Tucked away in the back-back room of Shoe Sensation, at Northland Mall, we’re a long way from the North Pole. And I’m about 25 years removed from believing in him.
Yet the 6-foot-2, crimson-clad man nearly convinces me with his pristinely snow-white beard and rich baritone that he’s going to soon board a sleigh and defy just about every law of physics.
I’ve since mulled theories on why John Frederic is so convincing. A front-runner is that he loves what he does.
“The way the kids are so exuberant lifts your spirit,” he says, his face lighting up, despite the 1-month marathon he has endured for the ninth consecutive year.
Just watching him and his wife, Penny … er … Mrs. Claus … trying to stave off line-jumpers and get off the set by 3 p.m. made me tired.
“You know you’re on the naughty list,” John’s better half said to two parties who clearly didn’t arrive early enough to play by the rules.
But I think I’m most swayed by the comfort I take in the fact that, when his beard started turning bright white almost 20 years ago, fate seemingly found John.
See, he and the missus don’t see their families much. Only one of their five kids lives in the state, so quality time with his 11 grandchildren and six great-greats doesn’t come by very often.
But Christmas miracles abound, even for the big man. Well, maybe it was more of a day-after-Thanksgiving miracle, when two of those great-grandkids were his first two customers.
“That was a special treat,” John said.
Want to know how convincing John is? They didn’t recognize him. But then, he says he never gets the “You’re not Santa Claus” treatment. Quite the contrary, actually, regardless of setting, time of year, or climate.
While he visited his brother in Hawaii, children flocked to Santa, even in his board shorts. At dinner, he’ll often feel gentle breathing on the back of his neck.
“And there’s a little guy or girl standing there looking at me,” John said. So he gives them the best insider’s wink available. “I say ‘Hi’ to them, and I say, ‘Have you been good?’”
But John seems destined to wear those monstrous black boots, and the late-night inquisitions he got while raising his own kids prepared him for the grilling he deftly navigates at the mall.
“When your youngest son comes in half an hour after you went to sleep, wakes you and asks, ‘Dad, if you were a cubic inch of water, what ocean would you want to be in?’” John said. “He asked questions like that continuously. It didn’t help me decide to be Santa, but it helps me be Santa, to be able to answer the questions – to use my imagination to come up with an answer.”
That’s not to say it didn’t take some practice, especially when John found his heart in his throat. For instance, early in his career as Santa, his advice of “Be good for Mommy and Daddy” was met with a heartbreaking confession, as well as a reminder of how honest children can be.
“She said, ‘I don’t have a daddy. He got killed in the war,’” Frederic said. “I held it together until she was gone, then I had to get up and leave the set. Some of them are so emotional that I have to take a break and get myself back together again.”
Oh, yeah. That’s another reason John evokes this jaded reporter’s long-forgotten belief in Santa Claus. It would be tough to find a bigger heart.
Children are the common thread in much of what he and Penny do. She’ll be back behind the camera when the Easter Bunny visits. John helps out, but if you didn’t catch him in the suit the one time he tried it on, you’re out of luck.
Penny’s played the bunny, and feels it’s something everyone should have to do to appreciate it.
“You should have to walk a mile in their moccasins,” Penny said.
They also help out with the Pumpkin Dash at Woodlawn Arts Academy, put on by CGH. Anything to put a smile on children’s faces.
I fear that citing all of this evidence that John is not, in fact, Santa could break some hearts.
But you know what? After spending some time with “John,” I might be wrong.
In case you
missed it … or him
Wrangle your little ones and visit saukvalley.com to listen to a sit-down with Santa Claus, the first episode in the new SVM podcast, “The People’s Voice.”