You may have seen him atop a retro fire truck riding down Main Street in Edgartown, or at an Island library with frenetic children bouncing on his lap caterwauling Christmas wishes.
Wherever you see Santa Claus this holiday season, you can be sure his clothes will be tarnished with ashes and soot from spreading cheer to all.
But the big man in the red suit himself can’t be everywhere at once, so he employs the help of some very dedicated support Santas, who make appearances all around the Vineyard.
Island artist and goldsmith Rick Hamilton is one such Santa, and he has been in the Christmas biz since the ’90s (of course as a volunteer). His wife at the time owned a store in the Tisbury Marketplace, and wanted Santa to make an appearance. “That’s where it all started,” Hamilton said.
Now Hamilton shows up anywhere there’s a Kris Kringle suit to be worn and Christmas wishes to be heard. “A lot of places have the suits, but don’t actually do the appearances. At this point, I have my own hat, but usually whoever wants me to show up provides the costume,” Hamilton said.
Normally, Hamilton keeps his public appearances down to once per year, as is often the case with professional Santas who get burned out if they make too many holiday stops.
This year, Hamilton was asked by Grace Romanowski of Sea Legs in Edgartown to show up for a fun gig with a large electric train and a snow machine for the kids. “It was a great experience just seeing the kids’ faces, and their individual reactions were absolutely wonderful,” Hamilton said.
For him, being Santa is all about the whimsy, the wonder, and the joy kids get from sharing what they want under the tree, and how their holiday is going. He’s never been paid for it, and he never wants to be paid for it. Just watching folks have fun enjoying some family time is payment enough for Hamilton.
You have to be prepared for any and all questions if you’re dressed as the jolly old elf, and Hamilton said he’s pretty much heard it all from the mouths of excited kids.
“I’ve had kids ask me for a new car. You start talking to them about it, and they say it’s because mommy or daddy’s car smells bad,” Hamilton said. “It’s definitely a lot of curveballs, but the typical child is often really quietly spoken.”
Some more observant kiddos will call Hamilton out on his beard being too short, so he tries to get a good start to growing out his facial hair in May. “Sometimes I tell ’em the reindeer really love to nibble on beards,” Hamilton laughed.
In general, the giving and receiving aspect of Christmas has never been what draws him. He prefers to focus on giving families a memorable experience that they can look back on for years to come.
Another Island Santa, West Tisbury Police Sgt. Matt Gebo, said it’s been about three years of him helping out the West Tisbury Fire Department with their Santa visits at the fire station.
“I volunteered to be Santa. Last year, through COVID, we developed a drive-through aspect for families to see Santa, and this year was another drive-through,” Gebo said. “Hopefully next year we will return to the hot cocoa and cookies, meet-and-greet with Santa that the station has always had.”
Gebo added that the fire department supplies the shirt, belt, and the pants that could double as a festive camping tent.
“Me and three other people could fit inside the pants. The drawstring doesn’t really tighten up, so I have an inflatable belly, and this year someone suggested wearing suspenders so Santa’s pants don’t fall down,” Gebo laughed.
For Gebo, the experience of being Santa is always an enjoyable one, and the kids who stop by the fire station keep him entertained and on his toes.
“It’s not a tough job. You see all the kids light up, but sometimes when they get right up close they get afraid and completely panic. You just try to get as many smiles out of them as possible, and try to make sure the parents hear the Christmas list so Santa can do his best to get the kids whatever they want,” Gebo said.
Especially with the past few years being so trying (particularly during the holidays), Gebo said, it’s always important in a tight-knit community to have volunteers who are willing to spread some hope and cheer.
Scott Savoie, a physical therapist at Vineyard Complementary Medicine, said he was an elf at a mall doing photo shoots way back when everyone used Polaroid cameras.
“Me and a couple buddies from the football team were volunteering at the mall when Santa showed up drunk one day, and I was the biggest elf there, so they put me in the suit,” Savoie recalled with amusement. “Have you ever seen the movie ‘Bad Santa’? Picture an older, more decrepit Billy Bob Thornton. I was the first one to wear the suit after him, and it still smelled like cheap bourbon.”
That memory was brought up in conversation with Savoie and head of Vineyard Complementary Medicine Sue Sanford, who then suggested having their very own Santa show up to the practice.
Savoie agreed, but said he would want a serious Santa suit to really play the part. Sanford acquiesced, and shelled out for a quality costume.
“She suggested I walk around Christmas in Edgartown talking about VCM — I just said, you might want to check, but I’m not sure they’re going to want two Santas walking around downtown Edgartown — that might get real confusing for the kids,” Savoie laughed.
That first year, the Santa who usually rides the fire truck in the Christmas parade stayed home at the North Pole because he was sick, so Savoie gladly filled that role. “I got to be the main Santa and ride around on the fire truck and everything; it was pretty great,” he said.
This year, Savoie dressed up for a complimentary photo event at VCM, and just last week he appeared as Santa for his friend’s family at their home.
He is going off-Island to see some family soon, and is considering taking the suit with him.
For Savoie, sometimes being Santa can be nerve-wracking, because he wants to provide the best experience for the kids. “It’s a lot of fun, but also kind of scary. Some of the kids are like investigators, with some really tough questions,” Savoie said. “But I have a good backstory. I tell them I’m just a level one Santa, and I’m only in charge of the naughty list.”
Tri-Town Ambulance Chief Ben Retmier started out as Santa when his mom was fostering kids at her house, and he thought it would be fun to stop by and let them have a little visit with old Saint Nick.
He used to borrow a Santa costume from the Chilmark Fire Department, and after about a year or two of doing that, he thought of a very special Christmas wish. “I looked at my mom and said, ‘I think I want a Santa suit for Christmas,’” Retmier said.
Retmier’s wife, Elyce, is the children’s librarian at the Edgartown School, and she presented the idea of bringing Santa to the library every year.
Elyce was impressed with the quality of Retmier’s suit, but not as much with the accompanying beard and wig. So she got on the phone with her dad, veteran Santa Andre Bonnell, who set Retmier up with a new beard, a wig, and some half-rim glasses that filled out the look.
“He even gave me what looked like some makeup on the end of a tongue depressor, that turns your eyebrows white, which really made it look legit,” Retmier said.
Retmier has been doing the Santa gig at the library for about three years or so, and he said he enjoys it just as much as the day he started. “One year, I had kids asking me where my reindeer were. I said, ‘Well, I didn’t bring my full sled and my full reindeer team. I parked them on the roof of the library, and took the elevator down to see you all,’” Retmier said. “I came up with that off the top of my head, and for my job you definitely have to be pretty quick on your feet.”
Andre Bonnell started out as Santa decades ago, when his kids’ daycare was looking for some Christmas cheer. He bought a suit straight out of the Sears and Roebuck holiday catalog, back when the company had “good, better, best” options for relative quality of all their wares. “I went and bought the ‘best’ suit, and it was beautiful,” Bonnell said.
From then on, he went around to Island daycares and did some private Christmas events where Santa would show up with gifts for the kids.
“You could hear the ‘thud’ from the kids’ jaws hitting the floor. ‘Oh my God, Santa is in my house!’ and their eyes get as big as saucers,” Bonnell said. “Some kids ask where the reindeer are, and I tell ‘em they’re up at Nip ’n’ Tuck Farm with Fred Fisher, and other kids say they want a new PlayStation but they don’t know if Santa can afford it.”
Bonnell was Santa for almost 20 years, and said he enjoyed every minute of it — whether kids were nervous and speechless, or poured their heart out once they sat on Santa’s lap.
“When you put on that suit, something really magical happens. I don’t care who you are or whether you even like the holidays — you become Santa Claus,” Bonnell said.