Monday, July 21, 2014

Beyond the beard

December 18. 2013 2:10AM

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Twas the weeks before Christmas when all through the malls,

The children did clamor to see old Santa Claus.

Though the real Kris Kringle these fellows in red may not be,

They can certainly pass for him, bringing joy to those who sit upon their knee.

They see all types of people, from the young to the old,

And have dealt with it all, from the good to the bold.

They lend an ear to those who rattle off what’s on their Christmas list,

And even hear stories of sorrow, hard times, and loved ones who are missed.

There’s a certain quality that comes along with being Saint Nick,

And the guys we have locally proved their worth quick.

So who are the ones who claim to come from the North? Men who have so many charming tales to bring forth.

We sat down with those of constant twinkles in their eyes, dug beyond the suit – and were pleasantly surprised.


To be in the presence of Santa at the Wyoming Valley Mall is to feel a sort of nervousness – the exact kind you got around the jolly man as a kid, because this mall Santa makes it seem as though Old Saint Nick really does exist and he’s sitting right in front of you.

The soft-spoken man in red (who actually hails from Michigan) handles a little girl too scared to get out of her stroller, a boy sporting a “Team Santa” shirt that’s brimming with excitement, and a tiny baby decked out in a Christmas dress with the same sense of calm and twinkle in his eye.

He is the spirit of Christmas personified, and it goes so much deeper than on-the-surface mannerisms.

Though Santa said he’s had a love of Christmas since childhood, his journey to becoming Father Christmas began only recently, thanks to his beard.

“I decided to grow my beard, and as it took shape, I noticed that kids were coming up to me and asking, ‘Are you Santa?’ and it made me feel good. So, I started to do some research, applied to the Charles Howard School, was accepted, and the rest is history.”

No stone is left unturned when it comes to being Santa. It can’t be, as for 49 straight days (with the exception of Thanksgiving), Santa works his mall magic. Prep is required each day, and this particular Santa breaks it down into a daily routine of running six miles, an hour of weightlifting, and an hour of actual Santa prep that includes beard maintenance, getting enough Vitamin C and prepping himself against sickness, and using peppermint oil to attain an authentic Santa scent.

Santa learned how to ready himself for the gig through the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Michigan in 2012, a course that ran for four days at 10 hours a day. It was there he experienced a broad spectrum of Santa education: the history of the holiday and the man himself, proper makeup and hair techniques, how to dress, and even some time spent in a toy shop actually building toys by hand. He is fluent in Armenian and Arabic and is also being able to speak a bit of Turkish, French, and Spanish. He also received specialized training working with autistic children and, last Christmas season, showed another talent of his that had a mother in tears.

“When the child and his brother sat down on my lap, I had no idea he was hearing-impaired and couldn’t speak,” he began his tale, the tears already welling up in the corners of his eyes. “I thought maybe he was just a quiet boy until we were finished and he told me, ‘Thank you,’ in sign language. I communicated back to him in the same way, and you could see how happy he was. His brother was in shock; his mother was crying.

“It felt like…” he pauses to take a breath and compose himself. “This is the reason I do this. To bring this type of joy and happiness, and a voice to this child that he didn’t have before. His mother told me that for years he had never spoken to a stranger because they couldn’t speak back to him and, yet, Santa could.”

That’s what it’s all about for Santa: bringing joy to others. He retired at the young age of 36 from a career of working in IT and computer science, and as a mathematician, and now he spends all the time he can giving back. He said his life follows “somewhat of a Buddhist and Christian type of way of living,” and spends his off-season contributing to charities, particularly children afflicted with leukemia. Such generosity shines through even during Kris Kringle duties.

Santa encountered a child who explained to him that he had no parents, he was a foster child with foster parents, and it was evident to Santa that the little boy had quite a bit of emotional scarring. He told Santa of the simple things he wanted for Christmas, and when Santa found out, through the boy’s parents, that he would not be able to get much due to a low budget on the family’s part, Santa did exactly what you would expect him to.

“I asked the parents to provide me with some contact information, as I was interested in helping to provide for that family personally. I’m fortunate to be able to afford to do things like that.”

For all the heart-warming stories (of which there are so many), there are an equal amount of moments that elicit a jolly chuckle.

“Oh, I’ve of course had the child who showed up with an absolute load in his pants,” Santa said with a laugh. “I just exercised my option to breathe heavily through my mouth, and the parents were very apologetic.

“You also get the occasional child who swings his arms and catches you with a punch, or who is so calm and then, out of the blue, makes a great effort to fall off your lap and try to escape.”

And it seems even Santa makes gaffes.

When a Hispanic child sat upon his lap, boasting of his wonderful singing abilities, Santa began a duet of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with him. Afterward, he walked the child towards his family – or so he thought.

“It was a mother and father, also of Hispanic ethnicity, and I kept saying to them, as I was pulling the child along with me by hand, ‘He really is a wonderful singer! I want to tell you all about him!’ But they kept walking away from me, as if they were scared. Finally I turned to the boy and said, ‘Child, where is your family going?’ and he told me, ‘Oh, no, that’s not my family; my family’s over there.’”

As for family, Santa’s is very proud of all he does. On the 25th of December, he will find himself back in Michigan, surrounded by them: his wife and three daughters who are seven, 16, and 20 years old.

He’s happy to be able to relax away from his throne post-holiday, though the spirit of the season is something that never truly leaves him – or, he believes, anyone else, for that matter.

“As I try to explain to the kids, Santa is within you,” he said. “It’s in the mind of every child, and Christmas is in all of us.”


If there’s a Santa who’s seen everything, it’s the one who sits atop the throne at the Mall at Steamtown in Scranton. Kris Kringle has listened to the wishes of those at Christmas from that very seat since the second year the mall opened – 20 years ago.

He is a wise and aged man with a distinct laugh and gentle approach that helps coax a shy girl onto his lap, where she is rewarded with a paper crown and candy cane for her troubles. He’s also got a silly streak, telling stories of all he’s seen with a giddiness that shows how much he truly adores what he does.

“It’s more exhausting than one would think, I’ll tell you that,” he said, waving goodbye to a pair of brothers that just visited with him, “but I love it.”

As with our other local Father Christmas, the foray into Santa began with the beard, when children approached him while he was on vacation in Virginia Beach, inquiring as to why Santa was there. The beard is nothing new for him, though, and is much a trademark of his own as it is for the character itself.

“I’ve had a beard since I was 19,” he said. “In fact, I’ve cut it down a little. I look like a homeless guy when I’m not in costume; there’s a real difference. You get all the accolades up until the 25, then starting in January it’s, ‘Who’s the bum over there?’”

There was no such thing as training to be Santa back when he began, so all the things he’s learned have come from experience, and from being a father himself – of four children, aged 27, 32, 39, and 44. He’s also had the pleasure of what could be considered his own personal elf – Janice, a woman who has worked with Santa in corralling little ones and taking photos for almost the same amount of time he’s been doing it.

“I am unlike most Santas in the longevity I have with this,” he said. “I’m seeing kids of kids I saw once now. I have people that come from far away for a photo, that seek me out, and they have the same Santa in all their family photos throughout the years. Just the other day, a boy with Down syndrome that I’ve been seeing for 18 years stopped by.”

It’s in the familiarity of seeing the same people year after year that Santa found his most heart-warming experience. Children from Jefferson Center in Dunmore, a special education school that holds classes for a variety of students, including multi-disabled, elementary and secondary autistic, and life skills, come to see the Steamtown Santa yearly.

“About five years ago, during such a visit, I came back from break and there was a present sitting on my chair. I opened it, and it was a pair of slippers from a woman and her child who had nothing. And the woman thought that maybe if she brought Santa a present, it would help. I believe this happened right on Christmas Eve. So through contacts that Janice and I had…” he paused for a moment to smile and shake his head, gently tossing the tears that began falling from his face. “They took her presents. They took her child presents. She got the help she needed to go back to school, and she still comes every year to see me.”

It’s these stories that stick out over the two-plus decades but, of course, there’s always the other side of the stocking – the moments where he chuckles to himself over certain requests.

“Honestly, there is a request that people don’t expect that I get all the time, and it’s from the parents,” he said as he leaned in, as if letting someone in on a secret. “They ask me to tell the child to sleep in their own bed. If you think about it, the parents, they want their privacy time and…” he leans back and lets out a laugh. “Oh, I get that request a number of times throughout the season.”

And, at least once a season, he can count on having to change his pants.

“Been peed on, yep,” he said. “Thankfully, I have an extra set of clothes.”

Some visitors aren’t even entirely human.

“We have a pet day, and the best thing that ever happened was a family came to visit, a family who thought they had bought a miniature pig, but it actually grew up to be a 300, 400 pound pig – and they brought him in for a picture.

“I actually just held a snake today. So, yeah, I’m ready for anything.”

Except, oddly enough, seeing his own face in photo after photo.

“I hate having my picture taken,” he exclaimed with a wave at the camera. “I just don’t like the way I look in pictures. I mean, geez, I wouldn’t buy a picture of me. Never.”

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