These days, a youngster can see more than one Santa Claus in a mall, at a special event … or in a town as small as Cambria.
Yes, Virginia, there are stand-in Santas.
Parents concentrate on their children’s emotional response to those Santa clones, as they should … but what about the flip side? What’s it like to walk a mile in the big man’s knee-high black boots, dealing with the padding, the strange outfit, the itchy hair and beard, the hat that keeps falling into your eyes and the kid who really, really doesn’t want to sit on your lap?
Some of those holiday gallants live right here in Cambria. I asked a few of them why they stand in for Santa, sometimes year after year after year.
I’m not including their names … for those magical days and nights, the clones are simply known as Santa Claus II.
One Cambrian Santa II at the Cambria Historical Museum is a recent retiree from a prestigious county educational job. His 2015 memories include the over-the-top warmth of being in that heavy suit, sitting “right by the heater, and with the fire going, too. Plus, there are bundled-up kids on your lap.”
He recalled “how quickly the shyness of the kids changes to excitement once they get on Santa’s lap. Many are not at all sure they want to meet Santa, but it usually takes just a few moments for them to start smiling. That’s a great feeling for Santa.”
He also spoke of the “repeat customers,” with “one child and one adult who come for a picture. Then, not long after, they return with other members of the family for a larger picture. Then, for the third time, an even larger group of family members return. ... What started out with two people can turn into 10 people crowded together for a final photo!”
Another Cambrian was a stand-in Santa for more than 25 years in a row, first at the Silver Surf Motel in San Simeon, then in front of Caren’s Corner in Cambria’s West Village.
His many Santa II duties included an encounter “when two different mothers each handed me their babies, each less than a month old. The mothers weren’t together and didn’t know each other. They just wanted the shot of me with the two infants. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know these people, and they’ve each just handed me the most precious thing in their world.’ ”
And though he was awestruck by that responsibility, he was also petrified. “Can I feel the babies well enough through these gloves? Are they safe?”
Being Santa II can be confusing, too. He recalled “a little boy who kept telling me he wanted a blue goose. A blue goose? Every time, I’d say it back, he’d say, ‘no, a blue goose!’ Finally, we got the picture and went on. It wasn’t until later that my laughing family told me what the boy wanted was Blues Clues, the big blue dog on a cartoon. I didn’t know. Santa didn’t watch the cartoon.”
A poignant memory is of “a little girl in tears after she was handed to this large man wearing pajamas with fur all over his body, long hair, long beard and saying strange things. … Finally, she jumped right into Mel McColloch’s arms, and begged him, ‘Don’t make me sit next to Santa Claus!’
“Mel got up, walked over, sat between her and me … and he melted, because she was fine there… he was able to sense and see what I got to do for all those years. People just don’t realize how special it is. Some kids will tell Santa things they don’t tell their parents.”
An earlier Cambria stand-in Santa at the museum (someone I know very well) recalled when “a boy sat on my lap, and immediately challenged me, saying defiantly, ‘You’re not Santa. You’re my Uncle Leo!’ He reached up to pull on Leo’s ‘fake’ beard … and discovered that my beard was real and quite firmly attached to my chin. The wide-eyed boy sputtered, ‘You, you… you’re not Uncle Leo. You are Santa! Mom! Mom! It’s Santa!!
The favorite encounter for that Santa II was at the end of a long night, when a couple and their little girl strolled up Burton Drive.
Then the child spotted Santa.
With an ecstatic expression on her face, she stretched out her arms and ran pell-mell down the rugged path toward him. The happy child threw her arms around him, saying over and over again, “I love you, Santa!”
“That made everything worthwhile,” the misty-eyed Santa clone said years later. “It was absolutely the best Christmas gift.”
Merry Christmas, happy holidays or whatever phrase you want to hear wishing you a delightful winter season … because I do.
Kathe Tanner’s column runs every other week. Email her at ktanner @the tribune news .com.