Catching Up with Santa

Age not withstanding, Santa's a hard act to follow

story & photos by Mark Burns

Santa Claus is one busy man.

Or is he many?

Last weekend, Claus blazed a winding path from Sotterley Plantation to Severna Park, leaving in his wake a plenitude of wide-eyed kids, delighted adults and even a few excited animals. That's how the big man spends most weekends in December, and of course he's not done yet.

Looking for a few insights and to untangle the befuddling logistics of how he does what he does so well, I followed him - though often eating his dust. Here now is a chronicle of a weekend in the life of Claus

Day One: Friday, December 4

Loews Annapolis Hotel

Santa carefully maneuvers a glass of Diet Coke past his fluffy, white beard for a sip as he settles in to be interviewed. He sits at a table draped in white in the parlor between the lobby and a large conference room at the Loews Annapolis Hotel. Listening to each question carefully - Santa's got to be a good listener - he casts glances to the side as he contemplates his answers.

Mr. Claus seems content to pause for a moment of reflection and relaxation. The night before, he had strolled Main Street during Midnight Madness; tonight he has spread holiday cheer to 50 or more kids, the two hotel clerks who checked him in, the workers in the laundry room and an entire kitchen crew. True to form, he has managed to bring a smile to everyone's face. Even a teen-aged kitchen staffer - who is, by stereotype of age, angst-ridden - let loose a wide grin at Santa's arrival.

But now Claus rests. Having satiated the thirst of kids and adults alike for proximity to the big man in red, he catches his breath and drinks the Diet Coke brought to him by a concierge.

"I love it," he says point blank, leaving no room for doubt. "I love seeing the joy in people's faces when they see Santa coming. I remember one time on Main Street, I got down to a little girl and did my 'ho ho ho' and saw in her eyes that she really believed in me."

That lovable old Santa. But something's different. His belly of jelly has a lot less jam.

"This is the new, healthy Santa," says Claus, explaining his lack of gut after several passersby make note of his sagging belt, which doesn't have quite enough waistline to fill it. Gone, too, is the pipe described in The Night Before Christmas. "I gave up smoking several years ago," thoroughly modern Santa confides. He also delights that, this year, he saw several kids opting to snack on fruit rather than candy as they waited in line to see him.

Yes, even Santa, whose very essence is firmly grounded in tradition, can change. And that goes for modes of transit, too. No longer his only option, his sleigh is supplemented by modern conveniences such as planes and autos. But the sleigh is still the only way to do Christmas, even if it doesn't snow. But, he allows, "it's more fun when it snows. See, when you land on blacktop, you just stick. You land on snow, you slide real fast and can enjoy the ride."

He finishes his soda and reflects a bit more, then gets up to retire to his room - yes, Santa does stay in hotels when he travels. Before leaving he turns about, flings his arms open wide, leans back for leverage, and sounds a hearty "ho ho ho ho!" In an instant, he vanishes.

Day Two: Saturday, December 5

YWCA, Arnold

Santa Claus' metabolism must swing like a pendulum, for only one day later his belly is bulging. A hint of brown hair pokes out from under his cap - perhaps he experimented with hair coloring the night before? He's wearing sneakers, too. A good night's rest? Overall, he looks remarkably younger.

He's still jolly, of course, and true believers know that he's Santa. One such believer is young Danny Christiensen, there with his dad, John. "He was very excited to see Santa, but when he was up there he was like 'Ooo!'" recalls the elder Christiensen.

Sabra Hill's sophomore English class from Severna Park High School has teamed up with the YWCA to welcome Claus and to give the kids who visit books as part of the Reach Out and Read program. A roomful of kids feasts on pizza and a few photographers snap shots for files.

Santa is, as expected, jolly. "I'm always happy," he asserts. He looks quite comfortable settled back into his chair and sitting wide-legged. Claus is in a casual mood, laid back even. Shouldn't he be more wired for the frantic schedule he's keeping?


"It's pretty easy," says Santa of his hectic schedule. After a few eons of experience, it seems he's got this Christmas thing down pat.


Ballet Theatre of Annapolis

If you've ever wondered how an ageless but old heavyweight dressed in a bulky faux-fur suit can make the rounds to all the good and faithful kids of the world in only one night, it might help to dash your disbelief by watching him dance a ballet.

Though he may not do jétés or pirouettes, he certainly manages to hold his own amid the flurry of motion in the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis' Santa's Workshop. He manages a few spins and dance moves, carries around fellow performers and moves rather quickly across the stage.

How does he do it? Magical agility?

More like experience. "I've been dancing since I was nine," he reports. Considering he's been around for something like an eternity, that's quite a bit of stage time he's amassed.

Backstage after the festive and whimsical kids' ballet, Claus looks completely beat from 45 minutes of cavorting about in full regalia. "I'm soaked. This is not the North Pole," says Claus, wiping sweat from his brow. It most certainly isn't; this afternoon has a high near 70 degrees, a bit warmer in the auditorium. Factor in the big red suit, the hot glare of spotlights and the busy ballet program, and he's practically bacon.

He takes a breather backstage for a mere five to 10 minutes before he's rushed back out to the stage so he can meet the adoring kids who've lined up for the obligatory sitting with Santa. Some of the younger kids shy away, but floods more take to him like apes to Jane Goodall. Very cute and well-behaved apes.

Four-year-old Emily Janssen was bubbling over with jubilation following her visit. What did she ask for? "I don't know," she replies with a smile. In her ecstasy she's jumping and twirling about at the foot of the stage, so it's up to her parents Kathy and Paul to give comment. "She enjoyed it thoroughly," says her dad.

After the last few children have gone merrily on their ways, Santa returns to the dressing room. He appears worn out, though he remains in good spirits. "Oh, I'm never stressed. I'm very stressless. It doesn't even come into the picture," assures Claus.

But certainly, running from place to place to dance in theatrical productions - Santa Claus also does tap dance in The Talent Machine's Holiday Magic - and to visit all the kids and to walk Main Street while maintaining omnipresence must take its toll. How does he manage to do so much, especially all at once, and remain so upbeat?

"I'm super. It's Santa magic," he explains with a wry smile.


SPCA of Anne Arundel County

Even Santa's super magic can't keep him dry today. Now he's getting soaked with Guinness all over his face.

That's Guinness the dog, Rick and Susan O'Briens' excited and affectionate chocolate Lab, that's licking Santa's glasses right off. True to form, Claus stays good humored and takes the licking like a man.

"It's hard to see for all the drool on my glasses," says Santa; Guinness is not the first dog today to mistake his rounded spectacles for a doggie treat. What about piddles in the lap? "That was my greatest fear in coming here, but I've been fortunate so far."

About 10 feet away sits another Santa. He looks a lot like the real deal, but so does the first one. This is either a bold example of Santa Claus' omnipresence or a clever ruse. This Santa sports rectangular eyewear, though if you're a believer you just don't know if these guys are look-alikes or if they're one and the same Santa, getting into mischief with his inexplicable magic.

This Claus also has been lucky so far not to be piddled on, though should a lap soaking happen he has no protection - one of the hazards of the job. That either of them is still dry defies the odds, considering that each has lent a lap to countless dogs and cats.

One Santa has also posed with a more exotic species. "I had a parrot in my lap who decided to approach me as a cracker," recalled the merry man in rectangular specs. Even as Santa says these words, a ferret waiting in line eyes him.

But, for the most part, the Santas pose with dogs - ranging from a Chihuahua to a large Rottweiler. Just as well; it seems that at least one Santa prefers canines.

"I use a sleigh pulled by Saint Bernards," said the second Santa.

Do they fly?

"When they're feeling good. Usually, they just run fast. They do pretty well unless we pass a hydrant; we have better luck out in the country."

Day Three: Sunday, December 6

Sotterley Plantation

"Today I took my pickup truck," says Santa.

"It's funny to see people's reactions when they look over and see me driving down the road. You're worried that they're not going to stop. Kids are hanging out of windows and adults are pointing - it's pretty funny."

But what about the magical flying sleigh?

"I still use that for Christmas. It's up at the North Pole right now being repaired."

Though it may seem unfortunate that the elves are up at the pole doing manual labor in sub-zero temperatures, Santa considers them lucky. "I'm very uncomfortable," he says, sweltering inside his suit on an otherwise beautiful 70-degree Sunday morning.

This is the second warm day Santa has endured here at Sotterley Plantation on the Patuxent shore of Saint Mary's County. The spring-like weather has lured people out in droves; Claus estimates that at least 260 kids crossed his lap the day before. Today there's a line forming, and it's only the first sitting.

Popular though he may be, Santa acknowledges that many young children are skittish around him. "Kids see the big red suit and white hair and can sometimes get a little scared. You have to know how to massage your way into a kid's psyche." He estimates that it's usually the kids ages four to five that are most hesitant and six- to eight-year-olds that get the most excited.

Some do have accidents. "Occasionally there's a few leaky diapers. One time a little girl got sick to her stomach," says Claus, which is one reason why he Scotch Guards his suit thoroughly. "Unfortunately, you can't waterproof the beard, so you just have to take care of it and keep it clean."

He's certainly a seasoned pro. But how did he become Santa in the first place?

"It started as a dare," he says. "I ended up liking it, and I've been doing it ever since." He has come to love the hustle and bustle of the holidays. With so many months to wile away until the next season, he, Mrs. Claus and the elves play in the snow and take vacations. "We go skiing a lot. In late spring and early summer, we go down to the islands."

To support his updated lifestyle, Santa's come to rely, as said before, on modern wonders of transportation - such as the truck he used today. But he makes certain to emphasize that the reindeer-pulled sleigh is the only way to do Christmas. "It's very easy, the reindeer know exactly where they're going."

He speaks highly of his reindeer but won't play favorites. "I don't have a favorite reindeer - not even Rudolph. If I picked one to be my favorite, the others wouldn't perform well."

With those keen labor management skills, he can ensure timely delivery of Christmas gifts.


Capt. Salem Avery House Museum

Even with such a fine crew of reindeer, Santa can get a little behind schedule sometimes - such as now. "Santa's having trouble getting his sleigh going without snow on the ground," explains George Daly of the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society.

No bother. The girls from Brownie troop 2144 stay happy by decorating a tree and singing carols until the man in red arrives about half an hour late.

When Santa finally comes, he makes a grand entrance. First the sound of sleigh bells as he lands on the roof, then he appears on the stairway and descends into a throng of young fans. At almost the same instant that his bottom hits the chair, the lap-top visits are busily underway.

A batch of Brownies and several other boys and girls form a long line, those farther back anxiously peering ahead to catch a glimpse of the merry man. Santa gives an audience to every kid before wishing each a "Merry Christmas" and handing out candy canes.

Though the group today is young, Claus has seen kids of all ages in his incomprehensibly long history. "The oldest kids I've ever had on my lap were 12, 13 years old. They're borderline, they don't know whether Santa's real or not, but they want to make sure they get their presents," he says, smiling. "It's kind of like insurance for them."

On the subject of methodology, Santa seems more of a purist this time around and gives no mention of sleigh dogs or pickup trucks. But he does yield that if the weather stays as warm as it's been, "I may have to use a helicopter."

Any plans for after the holidays?

"I'm taking a vacation to the South Pole."



Claus continued his quest. Try as I might to follow him, he was too slippery and speedy to keep tabs on - besides, I locked my keys in the car like a doofus at Marley Station, which didn't exactly help.

But I did get a few insights, odd stares and, hopefully, a better understanding of Santa's life during the holidays.


Special thanks to: Al Hopkins, former mayor of Annapolis, Loews Annapolis Hotel; Andy Levitt, sophomore student volunteer from Severna Park High, YWCA; Eddie Stewart, Artistic Director, Ballet Theatre of Annapolis; Joel Straight, volunteer 1, SPCA; Don Nicolson, volunteer 2, SPCA; Robert White, volunteer, Sotterley Plantation; George Daly, volunteer, Capt. Salem Avery House Museum.

Where to Catch up to Santa

· Harbour Center Hosts St. Nick Sat. Dec. 12­Visit jolly old St. Nick and give him your wish list, then find even more to make you merry as Rudolph, Frosty, Father Christmas, brass & barbershop quartets, carolers and old-fashioned carriage rides fill out your visit. Noon-3 @ Annapolis Harbour Center: 410/266-5857.

R Sneade's Hosts Santa Sat. Dec. 12­Santa travels on terra firma for a while as he rides aboard North Beach Volunteer Fire Departmet's truck for a quick visit, complete w/popcorn and balloons. Also get photos w/Santa for $1 (benefits North Beach VFD). 1-3pm @ Sneade's Ace Home Center, Owings: 301/855-8120.

R Schwartz-21 Hosts Santa Dec. 12 & 13­Traditional old elf that he is, Santa can't be fooled. Schwartz Realty has changed its name to Century 21/Schwartz/H.T. Brown, but Santa continues a 20-year tradition of stopping by to visit w/kids and their parents. There will be photos for the little ones and treats for all. You-know-who is familiar and beloved Ed Crayle. Sit on Santa's lap from 1-4 @ Deale the 12th, Prince Frederick the 13th: 301/261-5200.

R Santa of the Animals Dec. 12 & 13­Photos with Santa help animal shelters and rescue organizations fund their services. Your pet can sit on Santa's lap to benefit · Heavens Gate @ Catonsville and Glen Burnie PetSmart · Humane Society of Calvert County @ Annapolis PetSmart · Patuxent Animal Welfare Society @ Bowie PetSmart. All from 11-5: $9.95.

R Cocoa and Coffee with the Clauses Dec. 12 & 19­Sit down to a hearty breakfast w/Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, Frosty and the cast members of The Talent Machine Company's Holiday Magic. Doors open 8:30am; breakfast 9am @ Ram's Head Tavern, 33 West St., Annapolis. $8.95: 410/956-0512 x5.

R Santa's at the Beach Wed. Dec. 16­That jolly old elf Santa Claus welcomes kids ages 2 to 10 to Dinner with Santa, pleasing all w/supper, dessert, songs and the standard lap sittings. 6:30pm @ Northeast Community Center, Chesapeake Beach. $4; rsvp: 410/257-2554.

R Santa's in Sunderland Fri. Dec. 18­Kids climb up on Santa's lap as the jolly old elf hears out some of the last-minute requests. 6:30-7:30pm @ Mt. Hope Community Center, Sunderland: 410/257-6770.

R Marley's Merry Elf Till Christmas Eve­Meet Santa as he arrives at Marley Station's center court to hear the wishful lists of good little boys and girls. Kids can also enjoy breakfast and a movie w/the big guy, meeting and eating at one of the mall's many eateries before seeing suitable cinema on Dec. 12 & 19 (9am; $3; rsvp). 10-10 M-F; 9am-10pm Sa; 11-7 Su @ Marley Station Mall: 410/760-8900.

R Magic Meetings at Annapolis Mall Till Christmas Eve­Bring the kids for sittings w/Santa Claus as they submit their wish lists atop his lap. Also take home pictures to remember it by. 10am-closing @ Annapolis Mall: 410/266-5432.

Merry Mayor Hopkins

Al Hopkins, the 73-year-old former mayor of Annapolis, is trying to get back to his hotel room. It's not easy to get far without stopping; people constantly come over to say hi and snap a few photos. Even after finding the lobby, he's invited into a filled conference room, the laundry, the kitchen. Everyone who sees him knows him on a first name basis and reacts with utter delight.

The unrelenting attention doesn't bother him. Not one bit.

After all, he sticks out like a guy in a bright red Santa suit.

"The hair up top is fine, but they haven't perfected the beard yet," says Hopkins, as he pulls the drooping beard and mustache down below his chin. He picks a bit of synthetic hair from his lips and talks between sips from a glass of diet soda.

Last Friday, December 4, was just the latest stop in Hopkins' 10th year of touring town as Santa Claus. This night's appearance at the Loews Annapolis Hotel was in benefit of the Providence Art Institute, and there are many more venues to come.

By now, Hopkins' busy Santa schedule - coupled with his deep, boisterous and enthusiastic "ho ho ho ho" with arms flung open - has won him a bit of added fame in Annapolis and beyond as the mayor turned Santa. But one thing he's quick to note is that he won't take credit as the original merry mayor of Annapolis.

"I'm certainly not the first mayor to be Santa Claus. In my eyes, that was Will McCready." Even before he became mayor, says Hopkins, McCready was playing a convincing Santa to the delight of local kids.

"His furniture store was in the big building near Harry Browne's off State Circle. Back in the '30s we lined up outside and came in single file down a center aisle, with furniture on either side. At the end was Santa, and he'd give us all candy canes. He really did a great job."

Now Hopkins is following McCready's lead - though tonight he's substituted pencils for candy canes. This is partly owing to Hopkins' own healthy habits, preferring Diet Coke and fruits to milk and cookies. It comes as no surprise to see that Hopkins' Santa is a trim fellow whose belt is too big for his britches.

And that's the way it should be, says Hopkins. "I really believe that one of the most important things you can do is to take care of your body." Like Santa, he wants to live forever. But he'll happily settle for the fruition of his Christmas wish.

Says Hopkins, "I want to live long enough to see my grandchildren and great grandkids settled in life."

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VolumeVI Number 49
December 10-16 1998
New Bay Times

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