FEATURE — In Cornelia Funke’s 2006 children’s book “When Santa Fell to Earth,” the author proposes – among other things – that there are many “Santas” who all work for the one true Santa.
For Lester Ross, who has played the part of St. Nick at Frontier Homestead State Park Museum’s “Christmas at the Homestead” since its inception, this idea inspires how he chooses to imbue the Christmas spirit in hundreds of children each year. Besides requests for toys, Ross said the most common question he gets from children each year is “Are you the real Santa?”
“You get that really between the ages of 8 to 10,” Ross said. “Years ago, I read (Funke’s book) and I like that one because there were many Santa Clauses. So that’s what I normally tell them. I’m not the Santa Claus, I’m a Santa Claus. And I report to the Santa Claus.”
A man of many hats … and a beard, both real and fake
Ross has been playing the part of Santa Claus for Frontier Homestead State Park for eight years, museum curator Ryan Paul said, adding that he also knew Ross before Christmas at the Homestead started.
When the holiday event expanded from just one night to a full week and joined forces with the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Paul said the decision to ask Ross to play Santa was easy.
“He had friends who worked with the festival as well,” Paul said. “So we all knew Lester, and he has the right personality. The other thing is that his family, his in-laws and his wife, have been heavily involved in the museum as well. … He had been a part of our Frontier Homestead family, and it was an obvious choice.”
He is very committed to the museum and what Santa is and giving people the joy and excitement of seeing Santa Claus.
When Ross isn’t bringing taking Christmas requests or fielding tough questions from inquisitive children, he works in the Iron County building and zoning department as the county’s project manager. He is in charge of remodeling the courthouse in Parowan, as well as the new public safety building in Cedar City.
“I also oversee the maintenance department for the buildings and also help out in the building inspecting departments as needed,” he said.
Ross is allowed to sport a beard in his position with the county, but he said he shaves it off every year before donning Santa’s longer curly whiskers.
“Everybody makes fun of me,” he said, “because I have to go completely smooth shaven in order to do Santa properly. Because I don’t have a white beard.”
Real beard or not, Paul said Santa is the public’s favorite part of Christmas at the Homestead. Ross is situated next to a fireplace in one of the front rooms of the two-story adobe-brick historic Hunter House, the oldest standing home in Cedar City.
“That’s where all the lines are,” he said. “Kids want to see Santa, and parents want to see their kids seeing Santa. It’s the most photographed spot of the park during the Christmas at the Homestead season. It’s where most people really want to go. We have people who come every year and make a beeline to Santa first.”
Being jolly is hard work
This year, Christmas at the Homestead ran five days from 5:30-8 p.m. each night.
Ask any retail worker, and they’ll tell you how difficult it can be trying to stay cheery for 2 ½ hours – perhaps this is why some employers offer breaks every two hours.
Santa is no exception. At least retail workers usually have an answer for their customers. For Santa, some questions go beyond the need for a simple response like “Have you been good this year?”
“One young man asked for a girlfriend,” Ross said. “That one made me laugh.”
Santa also has to be careful not to get in trouble with the parents, especially when a child asks for a new pet.
“I inform them, ‘You can ask for the pets, but I have to ask your parents. And your parents can say ‘no’ on any animal request.’”
Unfortunately, some requests are out of even Santa’s hands.
“The hard ones are,” Ross said and paused for a moment, “I probably get one or two a year where they ask for a loved one to get better. I had a young lady this year ask for her uncle to get better. That one’s always hard. … What I did with her was to say, ‘We’ll put our prayers in and do what we can for you.’”
Mostly, though, Ross hears requests for toys, and he said those haven’t changed that drastically over the past eight years.
“You get the ones that want the new fancy toy or the iPod … but most of the little kids from small up to 8 years old, they’re asking for a doll or Legos. Legos are probably the most asked-for item.”
One unusual request Ross received came from a young boy who visited six years in a row.
“Every year he wanted a new vacuum cleaner,” he said, “and he got one most of those years. According to his mom, he used it.”
Now that’s a kid who believes Santa is watching year-round.
And maybe that belief someone’s keeping track of our good deeds – or at least some version of that belief – is the lesson to be taken from all of this. That’s what Ross would say we can learn from a visit to Santa.
It doesn’t matter your age; everybody can believe in Santa Claus, because it’s kind of a mindset. He’s a man that is giving to others. All of us can be that Santa Claus and have that joy of bringing smiles to a child’s face, or even an adult’s face. … We can have that same spirit.
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