Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick
With a long history steeped in Christmas traditions and memories, he goes by many names; Jolly Old Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santa Claus or as he’s known in Tomah, David Hall.
Today, children all over the world know the joyous man with a white beard in the red suit brings gifts and toys to good boys and girls on Christmas Eve, but the story of Santa Claus reaches all the way back to the third century when Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of children.
It is believed that Nicholas was much admired for his kindness and that he gave away all of his inherited wealth to help the poor and sick. Over many years, Nicholas’ popularity grew and he became known as the protector of children.
The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas, which is Dutch for Saint Nicholas.
Hall loves to tell the children he visits with the history of Santa Claus and he himself has a long history of portraying the jolly old man.
Adults know him as David and the kids have known him as Santa Claus for the past 15 years, but as Hall says, Santa has many helpers and no one can be everywhere at all times.
Rather than trying to keep secrets from children or tell them a fable, even Hall’s own grandchildren know that he is Santa’s helper. “One of the best,” he jokes.
Hall worked for the Department of Veteran Services for 42 years and retired in Tomah. Before his retirement, a friend of his wife’s needed someone to portray Santa at her family’s tree farm in Melrose after the existing one could no longer do it.
“Me being someone my oldest son would refer to as a ‘prosperous physique’ she asked me if I would mind being Santa,” Hall said. “I just absolutely did it to help. It was fun and when the next year rolled around, she asked me if I could do it again and I did.”
At first, Hall wore what he describes as “one of the department store Santa outfits” made of red polyester with little white cuffs. Mrs. Claus, also known as Cyndy Hall, told him he had to do better than that.
She made him a new outfit out of coyote fur and a Pendleton red cape and pretty soon he had a Northwoods Santa outfit, which he says is absolutely perfect. He evolved into the Northwoods Santa and started letting his hair grow long.
He started doing home visits and while he was on the Cranfest board, he was eventually asked to portray Santa for the Warrens Area Youth Association’s annual Christmas event, which he has been doing ever since.
He has portrayed Santa in the Tomah Holiday Parade for several years, making him only one of three men to ride on Santa’s float in Tomah since Hall moved to Tomah in 1980.
“I have been so honored to be Tomah’s Santa,” he said.
Hall also portrays Santa at corporate events, nursing homes, schools and daycare centers. Last year, he had 30 Santa visits from November to December; this year he only has six both in person and virtually.
“This year with COVID it has been horrible for me. I just absolutely have become enamored with the children and I miss seeing them,” Hall said. “I am now at the point where I had children I saw as preteens who now have children of their own. Kids I held in my arms are now in high school.”
Last year, he saw the youngest child to have visited him at seven days old. So far this year, the youngest child has been 14 days old.
“That first Santa picture is so important and I just melt over babies,” Hall said. “It’s a new life and it’s a blank slate.”
The important thing for him is to send a message of Christmas spirit more than defending the existence of Santa Claus. “I try to convey to the children and to the parents a message of caring, sharing, giving, helping and happiness,” he said.
When he visits with a child, he of course always asks the obligatory, “What are you hoping to get for Christmas?” He never makes any promises and never guarantees a child anything.
One request that sticks out to Hall is when he asked a little boy what he was hoping to get for Christmas, instead of asking for toys or anything for himself, the little boy told Santa Claus that his mother needed a new car.
“It totally broke my heart, but it also encouraged me,” Hall said. “That is what it’s all about.”
He will ask children if they’ve been good and informs them that the elves are counting the smiles of big people this year. Big people like moms, dads, grandparents, teachers and preachers.
“I tell them, ‘They’re counting the big people’s smiles that they get from you. They keep counting all the way up until Christmas Eve,’” he explained. “Then I’ll say, ‘When we’re trying to figure out what to leave under the Christmas tree, the elves will say Johnny had this many smiles and the more smiles you have, the cooler the presents will be under the tree.’”
For the older children who challenge whether or not he’s real or feel they’re “too old” to believe in Santa Claus, he’ll simply tell them, “I am just representing the Spirit of Christmas,” and he will then ask them, “What are you going to do this Christmas season to make someone else happy?”
It’s that small difference that he can maybe make in a family’s life that brings him a true sense of reward.
“I don’t like any one experience more than the other, but I do love when it’s personal,” Hall said. “It’s that child or family that somehow I’ve made a difference with, whether it’s how they think about things or an improved behavior.”
With his long white hair and a long white beard, Hall truly looks like Santa Claus all year long. He loves when people come up to him, especially adults and exclaim, “It’s Santa!” at the Tomah tractor pull or the grocery store.
“All of a sudden I’m not just another guy, I’m Santa,” he said.
Santa’s favorite Christmas Cookie? Shortbread dusted with powdered sugar
Santa’s favorite Christmas movie? Klaus
Santa’s favorite Christmas song? Angels We Have Heard on High