‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The night before Christmas isn’t the only time South County’s distant relatives of St. Nick need to worry about being there. These modern-day cousins called Santa Claus – and they naturally look the part with their real white beards -- are on duty every day of the year.
Whether at the beach, on a stroll through a distant mall or going to the grocery store, they are famous. Even without the red Santa suit with all its telltale trimmings, young children run up to them feeling the magic and warmth from that supernatural belief in a larger-than-life person they admire.
“We feed off of it, we really do,” said Peter Murgia, adding that fulfilling this role, evolving over time from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus, is one of the most important in his life regardless of the season of year.
This responsibility is real because they inherit an 800-year-old tradition whose appeal to innocence fills a heart believing in the reality of the supernatural while getting swept away by excitement. Santa’s magic transcends to parents the joy and wonderment their children’s faces reveal from an experience out of time and out of place.
Keeping this belief alive is part of everyday life all year long, said three Santas who talked about life as Santa during the holiday season and afterwards.
Terry Simpson, a South Kingstown lawyer and naturally white-bearded Santa who appears at the Contemporary Theater in Wakefield and in other venues, arrives by red helicopter each year to the Wakefield Mall on Tower Hill Road. He also visits homes and does special events.
“Because I’m seen in so many places, year-round people recognize me. They have me on their Facebook pages. I’m even on some Christmas cards. I’m in a sandwich shop and people want their picture taken with Santa Claus and they can show their kids,” he said about the importance of his role long-after the traditional season ends.
Jim Clarke, who also sports the white beard, hair and look of Santa, agreed. He appears annually at the Festival of Lights in Wickford.
“I was in a Walmart store in New Hampshire. Had nothing red on but a red baseball cap, regular jeans and a shirt. A kid comes up me and said. ‘Santa can I show you what I want for Christmas?’ The excitement just built in me, so I asked the grandparent if I could speak to the child and they said, ‘Yes.’”
“The child took me by the hand and took me down the aisle to show that he wanted this and that. It was just the beard that did it, that’s all it was,” he said about the magic of the moment.
Murgia, who also makes the rounds to South County parties with his official red suit and real white beard, said he’s reminded many mornings each week all year long about the importance of being Santa.
“I go to a bakery and they refer to me as Father Christmas. It doesn’t matter what time of the year it is. ‘Father Christmas what can we get for you today?” he said.
Why Be Santa
“I do it because I like to make kids’ faces light up,” said Clarke who lives in Warwick. “I’m sitting here in the mall watching kids pass by with adults. I wave to them and I can see that frown pass to smile.”
Murgia, of Coventry, bellowed a strong “Ho, Ho, Ho” as he describes a typical entrance.
“I think sometimes the profession chooses us,” he said about his first time five years ago when selected for a charity event at a Pawtucket dog park. “You look at yourself in the mirror and you give yourself a big ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ and it’s very infectious. When you can make a kid light up, it’s just unbelievable. You make that magic happen,” he said.
It all begins with an attitude that is deep within them, each man pointed out.
“We’re good people. We stay in character, even if we’re not in red. My wife says to me, if I get a little ornery, ‘That’s not a sound like Santa would make.’ and she says that to me 12 months a year,” said Murgia.
Simpson said, “My wife says to me she thinks I’m the nicest person she knows and that’s who I am. It’s inside of me and I think I’ve always lived my life that way. I like people, I like sappy stories, I watch Hallmark Christmas movies, I know them all…The real me enjoys being Santa Claus and being nice.”
These Santas said that although there are workshops -- other than those for making toys -- for learning to be Santa, they never have attended one. There wasn’t the need.
“If you are kind person, it’s going to come naturally to you,” said Clarke, with Murgia and Simpson nodding.
Simpson accented this idea. “I am in the acting profession. You don’t go out and recite the lines, just go out and be that character. You have to believe in the spirit of Santa Claus in order to play it well. Just let him out.”
Believing in the Christmas Spirit
Channeling their inner Santa and letting him out is one requirement that must be met for anyone wanting to be Santa in public.
Any Santa must believe in the spirit of friendliness and meaning of togetherness during the holiday, with gift-giving coming in second or even third, they all said. They also pointed out that Santas have a tough role of handling toy requests while also emphasizing the spirit of the season is love without toys or gifts.
“It’s about joy, it’s about happiness, it’s about seeing smiles on people’s faces, it’s about taking them away from their concerns of the moment and just feeling something special,” said Clarke.
Simpson pointed out, “They (young children) are so excited to see you. Some are scared, but about half of them run up to you. Their parents are so happy to see that. For me you get to believe in the spirit of Santa Claus. It’s not about presents,” he said.
He told about an experience with boy who was handicapped.
“He said he doesn’t feel pain and doesn’t go outside and do things. I asked him what he wanted and he said he didn’t want anything. He said give the toys to other kids who don’t have so much. Who is this little child, I asked myself,” Simpson said.
“It’s probably one of the nicest experiences I’ve had. He was into being there, but wasn’t interested in the presents he was going to get,” Simpson said, adding that another time he made a house call dressed as Santa and brought gifts.
“I found it less rewarding. When you’re opening the bag and handing presents out, it was actually more about getting stuff than about the spirit of giving and feeling Christmas,” he said.
Gifts sometimes take on outsized roles in affluent families, they said.
Murgia said that from his chair he definitely sees the difference that affluence can bring to a view toward the spirit of Christmas.
“Kids from well-to-do homes, those with more than an average share of money, know they will get whatever they want. But, you treat that child the same way no matter what kind of background they have,” he said.
“It is, however, a different feel when you’re with them,” he said. Simpson and Clarke gave a resounding “Yes,” looking a Murgia in this candid conversation of things Santas never say from the sleigh.
Clarke said, “I get the sense that they could ask for almost anything from Santa and they know they’re going to get it.”
“There are those who say they want computers and cell phones. I tell them those are gifts from mom and dad because they give out gifts, too. Santa brings them gifts that they can play with,” he said.
Murgia chimed in, with a laugh, “Never promise them a puppy.”
One of Santa’s main responsibilities, next to being cheery, is setting expectations and making no promises, they pointed out, because children’s parents have varying abilities to pay for Christmas gifts.
“You’re putting the parents in a bad situation when you make specific promises and you’re leaving a child up for disappointment on the biggest day of the year,” said Clarke.
“Sometimes I get these requests from children and I will have to say, ‘I don’t think the elves have made enough of them this year and we’re going to have to see. If I can’t get you that, then perhaps something else,’” he explained.
Murgia said he tells children, emphasizing he tries to leave the conversation vague, “When you wake up, you’ll find something under the tree that’s very special for you.”
Believers and Non-Believers
Besides gifts, the other thorny problem for Santas is dealing with the believers and non-believers visiting them.
Clarke said, “Some you can tell just simply by the attitude they have. You then just say to those who don’t believe, tell me about the years that you did believe. How did you feel? They stop and think and say ‘That was good.’”
Some, he said, may ask if he’s the real Santa? “I’ve replied, what do you think? You never know where Santa is going to be.”
Murgia said he also had a few experiences with that situation, too.
“I had a 13-year-old girl who come out and said you’re not real. We sat and chatted about it. I tried to explain to her that it can be much better to believe than not to believe,” he said.
“It made me sad because I was trying to get that flame in me to make it bigger in her and she was trying to blow it out,” he added.
Santas see from their chairs opportunities that some parents miss in capturing the magic of the moment in their children’s visit. They pointed out that some parents today are pulled in many directions —sometimes by their own multi-tasking — and don’t pay enough attention to a moment that will pass away immediately as well as with their children growing up.
They see it as a photo opportunity, handing the child over the Santa while they talk on the phone, chat with friends and some even leave to go shopping, they said.
“They are missing the joy of the moment, the smile on their child’s face that’s the real gift of the season, said Simpson.
Clark, noted, “We’ve gotten to be too busy. We need to slow it down.”
They said that being Santa is simply about showing your own belief that the magic of the season can be real -- and for these Santas all year long -- if you want to believe strongly enough in it.
“Yes, there’s a little bit of showtime in all of this. But when I start talking about it, I still believe. I believe in the spirit of it. It’s a wonderful time of year and it carries over for me. I try to live like that,” said Simpson.