SNELLVILLE - Rick Hyman knows the world is full of unpleasant realities of war, poverty and despair.

He fought in Vietnam, walked among Filipino street children begging for food and spent years with Federal Aviation Administration security, traveling across the world to protect the United States from people who wanted to destroy it.

At 59, Hyman could become an old grump who rants against the unfairness of life like cynics half his age.

Instead, the Snellville man dresses in handmade red velvet suits, grows his hair and beard long and bleaches them white.

Hyman is perfecting a tradition started centuries ago by St. Nicholas of Myra, a bishop known for his generous gifts to the poor. But the children who tell Hyman their Christmas wishes and give him hugs know him simply as Santa Claus.

"What better job is there than to make children, or people for that matter, believe in the joy of Christmas?" Hyman said while enjoying milk and cookies at the Snellville Borders bookstore.

He has been playing Santa for decades, whether for his grandchildren or the kids he met in his government travels abroad in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.

It started with an inexpensive red suit and a fake beard, and he and friends always gave gifts to the poverty-stricken children in Brussels and Manila. But like hundreds of other Kris Kringles across the United States, Hyman is taking the role of Santa to an art.

Attention to detail is the key.

He has been in character since September. He wears Santa clothes made by his Norcross seamstress. His six outfits include big, red puffy shirts with suspenders, bib overalls and a $1,500 velvet suit.

He is one of about 650 members of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, and he spent seven hours at the hairdresser earlier this fall to turn his hair and whiskers white.

This year was the first time he attended the International University of Santa Claus, where he learned the finer points of "Santa Clausology."

"The Ho-Ho-Ho has to come from down here, in the gut," Hyman said, pointing to his stomach.

Sometimes the world of Santa and Rick Hyman the Georgia football fan collide. When the Bulldogs played the University of Florida in Jacksonville this fall, Hyman was already in character for the holiday season and had to attend a post-game party dressed in Santa garb.

Naturally, a woman wanted her picture with St. Nick. The problem: She had a cocktail in her hand.

"What if a photographer was at the party?" Hyman said. "I could just see the headline in the paper: 'Santa goes drinking.' I couldn't risk that."

To Hyman, the most important thing about playing Santa is making children believe in the Christmas spirit.

Recently, an inquisitive child spotted him at a local Office Depot. At first, the child thought the sight of Santa among computer accessories and fax machines didn't make sense.

"He looked dead in my eyes and said, 'What are you doing here?'" Hyman said. "I said, 'Working my way back up North.' Then he said, "'Santa, I was bad last year, but this year I've been real good.'"

It's those kinds of moments that mean the most to Hyman.

"I cannot be the one to break the belief in Santa," he said. "How could I be the one to ever tell them differently?"