The real ideal Santa: 40 years in the red suit give him insight into children

PORT ANGELES — As he turns 40, Santa Claus is noticing what’s different this year, alongside what is the same as forever.

Wait. Forty? Santa? Isn’t he a little older than that?

In this case, the white-whiskered one is marking his fourth decade spreading Christmas cheer across Western Washington.

Santa, known as Don McIntyre during the rest of the year, started wearing his black boots and bright crimson suit in Federal Way in 1970.

Five years ago, he moved to Diamond Point and became St. Nick for this part of the world.

He navigates the North Olympic Peninsula in a white van, delivering gifts for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots campaign and other toy-giving groups.

And, of course, Santa stops a lot to confer with the youngsters themselves, including preteens who, though they may wonder whether Santa is real, have visions of Christmas presents dancing in their heads.

But in this year of recession and persistent unemployment, “the kids have downgraded, too,” and aren’t asking for the costlier gifts.

“I haven’t gotten a whole lot of call for iPods and [cell] phones,” Santa said.

Children still wish for Barbies, Legos and Matchbox cars. And “trains are still popular,” as are the other standbys, like toy trucks.

Yet “I think everybody has kind of been reserved,” added Santa. “I’ve seen a lot of adults who seem deep in thought.

“I say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ and they brighten up,” as if remembering suddenly that it’s almost here.

Something else he’s noticed: fewer fancy company parties. Some firms are making donations to charity instead of throwing a big bash.

And as he makes his rounds, Santa wishes his neighbors a merry Christmas, not a “happy holiday.”

To his mind, a holiday can be anything from Valentine’s Day to the Fourth of July, while Christmas is Christmas, and he calls it as he sees it.

Interviewing countless children has taught Santa many things.

When a child is not comfortable being placed on Santa’s lap, there isn’t a lot to do about it.

“If they’re crying, they’re not going to start smiling. If they’re smiling,” he said, “they might start crying.”

But most of the children he meets are pretty well-behaved, Santa said. It’s the adults who urge things like “Pull on his beard!”

To this, he responds in his deep Father Christmas timbre: “You really don’t want to pull Santa’s beard.”

He does use his stature to remind kids about the skills that will see them through life.

“Be sure and share. No fighting and arguing. Clean your room,” he admonished.

“Read lots of books.

“When your parents ask you to do something, do it the first time they ask. Go to bed on time. And when you go to bed on Christmas Eve, don’t forget the cookies” for Santa.

His young audiences very often promise to put out milk to go with the cookies, plus carrots for the reindeer.

Santa does not, however, eat anything while wearing the resplendent suit sewn by his wife, Sharlene.

He accessorizes with a set of sleigh bells — which announce his arrival in offices such as the Peninsula Daily News’ — and a burnished wooden pipe.

Some years ago, he retired the pipe, thinking it might send the wrong message about smoking, and a woman at one of the nursing homes he visits asked him where it was.

“If it doesn’t come back, don’t you come back,” the woman instructed.

He reinstated the pipe. To many of his older fans, Santa said, it’s a sweet reminder of a granddad who smoked one. To children at day care centers, “this is Santa’s bubble pipe.”

Some children are skeptical, though, about Santa Claus’ very existence — “until they talk to me. They look me in the eye and say, ‘Well, maybe . . .'”

The spirit of giving is a real, living thing on the Peninsula, Santa said.

Throughout this month, he’s been vrooming around in his van, bearing toys donated by members of the Elks, Lions, Soroptimists, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, along with loads of gifts local residents contributed to Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army.

“All of us working together,” Santa said, “is the only way to make it work.”

He added that smaller towns like those in Clallam and Jefferson counties still have thriving service clubs — even as he sees the organizations in danger of dying out in metropolitan areas.

Santa’s work is almost done for 2010. His wish, though, is that Christmas would last all year.

Say you’re feeling a touch of irritation at a co-worker or family member, and you feel like lashing out.

“Ask yourself: Would you do this if today was Christmas?” Santa suggested.

“If everyone acted the way they do on Christmas Day,” he figured, “most of our problems would be gone.”

________

Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3550 or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.

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