Santa Claus is the real deal for Martha’s Vineyard youngsters

Santa with Maisie Sherman at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.
Photo courtesy of Nis Kildegaard

Santa with Maisie Sherman at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.

Each year at Christmastime, Santa comes to the Vineyard to spread holiday cheer. For this we have a handful of helpers to thank — men who don the white beard, the red coat, black belt, and fur-trimmed cap, and enter into the mystery that is Santa Claus.

One of the Vineyard’s Santas spoke with us this week on condition of anonymity — “because,” he says, “childhood is supposed to be a magical time. And when I’m Santa, it’s not about me.”

Being Santa, he says, can be a powerful experience.

This Santa’s story began almost a decade ago, one year when the high school Minnesingers needed Santa to appear at their holiday matinee at the Old Whaling Church. “That year,” he recalls, “we just didn’t have anybody. And I said, well, it might be fun. I had no idea.”

He was struck by the intensity of it. “What comes from the kids is this really powerful energy. They are just so excited to see Santa Claus.

“I enjoyed the experience, and the next year I was asked by the people coordinating Christmas in Edgartown if I’d ride on the fire truck, and I was asked by a couple of organizations if I’d do photos with Santa.”

For this Santa, a personal Christmas tradition was born. “I look forward to this every year,” he says. “Being able to do this, it definitely gets my Christmas spirit going.”

It was only after that first experience that this Santa started exploring the lore of the figure whose story traces back to Saint Nikolaos of Myrna, in what is now Turkey, in the fourth century A.D. “There was this legendary figure,” he says, “and a whole mythology has grown up around him as other cultures contributed their interpretations of gift-giving — how it happens mysteriously and magically. That’s why, around the world, there are 30 or so different names for Santa Claus.”

One of the legends of St. Nicholas is that he provided the dowries to a poor family with three daughters, saving them from an unwed life of misery by tossing bags of gold through a window. When the father hid by the window on the night of the saint’s third visit, Nicholas eluded him by tossing the gold down the chimney. The third daughter had hung her stockings by the fire to dry, and the gift landed in a stocking. Sound familiar?

From behind the big beard, Santa gets a unique perspective on the fleeting world of childhood. “Under the age of about two and a half,” he says, “kids don’t get it much. They’re actually kind of scared of Santa Claus. They haven’t really comprehended the myth, and here’s this strange-looking person with lots of hair.

“All that changes at about the age of three. From three to eight, and sometimes nine, it’s magical. It’s wonderful. The kids are so excited to see Santa, and the interaction is so sweet and pure.”

Being Santa with these children, in the years when they truly believe, is a special treat: “If the child is serious enough about Santa to put carrots out for the reindeer, I can get into all sorts of stories with them about how tired the reindeer are, how much they appreciate the carrots, how much work it is for them to fly around the world.”

What happens inevitably to these young faithful, of course, is that they become more worldly. “They’re growing up, which is what we all want them to do — and unfortunately, part of that is letting go of Santa Claus and the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy, all of these little childhood myths.”

Being Santa, he says, is a serious responsibility. “You have to be on your best Santa Claus behavior all the time. You don’t want ever to be rude or in too much of a hurry to talk to a child. You’re representing this unbelievably important part of our culture and this huge figure in a child’s life.”

That doesn’t mean that life in the red suit is all work and no fun. This year, when Santa was visiting the Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Wharf, a traveling high school girls’ soccer team stopped by for a meal.

“One of them says, ‘Oh, can I be the one to sit on your lap?’ When she sits down, Santa says, ‘Oof! You must be the goalie.’ All the girls crack up, and she whips around and says, ‘How did you know that?’

“‘Ho-ho-ho, Santa knows everything!’”

One of this Santa’s most memorable experiences was having his own daughter visit the Harbor View Hotel when he was holding court at Christmas. “She did come and sit on my lap and tell me what she wanted for Christmas, and I tried to deepen my voice and not do anything that would indicate who I was. It was amazing, actually.

“Then the year when she was eight, she came in and sat on my lap, and said, ‘Hi, Dad.’

“I said, ‘Well now, you know a family secret, and we’ll need to talk about that at home.’”

Back at home, he says, “I told her I am privileged to be Santa’s helper. But a lot of kids believe I am Santa, and for them, I am. Their parents are actually Santa Claus for them, but I get to share that a little bit with their children because they’re willing to trust me with that.”

There’s magic, he says, in the simple act of donning the red suit.

“Something happens when you put the suit on. It really is a transformation. There’s this growing awareness of what Santa means, a sense of the responsibility you’re taking on. As you put the Santa layers on, and finally the hat, and then you look in the mirror — Santa is looking back at you.

“I completely believe in Santa Claus.”