Santa came to our house early this year. Though he arrived in an SUV, not a sleigh, and he wasn’t “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,” his long beard and the twinkle in his eye gave him away.
Truth be told, a visit from this Santa was high on my Christmas wish list. I’d often seen him around town and wanted to know how he ended up in Newaygo instead of at the North Pole. Turns out he grew up right here in Newaygo County and after a couple of decades away, returned to make this his home.
While he admits to owning a few red suits, and he’s been seen in the company of reindeer, this Santa, who calls himself “Charlie Johnson,” doesn’t claim to be the real Santa. Then again, he doesn’t claim not to be. He told me the same thing he tells children who press him on the question.
“Santa can’t see billions of kids all at once, at every mall, so he has helpers that help him out. It’s up to you to decide which one is the real one.”
There are so many of these surrogate Santas, in fact, they’ve formed a brotherhood, mingling (and jingling, no doubt) with one another at Santa schools and Santa conventions. Every October, Santa Charlie heads to the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland. There, some 300 Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and elves brush up on everything from the history of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus to proper dress, reindeer habits, radio and television interview tips, and other useful tidbits. Most of all, “it’s about the spirit of being a Santa,” says Charlie.
Of course, cookies are served, along with pointers on the do’s and don’ts of Santa-ing.
The number one no-no: don’t promise to grant a wish or bring a particular gift.
Santa Charlie has a few of his own rules of thumb, as well. “I’m more of a low-key Santa,” he says. “I think the kids respond to that better, especially the littlest ones. I won’t force them to sit on my lap. If the parents try and put them onto my lap, I’ll say, ‘No, hold them, or see if they’ll stand beside me.’”
In a venue where Santa can move around a bit—on the Santa Train that runs between Coopersville and Marne, for instance—Charlie resorts to stealth.
“I’ll sneak up behind them while their parents are holding them and do a photo bomb so the parents can get their picture of the kid with Santa.”
He laughs—more of a chuckle than a ho-ho-ho—and another voice pipes up from the corner: “Santa is the most-photographed icon in the world.” That’s Mrs. Claus, AKA Carol Nickles, who came along with Santa Charlie on his visit to our house. The couple met at Santa school three years ago and became an item about a year later. Now they’re “having a blast” making the Santa scene together, says Carol.
At a recent Santa convention they performed in the talent show, harmonizing on a swing tune called “Holiday Romance” while accompanied by a Mrs. Claus from West Virginia. Carol, a seamstress, wore a glitzy red ball gown she’d created, and Charlie was gussied up, too.
“So fun, so fun,” Carol recalls.
Also fun: Appearances at the Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm in Clare and field trips with busloads of other Santas and Mrs. Clauses from the Midland Santa school to the steam train in Owosso and Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth.
“Can you imagine these big coach buses pulling up to Bronner’s and all of us getting out?” says Carol. “Now, we’re not dressed in Santa garb, but there are all the beards, and we’re wearing red and green.”
Santa-ing isn’t confined to the Christmas season anymore. “Christmas in July is starting to be thing,” says Carol. She and Charlie were invited to add their festive flair to the Star 105.7 radio booth at one such event. Charlie agreed on the condition that he wouldn’t have to wear his full Santa suit in 85-degree weather. Instead, he came up with a “Santa casual” ensemble of red shorts, a Santa-print Hawaiian shirt, and a straw hat, and Carol lightened up her Mrs. Claus-wear accordingly.
“Most people would say being a Santa is a calling,” says Carol. Charlie agrees, though Santa-ing doesn’t consume his whole life. He’s plenty busy with a variety of other activities, even after his recent retirement from TrueNorth, where he ran the LifeLink program and coordinated the Newaygo County Senior and Caregiver Expo. He’s often seen playing harmonica at River Stop Café’s open mic nights and running the sound board for Lion Heart Community Theater productions and concerts at Dogwood Center for the Performing Arts. This time of year, you’ll also find him caroling with the men’s chorus that strolls through Newaygo during the yearly Christmas Walk.
Alas, our house has no chimney, so I couldn’t put Santa Charlie to the test of exiting the traditional way. He just walked out the front door like anyone else. But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight . . . Oh, who am I kidding? His windows were rolled up; I didn’t hear anything. I’m pretty sure, though, that as he drove away, he wished us “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
What are your favorite Santa memories?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.