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Here Comes Santa Claus

He has many faces; here you’ll see some

Santa (Ed Donovan) arrives by ­helicopter near the College Park ­Aviation Museum.

What do children love most about Christmas? I’m betting it’s Santa Claus, the portly guy in the red suit who builds toys in the North Pole each year, then delivers them to well-behaved children on Christmas Eve.
    To the delight of Chesapeake Country children, Santa tends to show up early. You’ll soon see a Santa or two about town — at the mall, skating around the Bowie Ice Rink, or emerging from a helicopter near the College Park Aviation Museum.
    But did you know that each Santa your child meets is unique — in his age, in his longevity, in the means by which he arrives, in the historic period he represents? Or that Santa Claus evolved during the intermingling of customs of so many ethnic groups who settled in America?
    So, you might ask, which of these characters has got it right? Which is accurately portraying America’s beloved Christmas elf?
    The truth is that nobody knows — and nobody cares. We love them all.

St. Nicholas to Santa Claus

    Let’s step back to the fourth century A.D. to meet the inspiration for today’s American Santa Claus. The original Secret Santa who became St. Nicholas was a kind and generous bishop in what was then Greece and now Turkey.
    Historians generally agree that Nicholas was born into wealth but that after his parents’ deaths he became a bishop and used his sizeable inheritance to aid the needy and the suffering. He acquired a reputation as a giver of gifts, quietly and modestly, expecting nothing in return. Miracles were ascribed to him.

At Riversdale House Museum, veteran Santa Ed Sobansky of Bowie portrays the Belgian Sint Niklaas.

    Following the death of the esteemed Bishop Nicholas in 342 A.D., reverence for him spread, and his December 6 Feast Day was celebrated throughout Europe. Bishop Nicholas died many centuries before the Roman Catholic Church formally canonized saints, but he was acknowledged as St. Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors and assorted others.
    How did this beloved saint morph into the more secular American Santa Claus?
    Well, it was a slow process, starting in Europe.
    For centuries in much of Europe, the day of gift-giving falls on or around the December 6 feast day of St. Nicholas. But each nation has given it a unique twist.
    Swiss children, for example, ­welcome Samichlaus.
    Dutch children watch for Sint Niklaas (or Sinterklaas), who arrives by sea as early as mid-November. Once welcomed, St. Nikk travels the countryside on a white horse, visiting children.
    In Belgium, children put out shoes or socks for the Saint’s arrival, along with treats for his horse, hoping to receive small presents.
    During the Protestant Reformation, Germany’s Martin Luther tried to get away from the Sankt Nikolaus image by promoting the Christkind or Christkindl — the Christ Child — as the Christmas gift-bringer. This image was later assimilated into America as Kris Kringle (of Miracle on 34th Street fame). Today’s German and Austrian children often set out their shoes the night of December 5, hoping to find them filled with candy.

Earleigh Heights Volunteer Firefighter and Santa Michael Sohn.

    England’s Father Christmas derived from St. Nick and Sinterklaas, became a giver of gifts in the 1850s. In Victorian times, Christmas evolved into a more child-centered family feast day.
    Think about the merging of these and other Christmas customs as they traveled across the Atlantic with European settlers.
    As you’d expect, English and American Puritans tried to squelch the joy out of Christmas — although Christmas was happily celebrated in Jamestown.
    But Dutch, German and other ethnic groups arrived on American soil with their cherished Old World traditions. As these traditions blended and acquired a uniquely American spin, they created our more secular image of Santa Claus as the gift-giver of Christmas.
    Just not right away.
    In colonial America, Christmas was about attending church, visiting and socializing. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the father of Christmas changed his image, partially thanks to American authors Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore, (whose poem “The Night Before Christmas” many Americans can recite from memory even today). Add in later influences like cartoonist Thomas Nast and a Coca Cola ad campaign, and Santa had evolved into a jolly, red-suited elf.
    He also had a new mode of transport, having traded in his horse and wagon for a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
    In the midst of all this, the Christian celebration of Christmas migrated from December 6 to December 25, bringing it closer to the winter solstice.
    Now we’re hooked on Santa Claus, who comes earlier and earlier each year.

Here Comes Santa Claus

    Visit the North Beach Pat Carpenter Parade to see their 17-year Santa, North Beach resident Guy Stone, who arrives by fire engine. Later, on the waterfront, children can roast marshmallows and visit with Santa, Mrs. Claus and their elves.
    Michael Sohn, another Santa Claus and a 34-year veteran firefighter from Pasadena’s Earleigh Heights station, has also relied on fire engines for transportation. He has often cruised around Millersville, Severna Park and Pasadena on an engine, waving and throwing peppermint sticks to children.


North Beach’s Santa, Guy Stone, arrives by fire truck.

    Times have changed. So has the mode of transport for the station’s Santa, who now flies behind a fire truck in a trailer-mounted sleigh.
    This year, says Sohn, he’ll let younger firefighters ride the engines while he portrays Santa at the station’s Lunch with Santa.
    Santa does like to eat. But if you don’t want to wait until lunch to meet him, you can breakfast at Chesapeake Beach’s Rod ‘N’ Reel Resort with 85-year-old townie and longtime Santa Pat Corona. Mrs. Patti Claus tells us her husband played Santa Claus at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of Westfield Annapolis Mall years ago. She says he’s also portrayed Santa for Disney World and the Baltimore Orioles.
    Mrs. Claus claims her husband’s beard and his long hair are for real. “All I do,” she says, “is curl it.”

85-year-old Chesapeake Beach Santa Pat Corona.

    You can also breakfast with Santa at historic Riversdale mansion in Prince George’s County, where Santa answers to a different name. Riversdale’s veteran Santa interpreter Ed Sobansky of Bowie portrays the Belgian Sint Niklaas. The kindly bishop appears in honor of the mansion’s Flemish mistress of the house, Rosalie Eugenia Stier Calvert, wife of the 5th Lord Baltimore.
    Sobansky’s historic interpretation spans roughly 40 years. He can recall working as Santa at Symphony Woods in Columbia in the late 1960s, before it became Merriweather Post Pavilion.
    At Riversdale, Sobansky makes a grand entrance, first waving at children through an upstairs gallery window and then joining them on the floor below.

Santa Loves the Animals

    Of course, humans aren’t the only ones who have photo ops with Santa.
    Matt Shryock, a nursing student and technician at Muddy Creek Animal Hospital in West River, is into his second year being Santa for the clinic’s animal patrons.
    Not everyone would step into Matt’s Santa boots; his job demands both courage and a special skill set when dealing with creatures with fangs and claws. Matt says he uses slow, controlled movements to handle pets for a photo shoot.

At Muddy Creek Animal ­Hospital, Santa, Matt Shryock, poses with pets.

    His ultimate Santa challenge, he says, is “Getting pets to look at the camera,” he said. “And cats. Cats do not want to be here.”
    Severna Park native Ryan Monroe will also be working with animals this December, as a first-time Santa at the Severna Park Veterinary Hospital.
    The clinic’s Dr. Jessica Heard has nothing but praise for Ryan, who has trained service dogs and soon will be heading for Michigan to enlist in the Navy.

Santa On Stage

    Our youngest Santa, the multi-talented Thomas Crabtree, a middle school student from St. Mary’s School in Annapolis, performs as one of 64 children in this year’s Christmas production of The Talent Machine.

Our youngest Santa, Talent Machine's Thomas Crabtree.

    Co-director Sarah Johansen say 14-year-old Thomas sings, dances and pirouettes across the stage during each performance; he rides on a scooter and runs through the crowd.
    Thomas says he’s done Christmas shows before as well as other local productions.
    What do Thomas’ friends think about his new role? “They think it’s cool,” he says. “I used to play sports, but then I realized how much I loved doing this.”

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    Now that you know so much about him, we hope you’ll squeeze in a visit with Santa this holiday season. Find Santa’s weekly appearances in 8 Days a Week and his seasonal bookings in Season’s Bounty.