Because he can’t be everywhere at once, Santa permits certain gifted individuals to appear as Santa Claus from time to time. And where better to find these designated Santas than in Happy Valley!

Of those highlighted here, the majority actually do have a generous white beard and easily could be mistaken for Santa Claus, even when not wearing the red suit—except, that is, for the firefighter Santas who can’t sport a beard for safety reasons. And almost all have visited hospitals, nursing homes and/or private residences to comfort those in need.

Dave Potter has made many of those kinds of visits during his 15 years as Santa. He has appeared as Jolly Old Saint Nick in many other locations as well. This will be his fifth year, for example, to be Santa for the Christmas activities sponsored by the Downtown State College Improvement District. Having already lit the tree at the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza for Light Up Night in November and appearing at First Friday on Dec. 1, Potter will be strolling through downtown State College from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Dec. 9, greeting shoppers and posing for pictures.

 “I have so much fun being Santa,” Potter says, “particularly with kids on the verge of not believing. It helps that I weave the lore of Saint Nicholas into my stories. For example, the children often ask how old I am. So I say, ‘Well, I was born in 280 AD.’ And if I’m in a classroom, I tell them to subtract 280 from the current year to get my age. If they ask my weight, I say 17½ stones, and I have them look up how many pounds are in a stone.

“Another question I’m often asked is ‘where did you park your sleigh?’ When I’m in Philipsburg, I answer, ‘It’s parked at Black Moshannon because that’s the closest airport near here where experimental aircraft—which is how the FAA classifies Santa’s sleigh—can land.’ I explain my reindeer have to stay there too, but that one of the elves will be taking good care of them. This kind of detail grounds the kids’ beliefs and keeps their hope going. So maybe they’ll believe another year, and then maybe one more.”

Potter rarely goes about without his leather pouch that holds Santa “swag.” This includes: official Santa Claus driver’s and pilot’s licenses, health certificates for the reindeer, gold and silver coins, paper money from all over the world and, of course, jingle bells.

Over in Bellefonte, Dave Fritz’s Santa has been delighting children and adults for nearly 15 years during Bellefonte’s Victorian Christmas. In 2023, he’ll arrive at his house on the diamond at 11:45 a.m. on Dec. 9 following Breakfast with Santa at Faith United Methodist Church. On Dec. 9 and 10, Fritz will receive visitors in front of the courthouse from noon to 4 p.m. Then, through Dec. 22, he’ll be there on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. “Having been Santa for so long, I’ve watched many of these children grow up,” says Fritz. “I see them first as babies, and then until they’re 10 or 11 years old. That’s the fun part.

“We talk about what they want for Christmas, and sometimes I explain why they might be too young for something [like a cell phone]. Occasionally a child asks for a horse, and I look over at Mom, and she’s looking at me like ‘don’t you dare!’ so I might say, ‘Well, do you have the land to keep it on?’ and gently suggest why that might not be a good idea,” says Fritz. “Being there each year with everyone coming to see Santa is so great. Kids bring out the best in me, and when I can put smiles on their faces, especially in today’s world, that brings me joy.”

In Boalsburg, Rich Hirsch’s Santa and Karen Hirsch’s Mrs. Claus have been part of Boalsburg’s Hometown Christmas for at least 10 years. Last weekend, a Boalsburg Fire Company truck delivered the couple to the diamond. After greeting the onlookers and distributing hugs, Santa and Mrs. Claus stepped up to the festive tree and asked the crowd to shout “merry Christmas!” Sometimes it takes two or three tries to get enough volume, but eventually the Christmas tree will light up in all its holiday glory. Then the children (often with free hot chocolate from the Lions Club in hand) line up to meet with the Hirsches. Over the years, they have heard a lot of challenging requests, including some for a baby brother or sister. “Santa can bring dolls,” they explain, “but not a real live baby. You’ll have to ask your mom and dad about that.”

The Arboretum at Penn State, in past years, also has asked the Hirsches’ Santa and Mrs. Claus to be on hand. “We really enjoyed the Penn State students at the Arboretum,” says Karen Hirsch, “particularly international students who don’t have Christmas traditions. They asked all kinds of questions and couldn’t wait to send home photos they’d taken with us.”

At the Lemont Christmas Market in the Granary (this year on Dec. 9 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), Jim Thorn’s Santa gets to sit on an antique bench in a historic building to meet his adoring fans. “My style is a little different,” he says. “Instead of booming ‘ho, ho, ho,’ I speak quietly, and that seems to work well for me. I did try to grow out my beard when it got white enough to match my hair, but unfortunately the result was not very Santa-like—although I have moved on from an ear-loop beard. Now I use spirit gum to glue on the mustache and the beard, so it’s much more realistic.”

Thorn goes on to say, “Usually kids ask for the toy of the season, but occasionally they’ll still mention a fire truck, or an American Girl doll.” He particularly enjoys the three- to six-year-olds who are “old enough to speak clearly yet still have stars in their eyes.”

Former Santa Rich Olsen worked hard during his eight or nine years at the Nittany Mall to dispel the “red suit syndrome.” “I knew Mom and Dad wanted the picture,” he says, “but I thought getting the kids to talk with me was much more important.” Among his favorite memories is one when a co-worker came in with his family. “I waved and called out, ‘You can come closer, Bob.’” Later the man’s awestruck nine-year-old son said to him, “Dad! Santa knows your name!”

An even more poignant memory involved a little girl whose only wish was for her father—who was deployed with the military—to come home for the holidays. “I told her I couldn’t promise anything, but would see what I could do. And then, just a few days later, she brought her dad in to see me!” Olsen also remembers Pet Night at the Nittany Mall when families could bring animals to be included in their Christmas photos. “Luckily, they just brought dogs and cats,” he says, “but I was always afraid someone would show up with a snake.” Olsen’s beloved Shetland sheepdogs came to Pet Night too; his wife, Janney, would explain to the children that these Shelties belonged to Santa.

Another former Santa, Chuck Mong, tells how his reign first came about. “A woman who saw me in a parking lot at Westerly Parkway chased me down because of my appearance.” Soon after that encounter, he became Santa at Altoona’s Logan Valley Mall for two years, and then at State College’s Nittany Mall for five years.

“I particularly enjoyed seeing kids who still believed,” he says. “The real little ones hadn’t yet grasped the concept of Santa Claus, so that was a little more challenging. Not many adults sat on my lap during that time, but in State College there was a group of five or six women who did. Every December these ladies got together for a special day out and visited Santa for a Christmas photo. But my favorite memory is of an Amish family, a husband and wife with four kids, who walked by the Santa stage ten times before the children got in line. When it was their turn, each child had a mile-wide smile. And every one of them asked for something so simple, like a wagon or a sled. I’ll never forget that.”

A very different venue for area Santas involves fire trucks. More than 25 fire companies serve Centre County. Many of these sponsor Christmas activities, sometimes including “Santa Runs.” During a Santa Run, Santa (usually with helper elves) rides throughout a company’s service area on the back of a siren-blasting fire vehicle ornately decorated with brightly colored lights.

In the case of Alpha Fire Company, Santas Joe Wirtz and Andrew Prestia take on the Santa Run each year. As Alpha’s original Santa, Wirtz says, “I’ve been in the Alphas for about 28 years, and I think I started doing this my second year in. I love seeing the kids come running out of their houses in the freezing cold with Mom right behind them carrying their shoes and coats. The look on the children’s faces is adorable.” Wirtz also works as a crossing guard at Gray’s Woods Elementary. “And when it gets close to Christmas,” he says, “the kids get so excited to see Santa taking over that duty.” Wirtz is also the official Penn State THON Santa Claus.

Andrew Prestia joined Joe Wirtz to become a second Alpha Santa about fifteen years ago when the route became too large for just one. “Each Christmas Eve we leave at 4 p.m. and get back around 10 or 11,” says Prestia. “But it’s not so much about Joe and me being Santa; we have the easy part really. It’s the others who come in and cook breakfast for us at 7 a.m. and donate meals and stick around for hours using a mountain of duct tape to decorate the trucks who deserve the credit. For us Alphas, the Santa Runs are a way to say ‘thank you’ for the incredibly supportive relationship we have with our community.”

Boalsburg Fire Chief Van Winter feels the same way about his fire company’s connections throughout greater Boalsburg. “We want to be as personally involved in our community as possible,” he says. The Boalsburg Fire Company has done Santa Runs for at least forty years (with Winter himself having been a Santa for ten or fifteen of those). “Because we send out six or seven trucks, we need a lot of Santas, so community volunteers as well as fire company members participate.” This year Boalsburg’s Santa Runs will occur on Dec. 19.

(Some of the Santas profiled earlier in this article also go on Santa Runs. These include Dave Potter for the Hope and Reliance Fire Companies in Philipsburg, and Dave Fritz for Logan and Undine in Bellefonte.)

You’ve now met a representative group of Santas, but these are not the only Kris Kringles in Happy Valley. With the numerous holiday-themed events scheduled all around Centre County for 2023, you’ll find many opportunities to yet again discover the magic of Santa Claus. Keep your eyes and ears open for local media announcements of dates, times and locations for even more genuine Santa sightings. T&G

Diane Johnston Leos is a State College freelance writer.

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