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Suiting up as Santa: Local stand-ins lend jolly old St. Nick a hand

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Posted on December 23, 2009 |
By Kathryn Flagg



web_santaandsuit.jpg
ADDISON RESIDENT CLIFF Douglas is one of several county men who routinely play Santa Claus at Christmas time. Sixty-seven-year-old Douglas has played Santa since he was 16 years old. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

ADDISON COUNTY — It’s a busy time of year for Addison County residents — and a busier time still for the man of the hour, Kris Kringle, who is slated to swing by local homes late Thursday night on his annual Christmas rounds.

Kringle was unavailable for comment Monday at his North Pole workshop, but sources close to the man confirmed that Kringle, who also goes by “Santa Claus” and “Jolly Old St. Nick,” had spent much of December deep in plans for the big event.

That means that while Mr. Claus may be able to pack in trips to every child’s home on Christmas Eve — an impressive feat for which he trains all year — he comes up short on one count: In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Claus simply can’t man every holiday event that demands a Santa Claus on hand.

That’s where men like Cliff Douglas come in.

Douglas, and others like him, routinely steps in for Claus at holiday strolls, community Christmas celebrations and other events during the December festivities leading up to Christmas.

Douglas, 67, an Addison resident and retired insurance agent, has been playing Santa Claus for almost as long as he can remember. He got his start in elementary school in Rutland, dressing up for the sake of the younger students. Officially, he’s been at it every year since he was 16 years old, though this year a back injury — which would prevent him from lifting children onto his lap — took him out of commission. Douglas fully hopes to suit up again next year.

Round and bearded, Douglas looks the part. He foregoes “stuffing,” as he puts it, and prefers the look of an authentic beard to an artificial one. He’s jolly, too, and if you look closely enough you’ll swear he has a twinkle in his eye reminiscent of the original Santa Claus himself.

But it’s not the looks that make a Santa Claus, per se.

“He’s natural all the way through,” Effie Cole, Douglas’s partner, chimed in. He isn’t stiff with the children or stilted, she went on, and the conversations he strikes up with the kids don’t come across as phony or scripted. He has a knack for it, Cole said, that takes much more than simply putting on the Santa suit.

“You can tell the difference,” she said.

THE MEN BEHIND THE SUIT

Douglas isn’t alone in Addison County as a Santa stand-in. Liam English, 69, was one of two pinch-hitter Santas there to fill Douglas’s shoes this year, pitching in for a shift as Santa at the Better Middlebury Partnership’s holiday event at Danforth Pewter in Middlebury last weekend.

English wasn’t a novice Kris Kringle, though: The Cornwall resident admitted he occasionally donned a red and white suit while living in Savannah, Ga. He was sitting on the board of the Savannah Symphony when, one winter, the symphony decided to hand the conductor’s baton over to Santa Claus for a holiday concert. English stepped up to the podium, and the orchestra took care of the rest.

Meanwhile, earlier in the month, Addison resident Tim Buskey, 63, pulled on his suit and marched down the streets of Vergennes during the city’s holiday stroll. Buskey bought his suit around six years ago, and he’s been playing Santa ever since. He volunteers his time as jolly old St. Nick, and said he turns out every year to support Vergennes, where he and his wife own a residential care facility.

“I do it for Vergennes,” Buskey said. “I absolutely love this city … (and) it’s an absolutely wonderful place to be in business.”

But Buskey’s also devoted to his fans, the children who show up for the event. Every year, the stroll takes Santa and his followers to the Bixby Library, where Buskey-as-Santa reads “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Buskey works hard at the gig: He listens for cues, trying to pick up a child’s name by listening to a parent speak to a child. Like Douglas, he said that it’s the details that count.

“If you know their names, it’s much more believable,” Buskey said.

And also like Douglas, Buskey watches for familiar faces. If he recognizes a child from the previous year’s festivities, he can ask them about their year, their classes, and their families.

But Santa Claus stand-ins are on the lookout for faces that are too familiar. Buskey said he steers clear of his granddaughter at the Vergennes stroll, and tries not to speak when she’s around for fear of her recognizing her grandpa’s voice. Buskey remembers sitting with his oldest grandson, then just a year-and-a-half old, while Buskey was dressed up like Santa. Someone asked, “Where’s Grandpa?” and the boy, without speaking, poked Buskey in the stomach.

“I stay away from my grandchildren,” Buskey chuckled. “I don’t want to spoil it for them.”

Douglas faces a similar dilemma, and said his daughter (one of Douglas’s three children) won’t let her own daughter see grandpa in his Santa suit.

TRICKY CUSTOMERS

That bit of furtiveness takes a back seat, though, to playing jolly St. Nick for the rest of the children at an event.

It’s not always an easy job. Buskey said that the two-year-olds, in particular, are very apprehensive.

“I try to be really, really gentle and friendly with them,” Buskey said. “That’s the most difficult age.”

Douglas agreed that children cry, of course, and some are frightened — though he said that many are much calmer by the time they return a year later and a year older. He’s never been wet on, he confided, though he has been kicked in the shin by one particularly feisty kid who demanded, “Why are you asking me what I want for Christmas?”

But Douglas loves watching the children he sees each Christmas grow up. Children will return year after year, and he’ll ask them about their families and their studies, their musical instruments and their sports teams. In some cases, he’s even played Santa to two or three generations of a family.

“They feel that they know you,” Douglas said of the children. “They love to be remembered.”

And crying two-year-olds and kicks in the shin don’t detract from what Buskey and Douglas both said is a fantastic experience.

“I don’t consider it work,” Douglas said. “I never did.”

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