Clarence Zieglar learned about being a hero working as a D.C. firefighter for the last five years. This year, though, he has learned that being willing to pull a victim from a burning building or endanger his life to extinguish a fire threatening a family’s home are not the only skills that qualify him as a hero.

Since Dec. 4, he has been chatting up children about the importance of completing even the hardest homework, obeying even the meanest teachers and eating all of their veggies—even the really yucky ones. He’s been doing all that while holding his own in conversations about the latest in Barbie dolls, Power Rangers and video games in his holiday role as Santa Claus at Forest Village Mall in Forestville, Md.

He works two days a week as a firefighter and five as Santa, donning the trademark red-and-white suit and snowy beard and sitting for hours as children from tiny to teen stop by his station to share their Christmas gift lists and pose with him for pictures.

For the children who were nervous, Zieglar took extra care. An uneasy toddler was treated to a brief game of peek-a-boo to break the ice. With braver children, he went straight into the act.

“How are you, little girl? What can Santa get you for Christmas?” Zieglar asked a particularly precocious 7-year-old girl dressed head-to-toe in red and white.

“Lipstick and lip gloss!” the child squealed as she turned her face toward the camera, set her pose and prepared to take a photo.

Though they dream of Santa climbing down their chimneys with toys and trinkets, for many children the ultimate holiday thrill is meeting Santa and Zieglar makes sure that he makes the experience a positive one.

Born and raised in Clinton, a few miles from the mall, Zieglar said he doesn’t remember ever going to see Santa Claus as a child, though he has vivid recollections of the Easter bunny. Single and childless, he applied for the position as Forest Village’s Santa after seeing an ad on Craigslist while looking for work to complement his firefighter earnings.

“I thought it would be a great way to make some extra money, plus give back to my community,” he said. “I’m a very personable guy so I knew I would perfect for it.”

On a recent Saturday, children and parent alike basked in his exuberance as he lured children in with shouts of “Ho!Ho!Ho!” and sent each one away with a jolly “Merry Christmas!”

Santa Claus is expected to appear at Forest Village Mall through Christmas Eve.

{Christina Sturdivant contributed to this report.}