Jeff Zimmerman begins growing his Santa beard in August. It grows in white and even curls.
"I love it when the kids ask me, 'are you real?' I always say, 'I was when I woke up this morning," he said, jingling sleigh-bells. "I try to make it as authentic as possible for the kids."
Zimmerman was one of eight volunteer Santas who climbed aboard Golden Gate fire trucks Christmas Eve morning. They drove around the fire district helping the real St. Nick toss candy canes to kids — Santa's annual practice run before his worldwide trek.
Zimmerman, who said he is "younger than the sun and older than dirt," stayed in character throughout the day.
What's your name?
"Kriss Kringle, of course," he said, as kids came running.
Dressed in a hand-sewn Santa suit, he threw them a fist-full of donated candy canes, taken from a large, red, velveteen sack.
"Ho, ho, ho, merry Christmas," he said.
The Christmas Eve tradition has been around for about 40 years in Golden Gate, said Battalion Chief Andy Krajewski, who has organized it the last 11.
"It's a way to give back to the community and bring some holiday cheer," Krajewski said. "It's a way to say thank you for supporting us."
Each truck follows a predetermined path and weaves through neighborhoods and apartment complexes for almost eight hours. They start around 8:30 a.m.
"The fun part is reaching in that bag and tossing out candy canes to the kids and seeing their smiles," Zimmerman said. "I really try to look out for the kids that don't have any."
That sentiment drives the event and draws in firefighters and engineers to drive the trucks on their day off.
"The kids really enjoy it," said Jason Borowski, a Golden Gate fire engineer who drove with his brother, David Borowski, a firefighter. "These aren't the fortunate kids areas. This is one of the highlights that the kids look forward to. It's nice to be able to do it and they get to see Santa and the fire trucks."
Most of the neighborhoods the trucks traverse are HUD housing, Zimmerman said.
As kids in neighborhoods spotted the fire truck, they ran behind it screaming and grinning. Parents came out to catch a glimpse.
"Like I always say," Zimmerman said. "You're never too old to believe."