happy is the job,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “There is nothing in the world more beautiful than a happy child.”