Santa Claus is coming to town in Norwalk, and it might be someone you know.
Various business people, city officials, firefighters and others have, for decades, dressed as the jolly man in the red suit to hear the Christmas wishes of Norwalk children.
“It kind of came along with the gray hair and beard, I think,” says Tom Guthrie who has dressed as Santa for more than a decade. “When it becomes that time of year, little kids start pointing and paying closer attention to me.”
Guthrie looks the role of Santa even without the suit. His hair is gray, and he has a bushy white beard, a round belly and a twinkle in his eye.
He started dressing as Santa 11 years ago as a fundraiser for the Children’s Cancer Connection. He’s also visited with children at community events in other cities and at other charity events.
Playing the role of Santa or Santa’s helper becomes an art through the years
Guthrie owns his own Santa suit, which he says will probably need to be replaced soon because he’s worn it so much. Physically, he fits the role while others wear a wig and fake beard.
“I just kind of look like a jolly old elf,” he says with a laugh.
Guthrie says it was a little awkward playing Santa the first year until he got used to the kids and trying to be as jolly as possible.
“One you get out there and you start seeing the kids light up, then you get into the festive mood,” he says.
George Meinecke, a Norwalk resident and employee at City State Bank, has played Santa several times in the past at some of the bank’s other branches. He stayed away from Norwalk so there wasn’t a risk of his real identity being found.
He agrees that being Santa takes some work.
“It was awkward the first time,” Meinecke says. “You just really try to get in the mode. Some of the adults are pretty good about helping you (with their kids). You’ve got to get in the mode and stay in the mode and don’t be worried about embarrassing yourself. You just go with it and try to laugh and make a connection with the kids real quick.”
He says sometimes it can be a challenge to hear children clearly through the suit when they tell him what they want.
Once the red suit is on — and it can get pretty warm while wearing it — Meinecke says it’s go-time.
“You don’t want to scare them,” he says. “Some kids are just scared of Santa. You do the best you can, but if they don’t want to, you don’t push it.”
After more than a decade of combined Santa-playing experience, the Norwalk men have heard just about everything:
“Are you the real Santa?”
There’s been times Santa’s identity has been questioned. The Norwalk Santas have mixed responses.
“I’ll tell them ‘No, I’m Santa’s helper,’ ” Guthrie says, adding that children are still happy to see him, understand that it takes more than one Santa and that even Santa needs helpers.
Mark Miller, the former city administrator for Norwalk, used to dress as Santa for Knights of Columbus and American Legion events. Once a little girl followed him all around the building where he was visiting with children and others.
“She thought she knew who I was, and she followed me around,” he recalls. “She couldn’t figure out who I was, but she thought she knew me.”
Miller didn’t know the girl, and his true identity wasn’t uncovered.
But when he’s asked if he’s the real Santa, he’s straightforward with kids.
“I say: ‘I am a representative of Santa Claus. It’s very difficult for him to be everywhere at one point in time, but it’s an honor to help him out,’ ” Miller recalls.
Meinecke has a different view.
“I just stick to my guns and say ‘Yes,’ ” he says when asked about his true identity.
“Where are the reindeer?”
Sometimes children want to bring vegetables for the reindeer to eat. Santa assures them the reindeer are well fed at home in the North Pole.
A little girl even drew a picture of a reindeer and gave it to Guthrie. He has it tacked up on the wall at his house along with other notes and pictures he’ll receive this season as Santa.
“I told her that it would go on Santa’s refrigerator,” Guthrie says.
“How do you like the cookies?”
Santa loves cookies.
“Where is Mrs. Claus?”
Mrs. Claus usually stays home. But she will make an appearance at Breakfast with Santa, which is from 9-11 a.m. Dec. 13 at City State Bank, 801 Main St. in Norwalk. There will be hot chocolate and doughnuts.
Santa in turn has some questions for the children:
“Have you been a good boy (or girl)?”
“Are you listening to your mom and dad?”
“Have you done well in school?”
Santas reflect on children’s requests for Christmas, other holiday wishes
Most children ask for the latest and greatest toys.
Meinecke says he also gets a lot of requests for sports equipment, video games, bicycles and other standard or traditional toys.
“It might take me a little while to figure it out,” Meinecke says, especially if the child talks softly or asks for a toy with which he is not familiar. “I’ll ask them what it is to clarify, so, hopefully, I can get it on the list.”
Regardless of what they ask for, Meinecke’s Santa tries to remain noncommittal about the children’s requests in case they ask for something their parents can’t or don’t plan to get for them.
Guthrie says he gets lots of traditional requests, too, but some kids’ wishes have really stuck with him.
“I get more and more who want peace in the world and stuff like that,” Guthrie says. “I think a lot of kids are wanting a happier world. About three or four kids a year will ask for that. I think that’s pretty cool. Kids are smart. It impresses me, I guess, to see kids do that.”
He says he’ll also never forget the time a friend of his who was a pediatric nurse asked if Santa would visit a little boy who had a heart condition at his home. The child was weak and unable to leave the house. Guthrie went to the house and visited with the boy and his older brother and took photos. He remembers the boy being overjoyed to see Santa. The young boy later died from his heart condition.
“That was really very touching,” Guthrie recalls. “That one really struck home.”
Meinecke also had a Santa experience that has stayed with him. A little girl with health issues also visited him when he was dressed as Santa. He knew the child and about her health conditions, but says it was still very heart-warming to see this sick child who wanted nothing more than the regular things all kids want for Christmas.
Visit from Santa attracts young and old, even causes some to cry
Miller, the former city administrator, says sometimes little kids get scared when Santa comes around.
“They didn’t like this guy wearing a red and white suit and beard and not being able to see his face very well,” Miller recalls about some experiences. “Some cried. Some were leery. And others ran up and were excited to see you. Also, you have some adults that would want to sit on your lap.”
Miller had to stop playing Santa a few years ago when he ruptured his Achilles tendon.
Meinecke, who has also dressed as Santa for Norwalk Chamber of Commerce events, says he would gladly play Santa again in the future.
“It’s a fun thing to do,” he says. “Everyone should get the chance to do it.”