December 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Forget what they told you in first grade. Santa Claus does not live at the North Pole. He lives with Mrs. Claus in Silver City, Iowa—a town of 236 people, one jolly elf, and his wife.

Each November Santa, aka Gary, turns into the world-renowned being to whom children want to tell their secrets, but they still know who he really is even in the heat of summer.

“Mothers drag their children away from him,” jokes Mrs. Claus, aka Lynda. “He’s a big man with long white hair and a beard.” Without his signature red suit, he looks rather formidable to a small child.

Silver City’s Papa Noel starts his holiday appearances at The Durham’s tree-lighting ceremony the day after Thanksgiving. He and Mrs. Claus also appear there the following Friday at the museum’s Ethnic Festival.

Along with The Durham, the couple appear at schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.

They recall rewarding moments. “One woman every year, from age 90 until she died at age 105, had her picture taken with Santa,” Lynda says.

And there are funny memories. Visiting a second-grade class, he was asked by a little boy, “How do we know you’re really Santa?” Gary invited him to feel his beard. The youngster entwined his fingers into the iconic white fuzz and was literally lifted two feet off the ground when Gary stood, proving the facial hair was real.

Some responses break Gary’s heart. At Offutt Air Force Base, he received a humbling reply from his routine question, “What do you want for Christmas?”

“(The child) replied: ‘My dad could use tools. He hasn’t had a job for awhile. My mom could use a new dress.’ It was tearing us up. I asked ‘Isn’t there anything you want?’ He said, ‘I guess I could use a new toothbrush.’ We just wanted to shut down and take him shopping.”

While some children melt Gary’s heart, others warm it.

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“A little girl crawled into my lap and snuggled. She said she was tired. I said I was, too, and told her: ‘But see all the stuff on the floor? (Meaning the white confetti, or “snow”) I have to stay and clean that up.’ She said ‘Maybe we could all stay and help you.’”

“I don’t do it for the money,” adds Gary. “Ninety percent of what we do, we do for free.”

He never wants to turn down people who call with requests to appear, but Father Christmas maintains a busy schedule.

“It breaks my heart when I have to tell someone no,” he says. “We’re both getting old.”

(And here we thought Kris Kringle was ageless).

Gary and Lynda each have two grown children. Two grandchildren have performed as elves.

“You don’t tell anyone that grandpa is Santa Claus,” Lynda tells the clan. “That’s the family secret.”

Even if he is slower and appears less frequently than before, Gary believes portraying St. Nicholas is the cat’s pajamas…make that the Christmas pajamas.

“I’ve been doing this for over 38 years and never had a child be anything but wonderful. I get a lot more out of being Santa than the kids get out of meeting me.”

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