Do you believe in Santa Claus? I do — and that’s why I arranged to interview him at the home of Tony and Mary Yarusso in Northville, on Long Island Sound.
He answered a bunch of nosy questions with his customary good humor.
Full disclosure: At the end of our interview, he gave me a candy cane.
Q: How did you get into this?
A: I had white hair and I decided to let my beard grow, see where it went and what I would become. So it grew and grew and I said, “Hmm, let me get a red suit and see where I go with this.” Once you put on the suit, it’s a different day. You’ve got a lot of responsibilities. Children are watching you and you have to set an example for them. You are a Santa and you have responsibility to what Santa represents: kindness, goodness and helping.
Q: Santa, you’re looking pretty fit. How do you do it? And why?
A: We are getting away from the tradition of the fat Santa. I wear the hat to protect me from the sun. Santa doesn’t smoke a pipe anymore. I learned something years ago: When you’ve grown the beard and you wear the red you are a Santa 24/7. Today Santa Claus realizes that health is a big part of what he should be projecting.
Q: What do you say to the children who come to see you?
A: I thank them for those chocolate chip cookies — the ones they left for me last year — and they just beam, because it’s nice to get a thank-you from Santa. I usually ask them, “Are you helping your mommy and your daddy?” I encourage them to read books with their parents and remind them that it’s very important to eat all your veggies and fruits, and that it’s not all about milk and cookies — except for me. Ho! Ho! Ho!
Q: Sounds like your approach to being Santa means taking advantage of teachable moments.
A: I don’t teach a lesson, but I do want to convey a few things that they can take away with them. I have a big map next to the sled. When a child asks, “Where do you go first, Santa?” I tell them, starting from the North Pole, I always go to Poland first because it is very cold there and I like to get it out of the way early. Then I go around and down through South America. When I get to Alaska I know I’m almost home.
Q: Have children’s requests changed over the years?
A: These days a lot of technical stuff, but children still want dolls and trucks.
Q: Are you famous?
A: I’m not interviewed all the time, maybe once in the past year. I did go on “Good Morning America” a few times, in 2012, 2013 and 2015. It was grand.
Q: Where can kids go to see you?
A: I do a lot of volunteering at schools. I’ll be at Mercy High School in Riverhead on Thanksgiving Day. I’m also at Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm in Cutchogue.
Q: Do people ever ask you if Santa Claus really exists?
A: Practically every person that comes to see me has the question, “Are you Santa?” Know what I tell them? “That’s for you to answer, for you to make up your mind.” Then I take my hat off and ask, “What do you think?”