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Paynesville Press - December 19, 2001

Santa's Special Helper

By Michael Jacobson

Rich Philabaum as St. Nick December is Rich Philabaum's favorite month of the year. Rich, you see, has a special relationship with Santa Claus.

The Roscoe resident is one of Santa's special helpers. "Well, you know Santa can't be everywhere," he explained.

He has portrayed Santa at churches, at daycare centers, at banks, at stores, at country clubs, at Christmas parties, and at countless other places. "Anybody that's got a social gathering," he said. He does it in the local area, around St. Cloud (where he works at the Veteran's Administration Hospital), and in the Twin Cities.

Each December, he gets asked by the real Santa to go to 25 or 30 places in the weeks before Christmas. Out of personal belief, though, Rich likes to wait until December, until well after Thanksgiving, before getting in the Christmas spirit.

Rich got his start at being Santa soon after he and his wife Marleen moved to Roscoe in 1976. (Rich, 52, grew up in Virginia, but his mother is a Flint and he, Marleen, and daughter Hannah live in his grandmother's house in Roscoe.)

His first Santa gig was in John Soschnik's small store in Roscoe. Back in those days, Rich had to wear a cotton beard and borrow a Santa suit when he either entertained at Soschnik's store or delivered candy to kids in town.

Since then, Rich has grown into the role, both physically and spiritually. His physique is of more Santa-like proportions these days and he has his own full white beard that leads him to being recognized as a Santa impersonator all over.

What provides the enjoyment in his job is celebrating Christmas with so many people each year and seeing the joy of the season in the eyes of a young believer. "There is magic," he stressed. "That's what's neat about it. There's magic in the holiday season."

"As tired as he is when he comes home," added Marleen, "he always says: You should have seen this kid."

"It's more than a man in a red suit. It's more than that," Marleen explained. "He goes beyond that."

Literally, in fact. Rich has three Santa outfits, all sown for him by his mother. He has two traditional red outfits and a green outfit that he calls his Victorian or woodsman Santa.

At appearances, Rich likes to start by giving some history and stressing the spirit at the heart of the season, a message that can be lost all too easily amid the commercialism and materialism that pervades Christmas these days.

He likes to give some history about the generosity of St. Nicholas and the foundation of gift giving at Christmas time. (Christmas Traditions)

At many places, he stresses that gifts do not have to be expensive or extravagant to have meaning. Giving someone a hug or saying "I love you" can be the best gifts of all.

He takes great pride that his daughter - who used to dress up as an elf and assist him when she was younger - volunteers at a homeless shelter in the Twin Cities for a day around Christmas each year. Last year, she wore her elf ears and elf shoes while working. She quietly went about her work and left a number of kids believing she was a real elf. The real elves, of course, are busy finishing the toy orders and packing Santa's sleigh in the days before Christmas Eve.

Rich sees his job as adding to the magic, and the understanding, of the season. "The music. The lights. The decorations. Everyone is just doing their part to make it a joyous season," he explained.

"One thing is Rich's personality is like Santa," said Marleen. "He's always happy, go lucky." This, along with his Santa looks, may be why the real Santa asked him to be one of his holiday stand-ins.

Rich describes himself as impulsive and he has engaged in a number of activities in the spirit of Christmas and to uphold Santa's fun-loving image. He's gone sledding with kids. He's ridden snowmobile. He's taken a sleigh ride. He's sung Christmas carols. He's even joined a bridal party on their way to a wedding reception.

When he retires from his day job, he is planning to write a book about his experiences as Santa. He is collecting humorous anecdotes from his dealings with kids, from the few times when he was nearly discovered as a stand-in, and collecting actual letters from kids to use.

These days, through the power of the Internet, Rich can pass the wish lists to Santa at the North Pole by e-mail and can keep the letters for his own enjoyment, a perk of his job, you might say. Years ago, Rich had to mail the actual letters to Santa. Then Santa got a fax machine and he could send a copy to the North Pole and start to keep the letters.

Letters range from endless lists by kids who apparently ran out of paper before running out of requests to modest wishes such as: "Nothing special for me. Just surprise me." A really popular way to make a list these days is to cut pictures of desired items from a catalogue or magazine, he said.

Kids expect Santa to read their listÉand to remember everything. They may get confused when Rich doesn't remember their entire list from the other day when they saw him at the mall! "Oh, that's right," he might use as a save. Then he'll add: "I thought there might have been something that you forgot to tell me."

"You get to be quick with the kids," he explained.

One time, a child was upset with him after seeing him arrive in his vehicle, instead of by sleigh. When he told the nine-year-old that there was a reason, the child said, "It had better be good." His tale of starting a fire when his steel sleigh skids landed on the asphalt street and having to call 9-1-1 convinced the child of the wisdom of his traveling by car and restored Christmas belief.

For years, Rich used to tell Paynesville kids who asked about his sleigh that he had parked it north of town by Borkville and that local businessman Norman Bork looked after his reindeer when he was in town. Then he'd let loose with a his best Ho! Ho! Ho! laugh as kids would excitedly ask their parents: Can we go out there and see?

Sometimes, kids start to doubt that there is a Santa, but Rich, having direct contact with the real Santa, is able to reassure young believers. Often, he'll find that kids' doubts are caused mainly by peer pressure. His advice for them is to keep their belief in their heart. "What you've got down there," he explains, "no one can take away."

When he retires, he may consider letting Santa assign him to places further away from Roscoe, to places he can't go when he has to be at his 9-to-5 job on Monday morning. Santas are in high demand at large retail malls around the country, who offer contracts with wages of more than $1,000 a day for a Santa between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

That might be nice retirement pay, but he wonders whether he will like the working conditions. His worst experience as Santa was a mall-like event where he had his picture taken 500 times in three hours. Kids moved on and off his lap like they were on a conveyor belt at an assembly line, he explained, and the spirit of Christmas was completely absent. "I would never do that again," he said. "I'm not a mall Santa," he predicted. "I know guys who do that. I like it more meaningful than that."

Instead he may have Santa continue to assign him to places where he has the best interaction with kids and where he can keep the spirit of the season alive by inspiring belief in the magic of Christmas and the magic of Santa. "Everybody's got a niche in life," he concluded. "I run with it. I can't wait to do it each year. Eleven months can't go by fast enough sometimes."

Christmas Traditions
Christmas comes from an early English phrase, Cristes maesse, that means the mass of Christ.

By the late 300s A.D., Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. St. Nicholas was born in what is now Turkey around that time. He became a priest and then bishop of Myra. His reputation for gift giving apparently started when he aided a poor nobleman by giving him money so his three daughters could marrry.

By 1100, Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe, and St. Nicholas a symbol of gift giving.

In the 1800s, two Christmas customs became popular in the United States - decorating trees and sending cards to relatives and friends. The tradition of decorating trees started in Germany centuries before and was brought to the United States by German immigrants. Many well-known carols, including "Silent Night," were written in this period, and Santa Claus appeared in the United States.

The tradition of Santa Claus stems from as English variation of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas: Sinterklaas, which became Santy Claus or Santa Claus. Until the 1800s, people pictured St. Nicholas as a tall, thin, stately man who wore a bishop's robe.

The modern vision of Santa Claus as a stout, jolly man started in 1809 in a story by Washington Irving. It was enhanced in the 1823 poem, "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," better known by its first line, "Twas the night before Christmas." In this poem, whose authorship is debated, Santa is stout and jolly, dressed in red with twinkling eyes and a red nose, and he rides a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer over the rooftops.

Today, Santa Claus brings gifts in the United States, Canada, and Australia. He is known as Father Christmas in England, as Pere Noel in France, and Weihnachtsmann in Germany. St. Nicholas still brings presents in some countries, including the Netherlands, Austria, and Belgium.

(Source: 2001 World Book Encyclopedia)

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