Karl “Charly” Horn has been the centerpiece of Coke’s Christmas campaign in Austria for nearly a decade.

As Coke’s official Santa, Horn has become a well-established Christmas icon and somewhat of a local celebrity. With his bushy white beard (real, of course), curly hair and jolly “Ho! Ho! Ho!”, he’s a hit with kids and adults alike.

But there's more to Horn than his smiles and familiar red suit. For much of his life, he worked as a policeman in Vienna. Having seen a much darker side of life, he now revels in working with Coca-Cola to spread happiness and optimism at Christmas time.

We caught up with Horn at the peak of the holiday season to hear about what the role means to him and how it affects others.

How did your life as Austria’s favorite Santa begin?

I have long hair and a big bushy beard – nearly untameable. I only trust my own hairdresser with it, but when she became ill, my hair and beard started growing and growing. My wife used to tease me, saying I looked like Santa Claus, until one day, she saw an advertisement in the newspaper that Coca-Cola was on the lookout for a Santa. I applied, and when they saw my white beard and features, they thought I was the perfect fit.

What does the role entail, and why do you think it’s important?

Santa in Austria

Former policeman Karl 'Charly' Horn has traded in his patrol car for the Coca-Cola Christmas truck in Austria.

I’m very proud to be the Santa for such an iconic brand as Coca-Cola. It makes me happy to be able to make children and their parents smile. Being the face of the Coca-Cola Christmas campaign is also a serious matter. You bear responsibility for the company during events and interviews for radio and TV. Children want to see an authentic Santa, so I wear my beard all year round. I even get people asking me for a picture during my summer vacation when I’m in my bathing suit.

Can you tell us more about your previous life as a policeman?

As a policeman at the criminal investigation department, I came across violence, brutality and the darkest sides of human life. You see terrible things, and I even got shot on the job. I have seen the tears in the eyes of children who have witnessed crimes. It makes you think. You need a thick skin and strong personality, but it can be hard to leave the job behind when you get home.

How has this experience influenced your decision to work with Coca-Cola and its Christmas campaigns?

As Santa, you only see the joy and twinkles in the eyes of children, a real contrast to my former work on the force. I love children and have a son myself… being able to make them happy and have a wonderful Christmas is a real joy.

Do you become a different person when your work as Santa, or are you always this positive and optimistic?

I am who I am. It doesn’t matter if I wear a Santa suit or a t-shirt. I’m a happy man, a proud father and husband.

Is it hard to keep your beard in shape all year round?

Yes, it’s very time-consuming to groom my hair! But, as the official Coca-Cola Santa, I want to make a good impression all year round. Some people don’t believe that my beard is real, so I’ll let them have a little tug to confirm. “Oh, it really isn’t a fake!” is the usual response I get.

What has been your most memorable Christmas moment over the years?

One of the most moving moments was a visit to the Sankt Anna Children’s hospital in Vienna to meet children suffering from cancer. To see how they carry their illness with so much dignity was very impressive. I thought that, being a former policeman, I was hard-boiled, but seeing these children was very tough.

Apart from some of the harsh realities in life, I’ve luckily also had the opportunity to experience some incredible highs. When we made a stop in Salzburg with the Christmas tour, I was very tired and went to my hotel to get some sleep. Then the clerk asked me if it would be okay to take some photos. A group of 15 chief editors of the international press happened to be in the hotel, and they wanted to have their pictures taken with Santa. It was one of the funniest photo sessions in my time as Santa. I also get regular marriage proposals as Santa Claus – that’s not a joke!

Natasha Bedingfield with Santa

With pop star Natasha Bedingfield

Do you get recognized when you're ‘off duty’?

When I got into a car accident, I injured my Achilles’ tendon. They had to take me to the hospital. Word got around, and all the nurses and doctors were very excited to have Santa in the ER. Right before the operation, the anesthetist said to me: “My grandchildren will be very happy with me, because if do a good job they will get presents for Christmas!”

Why do you think Coca-Cola and Christmas are so closely connected in the public's imagination?

Coca-Cola’s Christmas celebrations have been unparalleled for decades. For many people, the Christmas season doesn’t start until the red Coca-Cola Christmas truck appears on TV. Christmas is a celebration for the entire family, and for many people, Coke is part of this tradition, too. I have come to know Coca-Cola for doing much more than day-to-day business – it aims to make a positive impact on local communities. The company places people at the center of its efforts, which I can only applaud.