Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And his name is Brian O. Hill.
“It started about 25 years ago,” says Hill, 55, a Trenton resident who by day moonlights as executive director of the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion. “My dad was chief engineer for Congoleum, which means he didn’t fix things around the house. My mother needed a new J-trap put in, in their house in Freehold, so there I am under the sink. Now remember I’m a child of the sixties, so I had long hair. It is a hot July day. My glasses are slipping down my nose, and I am wearing a red Henley shirt. I look up at my mom and say, “How’s that?” She says, ‘Oh, my God, don’t move.’ Of course, I think there’s a spider. She holds up a mirror, and she says, ‘Look, you’re Santa.’ I look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, my God, I am.’
Then a mere ingenue of a Santa, at 30, Hill started out with a rented Santa costume from the Costume Scene in Hamilton. The first year he just visited friends and family. The next year, pardon the pun, things started snowballing. He bought a Santa suit from the Costume Scene and used that for four years. “At the time I still wore fake hair and colored my beard white.”
On a visit one year in the early 1990s, Hill’s sister, Debby Scheu, dragged him into their mother’s sewing room. “She says to me, ‘Down to your skivvies.’” Scheu, a professional seamstress, who lives in Wilmington, NC, known as Hollywood East, due to its popularity among filmmakers, made all the antebellum costumes for the film “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” makes costumes for all the theaters in Wilmington, and owns her own sewing store, Bernina Is Sew Much Fun, named after the Bernina sewing machines she sells.
“She pinned a muslin fabric over me and cut it and pinned it and sewed it. This was in July.” In November Hill received a box from his sister, and inside was his own hand-made Santa suit. “I put it on and it was like magic. I was crying.” Later his sister said, “You can see it in your eyes. You’re Santa.” She has since made him four other suits. “I go so many places I need to have one cleaned while I’m wearing another,” says Hill.
This year he will make 60 appearances at preschools, schools, and charity events. On Sunday, November 9, he made his first stop, which has been his first stop for the past six or seven years, at the annual Children’ Miracle Network benefit hosted by Re/Max Tri-County.
It takes Hill about an hour and a half to get prepared. “When I go out it takes me a long time to get dressed. Everything has to be perfect. A child looks at you with such exquisite detail.” He no longer needs fake hair, he just curls some of it and sprays on white hair spray. “Now my beard is so white, thank you to my daughter, I only need touches of white spray.” Hill and his wife, Linda, have two children, Penelope Jane, 26, and Joshua, 33. And the moustache is so long it curls up at the ends.
He carries sleigh bells from the mid-1850s, which belonged to his great-great-great-great-great grandparents in central Pennsylvania, and have been in the family “forever.” In 1982 his parents moved to Mercerville. “I had seven brothers and sisters, and my dad handed the bells to me. It’s a totally different sound. Older people just snap their heads and look. I tell kids, ‘These are Rudolph’s bells. When you hear this sound, you have to listen very carefully to hear these bells in the middle of the night.’ And they listen so hard, they go to sleep. It’s the sound of Christmas.”
Hill recently acquired a new pair of Santa spectacles recently from Artifacts Gallery on South Broad Street in Trenton, and DBP Opticals in Hamilton are putting in new lenses. His hand-cast bronze belt buckle, which sports a Rudolph with a red nose, was made by Hill’s friend, Michele Post, who builds J. Seward Johnson’s work at the Johnson Atelier. When kids question if he is the real Santa, he points to his buckle. “Then they make the decision. I’m the real Santa.” Post also made him hand-cast bronze belt buckles with his picture on them. He also has a set of hand-cast brass keys that “lets me into all the homes that don’t have chimneys.”
On Monday, November 13, Hill won the most authentic Santa Claus award in the Tropicana Havana Santa Claus Look-a-Like Contest, held at the Tropicana Fiesta Plaza. “When I won the award it was really spectacular.”
When asked if has any rules about what Santa should or should not say to children, Hill replies, “Never lie.” Little kids look him in the eye all the time and say, “Are you the real Santa?” or “If you’re the real Santa, how come our beard isn’t that long?” Hill answers straightforwardly: “Well, don’t tell anybody but I’m not the real Santa. You’re thinking of my dad, and I’m not old enough yet. And don’t tell anybody ’cuz I’m next.” As for all the other Santas out there, Hill calls them his “subordinate clauses,” a little joke between him and his wife, a former proofreader. The ringtone on Hill’s cell phone (which is red, of course) is Jingle Bells; he has his own website, www.santaclausenp.com (the np is for North Pole, in case you didn’t already figure that out); and his E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
He has innumerable anecdotes of the darnedest things kids have said to him but his two favorite stories span the emotional spectrum from hilarious to heartbreaking. “There was an African-American boy, all dressed up in tweed and a bowtie, his Sunday best. He must have been six or seven. He puts one hand across his chest, rests his other elbow on his arm, and puts his hand up to his mouth. ‘Hmm,’ he says. Then he switches arms and hands. ‘Hmm.’ Then he points to my buckle and says, ‘Santa, that is some serious bling.’ I say, ‘You think that’s cool, look at my boots.’ ‘You got it workin,’ Santa,’ he says.”
Part of Hill’s annual circuit includes photo sessions with Santa at Bob DeLorenzo’s photo studio, DeLorenzo ASP (All Sports Photo) in Hamilton. Each year the monies earned go to a specific family in need. Lorenzo, who counts among his high-profile clients Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, was photographing a Springsteen concert right after 9/11, where the Boss brought the Berger family, Suzanne and her three sons, from Lower Makefield, PA, up on the stage. He talked about Suzanne’s husband’s heroics on 9/11. James Berger, 44, an Aon executive, lost his life in Tower 2, after leaving the building and then going back in to help. Lorenzo got the idea to have the Santa photo session that year benefit the Bergers. Hill, who grew up in Freehold, also has a Bruce connection — “Bruce was in my wife’s homeroom. And her parents introduced Bruce’s parents.”
Hill remembers the photo session well: “At the event, Mrs. Berger said, ‘I have filled out 50 death certificates so far, and I still haven’t gotten a nickel. Do you know what it’s like every time you fill out a death certificate?’ Bob went up to her, gave her an envelope with a generous cash contribution, and said, ‘Here. Go buy Christmas for your kids. No forms, no signature required, no strings attached.’
“When one of her sons came up to me to have his photo taken, I asked him what he would like for Christmas. He said, ‘I want my dad back.’ I don’t know how this came over me but I said, ‘Do me a favor. Close your eyes. Do this with me. Now look at your dad. Can you see him? Now in your head ask him the questions that you want to ask him, and watch him answer.’ And he said, ‘Wow.’ And I said, ‘Anytime you want you can talk to your dad. Anytime you want you can close your eyes and talk to your dad.’ That to me is what the whole season’s about, that spirit.”
James Berger’s New York Times obituary, published on September 21, 2001, says he “grew up in Bruce Springsteen country along the Jersey Shore and never listened to anything else. He knew the words to ‘Thunder Road’ by heart.” According to a posting on James Berger’s page on www.september11victims.com, Springsteen read Berger’s obit and sent a video of himself performing “Thunder Road” to Berger’s memorial service. Interesting that of all the “Santa’s” out there, Berger’s son ended up in Hill’s lap that Christmas.
You can see Hill, um, Santa, at the following locations:
Sunday, December 3, and Wednesday through Sunday, December 6 to 10, Kuser Farm Mansion. 609-890-3630. See Santa’s website, www.Santaclausnp.com, for times.
Saturday, December 8, 5 p.m. Tree lighting in front of Trenton City Hall. Santa will appear in a 100-year-old sleigh.
Sunday, December 9, 3 to 5 p.m., and Saturday, December 16, noon to 2 p.m., photo sessions with Santa at DeLorenzo ASP, 1144 South Olden Street, Hamilton. 609-586-8020.