Yes, there is a New England Santa Society. But what happens at its annual meeting, the stories you hear— it’s not what you might expect.
By Nina MacLaughlin
Oct 06 2020
Having parked their sleighs and reindeer out back, members of the New England Santa Society gather outside the Publick House in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, for a very merry portrait.Photo Credit : Dana Smith
What does it feel like to walk into a room filled with Santa Clauses? Well, for one thing, it feels nice. I learned this a month to the day after Christmas in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, at the annual gathering of the New England Santa Society, where I was enveloped in its jelly-bellied, white-bearded brotherhood.
Picture a beautiful blur of wizards and Jerry Garcias and Harley riders, a swirl of magic and mischief and even menace, but menace in the sense of being in the presence of something powerful, something you might not all the way understand. Such was the vibe in Sturbridge amid nearly 90 Santas. Each Santa his own man—round lean tall squat broad narrow—and yet they all seemed family, kindred, big elves from the same wood, and it was hard, maybe impossible, not to feel kid-giddy and glad in their presence.
The society, which was started in 2012, holds monthly Santa Suppers around New England for members to collect and connect with each other, and the big annual gathering has taken place for seven years at the Publick House in Sturbridge. Built in 1771, the heavy-beamed, low-ceilinged ramble of a farmhouse holds a bakery, a tavern, a restaurant, banquet halls, long halls, stairways that seem to lead to in-between floors, thick curtains, old portraits of grim colonial goners, wan and unsmiling in high-collared cotton and wool.
I arrived at reception to a lot of action: a wedding that night, with many guests showing up to check in. I had my eyes open for a Santa by the name of Dan Greenleaf, one of the founders and former president of the society (he’d stepped down in the past year). We’d spent some time on the phone; he’d given me the lay of the land.
Hustle, bustle, and I slipped through wedding attendees, looking around for a white beard. No sign. I thought I heard my name, thought couldn’t be, kept walking, and then heard my name again, unmistakable. I turned to see Greenleaf rounding a corner in red cargo pants and a black short-sleeve button-down with candy canes, Santas, and Yule logs on it. I smiled; it was unfightable. And I felt unsteadied—shouldn’t I have been the one to spot him? Where’d he come from? How hadn’t I seen him?
We found an unused event room and sat down. He’d just come from the society’s board meeting. How was it? He shrugged. “It was a board meeting,” he said. I liked the image of plainclothes Santas gathered around a table, noting minutes, voting on plans. “Magic and spreadsheets,” I said. “Lots of spreadsheets,” he said.
Greenleaf, a teaser, a ribber, a good sort of wise guy, with the pearliest beard and a background in theater, started a company called I’m Santa in 2008, booking Santas for events across New England—at tree lightings, family Christmas parties, fire stations, cancer wards, corporate functions, assisted-living facilities, stores, and malls.
We went to part ways, intending to meet up later that evening for the society’s Fireplace Chat, a bit of a pre-party before the main event the next day. We were walking down a narrow hall, commenting on the heavy rain that had started while we talked, he a step behind. I turned to say I’d see him in a while—and he was gone. There were no doors, no rooms, no offshoot staircases. He was just gone. Maybe he forgot his keys at reception? Had to use the toilet? Doubled back down the corridor before I knew? There were a lot of normal explanations.
The Fireplace Chat took place at the Hampton Inn, just up the road, in the breakfast area of the hotel, essentially the bright-lit front hall of the lobby with windows out to the indoor pool behind it. About 25 Santas and a few Mrs. Clauses sat around tables and helped themselves to coffee and passed plastic bowls of Cheez-Its and pretzels and tubs of hummus. Which all sounds regular. It was not that.
Again, as with Greenleaf, a funny rush of glowy warmth took hold; my whole body seemed to smile. I wasn’t the only one: Every hotel guest who passed by—kids, parents, solo men in athleisure wear, an old lady with tennis balls on the paws of her walker—all, when they saw, had a grin. It could not be helped. The Santas weren’t dressed in their red suits, but no one would call their attire un-festive. Kelly-green cords; red suspenders; red Crocs; red Reeboks; Christmasy plaids; shirts with Santas in chimneys, Santas on surfboards, Santas on sleighs. And all those big white beards.
They went around the room and introduced themselves, listed some of their gigs—children’s hospitals, centers for autistic kids, Cabela’s—and shared highlights of the season. After each had said his piece, a round of bass-voiced “Ho!”s served as applause. One Santa spoke of riding on a helicopter. Bob Lindgren, with kind eyes and a beard with a bit more scraggle to it, spoke of being Santa at barnyards, and said how the animals seemed to love him. Steve Martelli joked he got into Santahood as a teenager at summer camp trying to impress two girls.
Here is one thing about Santa Clauses: Many of their stories have collisions of heartbreak and joy, the stuff of Hallmark Channel holiday movies that get people snuffling into their sleeves. Bill Sattler talked of the girl who’d been told eight months earlier after being in an accident that she would never walk again, how her goal had been to rise from her wheelchair and walk to Santa’s lap, and her first faltering steps as her father and two siblings looked on, as she took one step, another, another, unaided, and made it, defying what all the doctors foretold. And Greenleaf recalled being in a store one day, just a regular afternoon, and a 93-year-old woman came up to him and said, “You know who you look like?” And he replied, “George Clooney?” And she laughed and they chatted and at the end she said, “This is the best day I’ve had in years. Thank you.”
And then there was George McCleary. A massive man, tall and broad, with such gravitas, a demeanor so gentle, exuding such profound calm and warmth, it was as though his size demanded an equally pronounced sense of kindness. He told me about visiting a group of third-graders at a church in Newtown, Connecticut, just a week after the school shooting there in 2012, when 26 people were killed. He told me about the silence in that room full of third-graders. He told me about the first child, then the second, who, when they got to his lap, told him there was nothing they wanted. He told me about a little girl who stood at the edge of the room and wouldn’t approach, but would catch his eye now and then. And how at the end, after all the other children had left, this little girl, her name was Julia, ran up to him and pressed herself into his lap and put her small arms around him and said, “Santa, I love you.” And he told me how her mother, who was also there, began to cry, and said to him, “Those are the first words she’s spoken in days.” And he told me how Julia had been buried under the bodies of her friends, and she was alive because she had stayed so still. And he told me how each year afterward she would come to see him, but on the sixth year, he got the call: She had stopped believing.
As he told me this, two other Santas and a Mrs. Claus stood near. One of the Santas put his hand on my shoulder as I wrote it all down. “She’s crying,” he told the others. And that was true.
That night, I thought about why and when we stop believing. The recess scene, some know-it-all toughie who sneers, What, you actually believe in Santa Claus? And the poor kid who does, not wanting to look like the soft, milk-spirited believer he is, afraid of being shunned by his pals, as his own private magic gets stomped by the swings, says, No, I don’t believe. And it dies out of fear that we’re fools for thinking it so, for trusting in some force we can’t see. But knowing Santa Claus doesn’t exist is not the same thing as being strong enough to believe if he did.
“I have kids who tell me I’m not real,” said Chip Adams. “I say, ‘What do you mean I’m not real? Feel this.’” He held out his arm. “And if the kid still doesn’t buy it, and says, ‘Just because you have an arm doesn’t mean you’re real,’ I put it to them this way”—and he leaned in and lowered his voice and spoke slowly—“What do you have to lose by believing?”
* * * * *
At 8:30 the next morning, nearly 90 Santas in full regalia gathered in the big banquet hall that had held the previous night’s wedding. A record crowd, up from 60-something last year. Red robes, white fur, tall boots, white gloves, red hats, big buckles. Bells jangled. Foreheads glistened. Hugs, handshakes, hellos. David Sizemore wore formfitting red velvet overalls that made him look like a giant doll and had the voice of a cartoon bear; Jim Levasseur carried a wooden staff carved by his son out of butternut, basswood, and pine, topped with a carved reindeer head. There was chatter about dry-cleaning expense, of weight loss due to sweating in hot suits, of beard product and trendy toys and the Santa camp that many attend, weekend seminars where they learn tools and tricks of the trade, aspects of both improv and business.
The average age was down, from 68 to 64. Scott Martin was the youngest, at 44, there with his father and uncle. He dyes his beard, but you wouldn’t know it. “See?” he said, pulling up some of his mustache to reveal sandy roots and the bright pink underside of his upper lip. His uncle George has half a century of Santa-ing under his belt; his father, Tom, with a closer-cropped beard and a coiled energy, talked of having “a short fuse when I was younger” and that being Santa has changed him. Over the course of the weekend, many Santas said some variation of “It’s made me a better man.”
Over and over, the men talked of “heart.” The sense they give is that this is not an act, not a few-months-a-year thing. It’s a set of values, a code, an actual way of life they honor all year. You don’t give people the finger in traffic if you’re Santa. You don’t huff and grumble in line at Dunkin’. You don’t smoke or get drunk in public. You are ready, in any moment of the day, in November or April or on the sweatiest day in July, to be recognized, to have some kid pull on a parent’s sleeve and say, “Is that Santa?”
Because the answer is yes.
Around the room they went, introducing themselves. One stood and talked of the rise of gender-nonconforming kids. I prepared myself to cringe—older generations, their prejudices—but he was simply voicing a concern of the trade, wanted fellowship, guidance to make sure he was handling things right. “I got one little girl who said, ‘I wanna be a boy,’ and I told her, ‘Whatever makes you happy makes Santa happy.’”
After the intros, Greenleaf was presented with an award for his service. And then a Mrs. Claus stood up and said that Nick Gillotte, the new president, deserved a round of applause as well. She talked about how call-and-response gets a crowd going. “For example,” she said, “when I say snowball, you say…” and “FIGHT!”filled the room from these deep-voiced ho-ho-ho-ers.
And she and another Mrs. C reached into a quilted bag on the table and started throwing soft cottony snowballs into the room, and what happened next was one of the most unexpected and unalloyed expressions of joy I have had the good fortune to witness. This banquet hall full of Santa Clauses erupted into a snowball fight. White balls flew across the room, some caught, a shoulder hit, a ball to the back of a head, bouncing off rafters, arms cocked and letting them rip. Dozens of snowballs. Dozens of men throwing them across the hall. And it went on. It went on! Longer than you ever would’ve imagined. These ageless ham-it-up jesters and saints, they threw fake snowballs around the room, these old men, these boys, the child that lives in all of us, the whole time, that never, never dies. Believe it. Believe it.
After the ruckus subsided, Gillotte explained that there’d be a short break before the next phase of the day. Out in the hall, a Santa named Ralph Noon stopped me. “Your heart is so full of happiness,” he said, laying a hand on my arm, and though I have little experience with places of worship, it was in a manner I can’t help but call priestly. “It’s love that you feel, this joy, unexplained. You take off the wrappings, and we’re called to be the love. And we happen to call it Santa.” He squeezed my arm. “Your life has been changed forever,” he said. “May the spirit always be in our hearts.”
The Santas returned after the break for the keynote speaker. A man in a gray-blue shirt and dark jeans, dark hair slicked back, walked to the front of the room, where a sleek headshot of him appeared on a screen in front of an image of the cover of his book. He was there, he explained, to talk about “Appreciation Marketing: How to Achieve Greatness Through Gratitude.”
They are going to sit through this, I thought, after that snowball fight? Magic and spreadsheets. The nature of their job, and maybe, really, of all of ours, is to find a way to hold both things at once. I slipped out a side door of the inn; clouds moved fast against a bright blue sky. I found the rental car in the lot. I turned it on and then I turned it off and I sat there and I wept.
After sitting for portraits with photographer Dana Smith, some of the merrymakers from the New England Santa Society meeting shared a little more of their backgrounds with Yankee.
Hometown:North Smithfield, RI.
Years as Santa: 51.
Funniest Kid Question: “Why are Santa’s feet so big?”
Must-Watch Movie: It’s a Wonderful Life.
Memorable Request: “A 4-year-old asked for a potato. (Parents had no clue why.)”
Cookie Preference: “Chocolate chip, but if the kids want me to share it with the reindeer, it would be oatmeal raisin—because that’s a grain and a fruit.”
Notable Hobby: Close-up magic.
National Beard Registry No.: 1322.
Hometown: Warwick, RI.
Years as Elf: 5.
Favorite Toy as a Kid: Dolls. “I could not talk for many years, so I often used them as tools at home, in school, and with many doctors until I received a communication device at age 11.”
Common Question: “How old are you?” (812 in elf years; 20-something in human years).
Notable Hobbies: Crocheting, knitting, helping run a local chess club.
Favorite Holiday Tradition: Making and giving gifts. “I actually do make gifts all year for Christmas!”
Years as Santa:13.
Memorable Request: “Whenever a child asks me to give toys to children in need, feed those that are hungry, or house those that are homeless.”
Cookie Preference: “I always ask kids, ‘What’s your favorite?’ and that answer becomes my favorite too. No sense asking Mom to learn to make snickerdoodles if nobody in the family will eat them.”
Unusual Skill: Can play the sousaphone.
Verdict on Eggnog: “With or without brandy?”
Years Together: 6.
Years as Clauses:1 (Bill was a solo Santa before that).
Holiday Listening: (Hers) “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives; (his) a three-way tie between Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” Alan Jackson’s “Silent Night,” and Garth Brook’s “Call Me Claus.”
Memorable Request: Office supplies. “The little boy’s father shrugged and said, ‘Maybe he will grow up to be an accountant.’’’
Notable Side Gig: Bill is writing a children’s Christmas story for publication next year, fingers crossed.
Years Together: 16.
Years as Clauses:6.
Beloved Book: “That’s very difficult, as I love, collect and teach to other Mrs. Clauses and Santas about children’s Christmas literature!” says Becki. “But two favorites are The Polar Express and Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation.”
Funniest Kid Question: (Hers) “How do you feed all those elves?”; (his) “Have you ever fallen out of the sleigh?”
Post-Xmas Escape: “A cruise to anywhere!”
Hometown: Westborough, MA.
Years as Santa: 7.
Favorite Toy as a Kid: Lincoln Logs.
Holiday Listening: Burl Ives’s “Silver & Gold.”
Memorable Request: “A little girl who asked Santa to please make it so her parents could have more time to spend together because they both worked so much and were not home a lot together.”
Notable Side Gig: Justice of the peace who loves to perform weddings as Santa.
Verdict on Eggnog: “Love it!”
Years as Santa: 36.
Favorite Toy as a Kid: Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.
Must-Watch Movie:The Santa Clause.
Cookie Pick: Chocolate chip.
Notable Hobby: Tending Santa’s victory garden.
Verdict on Eggnog: “Love it!”
Years as Santa: 24.
Favorite Toy as a Kid: Morse code send-and-receive units that he and his brothers played with—“but since there were only two units and three brothers, that didn’t last very long.”
Holiday Listening: “White Christmas.”
Beloved Book:A Visit from St. Nicholas.
Must-Watch Movie:Miracle on 34th Street.
Notable Hobbies: Kayaking, bullseye shooting, hunting and fishing
Verdict on Eggnog: “Not so much. Hot buttered rum, better!”
Hometown: Danbury, CT.
Years as Santa: 37.
Favorite Toy as a Kid: A Big Wheel.
Memorable Request: “A mountain—not a toy one, a real one! He wanted it put in his living room.”
Surprising Background: “I was an electrician for many decades, and I work in rehabbing homes now. I also am a special event designer and a balloon artist.”
Notable Side Gig: Once modeled for illustrations for The Night Before Christmas (Easton Press).
Verdict on Eggnog: “OK, but I prefer milk or hot chocolate with my cookies!”
Years as Santa: 30.
Favorite Toy as a Kid: A train set.
Holiday Listening: “Silent Night.”
Funniest Kid Quote: “Hold everything, I have to pee.”
Cookie Pick:Oatmeal raisin.
Notable Hobby: Trike riding.
Verdict on Eggnog: “Love it.”
Years as Santa: 40-plus.
Funniest Kid Question: “Where did you meet Mrs. Claus?” (At a Christmas dance, of course.)
Memorable Request: A load of lumber—specifically, 2x4s, 2x6s, 2x8s, and sheets of plywood. “When asked what he was going to do with the lumber, he answered, ‘Why, build things, Santa.’”
Meaningful Moment: “One Christmas Eve when I was on duty as a police officer, I was confronted by an armed, drunken, and despondent man. Now every Christmas Eve I remember that night, and thank the Lord for watching over me and my family.”
Years as Santa: 9.
Funniest Kid Question: “A child once asked me if Santa wore underpants, and if so, what kind. His parents were stunned, then everyone laughed hysterically, Santa included.”
Best Xmas Present:A 3-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter adopted from Russia on Dec. 25, 1996. “Since then, we have celebrated Christmas both for the traditional reasons and as the day our children became ours and we became a family. And in December 2017, our daughter presented us with a beautiful granddaughter, another favorite gift.”
Surprising Background: Once deployed around the world with Army Reserve Military Intelligence. “This Santa really knows who’s been naughty and who’s been nice!”