By: Janice Doyle,
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist… Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus!” That iconic answer by a newspaper editor to a little girl’s question about Santa in 1897 is happily lived out every day of every year by two West Central Florida men.
Virginia would find both the appearance and spirit of Santa in Jim Heichelbech, 87, of Arcadia (on our front cover) and Santa R.G. Holland, 67, of Inverness. The Christmas season finds the two men appearing daily in handsome Santa robes (costumes). Santa R.G. says, “I don’t play the role of Santa. I assume his personnae of generosity, kindness and caring.”
Santa Jim is at Burlington Mall near Boston this year. His appearances began November 1 and will finish at 6 pm Christmas Eve. The retired executive says, “I don’t know any position that allows me to do the things Santa does. I have an obligation that God has given me… to give people love. I bring happiness to so many. I figure I’ve been Santa for over a million and a half people in 57 years.”
A 94-year-old lady visited him with a group from a nursing home. She said, “I’ve never sat on Santa’s lap before. Can I sit on your lap?” Santa Jim willingly obliged. “Santa is a lifter-upper,” he adds. “I often find that adults will come up next to me and tell me they are depressed. They just want to have a hug and stand close, and I give them love.”
As Christmas draws closer, parents dress their children up and bring them to visit Santa with toy requests and for the photo op. Sleds, Betsy Wetsy dolls, Tinker Toys – all are toys of the past, and Santa must be prepared. Starting in August, Santa Jim begins visiting toy stores, doing his homework. “I look at and examine and know what toys and electronics are going to be hot this year so when a child asks for it, I know what it is and can pronounce it correctly.”
“Children used to be most interested in what they could get for Christmas. In the last three or four years, more and more children have been asking for things for someone else,” says Santa R.G. “That’s the true spirit of Christmas.” If a child asks for a pink pony, Santa Jim says, “We never say no.” He laughs a hearty laugh and adds, “You never know what a parent can do for a child.”
Or, according to Santa R.G.: “Promise nothing, but nourish hope.” “In my heart I get a very big kick out of being Santa.” Santa Jim just plain looks like Santa whether wearing his robes or not and knows going out to eat any time of year means being spoken to 14 or 15 times by both children and adults. If an adult says “I still believe in you, Santa,” Heichelbech may respond by encouraging them to always keep the spirit of Santa alive. “I try to give an act of love, like a handshake. If the other person initiates it, I will give a hug.”
Both Santas hone their craft year-round. Last summer they were at Noerr Pole, headquarters for The Noerr Programs and training center for Santa University in Arvida, Colorado. The company places Santas in over 165 malls in 37 states. The 4-day program assisted more than 80 naturally bearded Santas in all things Santa-related. Physical stamina is important, for example, and so is being ever mindful of their alter-ego.
Santa Jim teaches an ethics class, giving help for avoiding possible sticky situations. Santa must be aware that digital media can capture a moment anywhere and bad moments can go viral. “You have to be cognizant of what you’re doing at all times, even in the off-season. Santa doesn’t go where he shouldn’t be, and he doesn’t do what he shouldn’t do. And both of Santa’s hands are visible in every picture.”
Santas are taught to check every e-mail twice to make sure what they are writing is appropriate. Many practical tips come with the university as well. Examples: Parents always lift the child onto Santa’s lap (it spares his back). Too hot in the Santa robes? Special vests are available with pockets to hold cooler packs. And so when Virginia sees love and generosity and devotion, she would do well to look closely to see if it might be Santa Jim or Santa R.G. If so, she will always have reason to BELIEVE!