Editor’s Note: Although elusive throughout the year, as he prepares for holiday cheer, Santa sometimes grants interviews. This year, the Milton Courier caught up with him at The Gathering Place.
Accompanied by chiming as a clock struck 2 and laughter as it carried from an adjacent dining hall, a jolly ole elf, going nearly unnoticed, seated himself in what he said was a familiar spot: a chair by the fireplace in the library of The Gathering Place, 715 Campus St. Mrs. Claus arrived sometime later exhibiting similar poise and stealth.
The annual “Hot Dogs with Santa” event will be held Sunday, between 4 and 7 p.m. Recently, Santa stopped by for a visit and shared stories about what it’s like to be Santa and his enthusiasm for the season.
While Santa and Mrs. Claus have spent “off season” time on a farm near Milton, Santa prefers to keep a low profile, he said, in honor of the holiday spirit kindling in the hearts of children. Still, he said: “I try to be who I am wherever I am.”
Warmth and kindness emanate from his fully bearded face. His nature is observably quiet, yet engaging; he is soft spoken and a good listener.
Thinner than one might expect, Santa said he has recently engaged in healthier eating habits, and while he still likes treats and hot chocolate during the holidays, he said, “it’s just as fun to share.”
Over the years, Mrs. Claus said, Santa’s suits have required alterations, sometimes to provide a better fit, and sometimes to help him stay more comfortable while inside heated buildings. Mrs. Claus makes all of Santa’s suits, she said.
With gratitude, Santa noted Mrs. Claus’ prowess as a seamstress. She was able to make her own clothes as a teenager, he said, adding: “I like to call her my little sew-and-sew.”
When not in his suit, Santa quietly blends into society, he said.
In his youth, he liked to play sports. He especially liked football, basketball and baseball, Santa said.
Of Norwegian ancestry, Santa said, as a child, his parents and grandparents taught him their holiday traditions. He learned that not all children see Santa the same way, although, he said, he believes kindness and caring remain universal themes.
In Norway, he said: “Santa is more like an elf working behind the scenes. He takes care of the animals, but also sneaks away and leaves presents. Norwegian families bring food for Santa to the barn.”
Wisconsin and farm life appealed to his extended family, Santa said, and several years after he and Mrs. Claus were married, they settled on a farm near Milton owned by her family. Throughout the years, Santa said, he enjoyed raising steers, goats, horses, chickens, and children.
“I keep the reindeer at the northern end of the North Pole,” he said.
When Santa visits children before Christmas he doesn’t bring reindeer, he said, because it is too hard to find comfortable lodgings for them.
At home, Santa said, he and Mrs. Claus love Christmas. They decorate their space with as many as seven trees.
Santa has a few favorite Christmas ornaments, Mrs. Claus said, including some blue stars and assorted mirrored decorations from the 1940s.
It would be an obvious understatement to say that Santa likes kids.
Over the years, he has coached youth sports and taught Bible study.
He particularly likes the inquisitive nature of children, he said.
“They are interested and need to know. They wonder why I have a beard and I say: ‘It just kind of grew on me.’
“Children are a very important part of society,” he said, adding: nurturing children requires “kindness, sympathy and love.”
Santa has imperfections, he said, admitting some arthritis, but kids don’t care, he said.
“Kids easily look past the small imperfections, and they just see the wonder and kindness that’s Santa, and that makes Santa happy,” he said.
Kids of all ages have come to visit him over the years. At The Gathering Place, Santa said, he began meeting children in 2003, when the Hot Dogs with Santa program was formed.
Parents come for pictures and children come to interact and make their holiday wishes known, he said.
In Milton, he has watched the kids grow, he said, often seeing the same faces year after year. His youngest visitor was a one-week old baby, he said. Children grow to adulthood and have children of their own and even they sometimes remember him.
Sometimes, when kids sit in his lap, Santa said, “they say: ‘I saw you at the mall.’ And I say, ‘yes, of course.’”
“Everybody likes to touch Santa’s beard. They give it a little tug to test for authenticity,” he said, adding he always passes the test.
“Sometimes very small children and babies get their little fingers tangled. They sometimes pull, but they eventually let go,” he said.
He does not have a belly laugh that he shares with children because he thinks that sometimes frightens them, he said.
When kids are afraid, he said, Santa smiles a lot.
He’s not offended when kids back away from what he described as “a funny looking stranger,” and yet, he said, he knows the value of his image: “There’s an importance of what that image does for people. It might not change lives necessarily, but a little kindness never hurts, and a lot of kindness is better.”
From lists to letters, or just sharing brief face-to-face moments, he said, children come with emotions and stories.
Said Santa: “They have things to say, and it’s sometimes heartfelt stuff. They write that a beloved grandmother has died or a pet is sick. Some come even if they are not feeling well. I treat them all the same, with kindness and a smile. I want them to know that I’m not really Christmas, Jesus is, but I want them to know kindness and consideration, and that I appreciate them as people.”
Others are filled with the joy of the season, he said, and bring exuberance.
“I remembered a 4-year-old one year waiting in line. His enthusiasm lit up the hallway and he couldn’t wait to get up on Santa’s lap, and once he was there, he didn’t want to leave.”
For Santa, sometimes keeping up with requests is a challenge.
“You can understand dolls, or board games, or footballs or bikes, but when it comes to electronics, you just have to go with it,” Santa said. He often has to listen and learn, and consult later with elves.
Over the years, he said, requests and technology have changed, but the kids themselves have not.
When leaving Christmas Eve treats, he said, this year, he’d like jelly doughnuts and hot chocolate. Reindeer like fresh apples, he said.
To those who are able to visit him this year at The Gathering Place or not, Santa wishes joy, goodwill, kindness, and love, he said.
And then, as the nearby clock struck 3, he and Mrs. Claus were gone.