All you mall and shopping center Santas beware. That goes for you Salvation Army Santas, Jolly Elves of office parties, and sundry Saint Nicks of community parades, too. The “real Santa” is watching.
He sees you when you accessorize your red suit with funky cheap boots and belts, and he can spot a fake beard a mile away. Santa knows. This one does, anyway — Santa as embodied by Trenton resident Brian O. Hill.
Stepping into this special persona for more than 30 years, Hill is about the closest you’ll get to the Santa Claus of your childhood imagination, unless, perhaps, you go sleighing and sleuthing at the North Pole.
Children see Hill and they stop and look, with wide eyes and open mouths. Adults will stare too, and approach in a kind of wonderment to ask, “Santa? Is that, um, really you?”
The season starts just after Halloween for Hill, picks up steam in mid-November, and then gets crazy in December. The Santa gig takes up many, many hours of Hill’s time, but he loves it.
“It’s an honor to represent a character who stands for giving, love, and joy, and especially in this world right now, when love and joy are sorely needed,” Hill says. “I am honored to strap on those boots and tilt my hat just right.”
Hill-as-Santa will be at Kale’s Nursery/Garden Center on Carter Road in Princeton, Saturday and Sunday, December 16 and 17, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. He is actually the new Santa, as the previous Jolly Elf retired to the North Pole last year.
It didn’t take long for Hill to step into Santa’s boots at Kale’s.
The nursery posted a message on Facebook advertising a job opening for a new Santa. Just a few minutes later, one of Hill’s friends (or “elves,” as he calls them), messaged him asking, “Are you interested in this at all?”
“I immediately sent Kale’s an e-mail with a headshot, saying, ‘I heard you’re looking for me,’” Hill says. “They called me and said, ‘that was fast, we only had to advertise for 20 minutes.’ To which I said, ‘Well, Santa knows.’”
As of this writing, Hill was completely booked up for the 2017 Christmas season. “I’m booked so solid, it’s incredible,” he says.
The average rate for Hill to make an appearance as Santa is $125 an hour, with rates going up the closer it gets to Christmas. He says he charges differently for individuals than for corporations, noting that corporate Santa appearances are more demanding.
“It’s some three-and-a-half hours, with as many as 275 children sitting on my lap, and that’s a workout,” Hill says.
Capital Health System, St. Francis Hospital, Trenton Orthopedic, and Lawrenceville dentist Booth Small are just a few of his regular clients.
In addition, for years now, Hill has done a special “Photos with Santa” day at Re/Max Tri-County in Hamilton Township, with all proceeds going to the Children’s Miracle Network.
Veteran photographer Cie Stroud is in charge of the images, and she also oversees Hill’s website, www.santaclausnp.com. (The “np” stands for “North Pole.”)
Hill really does go around to area malls and other venues to scope out the other Santas, which he cleverly calls the “subordinate clauses.” Hill’s wife, Linda, is a retired proofreader, so she probably came up with that grammatical pun. The couple has two adult children, Penelope Jane and Joshua.
“I go and look at (the Santas), and yes, we all work very hard to please everyone, and it is difficult, but you’d better be wearing a real beard, you should have a clean suit on, your belt should be straight, you should be wearing gloves, and you should not be wearing tortoise-shell glasses,” he says.
Most of all, there should be no drinking or rude behavior Hill says, only semi-joking. “Don’t evoke Billy Bob Thornton as ‘Bad Santa,’” he says.
Hill was born in Baltimore in 1951, and the large family moved frequently, including a re-location to Freehold, where Hill spent most of his childhood. The Hills later moved to Mercerville.
His father was the chief engineer for Congoleum, and, in addition to raising Hill and his seven siblings, his mother was a substitute teacher in Freehold, as well as a volunteer producer and costumer for the high school’s plays.
“The director would sketch drawings of costumes, including one time for ‘The King and I,’ and would hand them over to my mom, who would make all the costumes,” Hill says.
The talent for designing, sewing, and crafting costumes seems to have been passed down to his sister, Debbie Scheu. A sought-after professional costumer based in Wilmington, North Carolina, with a warehouse of theatrical costumes, Scheu is the one who has crafted Hill’s Santa suits and vests all these years, as well as the special, old-fashioned shirts he wears underneath.
“My mom used to make my shirts, and there was always a label that read, ‘Made with love by Mother,’” Hill says. “But she died in 2000 just around my birthday. It was kind of sad, because that’s when I would get another shirt from her.”
That year, a birthday package did arrive in the mail, and this time it was from his sister. “It was a shirt, and inside the label read, ‘When brothers lose mothers, sisters step in,’” Hill says.
Hill credits his mother with instilling his love for Christmas, especially the holiday’s deeper significance. “I always wondered about Santa,” Hill says. “I would ask, ‘Who is he?’ and my mother would never answer the question. She would only talk about the spirit of Santa, saying, ‘Remember, Santa is all about giving.’”
His mother tried to clarify her words by urging Hill to watch his younger brothers and sisters opening their presents, to really observe the joy on their faces. “I can remember this so clearly,” he says. “I was only about 10, and I watched everybody open their presents and wasn’t concerned about what I was getting.”
It is also thanks to Hill’s mother that he discovered just how much he looks like Santa Claus. The breakthrough came unexpectedly, as Hill was doing plumbing repairs for his mother, under the sink and sweating on a hot day.
“This was around 1979, I had on my red Henley-style shirt, and was wearing my John Lennon glasses, and I had long hair back then,” Hill says. “I came out from under the sink and my glasses had slipped down my nose. My mom gasped and said, ‘Don’t move.’ I thought she was going to tell me there was a giant spider on my head or something. She came back with a mirror, held it up to me, and said, ‘Look, you’re Santa!’”
Neighbors were the first to ask Hill to appear as Santa at a Christmas party, for which he rented a Santa suit. Soon, more and more friends were asking him to play the role during the holidays, and Hill bought his jolly red garb from a catalog, and then from a local costume rental place.
“Sometime around 1992 I asked my sister for a better suit, and she made one, delivered it about a week later,” Hill says. “I was in my glory, had this great suit, and was good to go. But I still had a cheap belt and boots, so I kept trying to improve everything.”
He had always noticed how carefully children studied him when they came to sit on his lap, especially what Hill calls “all the ‘Bs’” — the beard, belly, boots, buckles, and the belt. “I decided I had to make those really tight,” he says.
Hill chose Army Paratrooper Jump Boots to wear with his Santa garb, in part to honor a friend who died in the Vietnam War, but also because of their practicality. His gloves are also military in origin — U.S. Marine Corps Dress Whites.
The boot buckles are hand-cast bronze made by Hill’s good friend, sculptor Michelle Post (another elf), whose works can be found at Grounds For Sculpture, among other locations. Post also crafted a “magic key” for Santa, which lets him into the houses that don’t have chimneys.
Also very special is the belt buckle Post created for Hill, custom-made with a portrait of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and also hand-cast bronze.
Another element of Hill’s Santa outfit is the set of sleigh bells he carries and describes to the children as Rudolph’s personal bells. They have been in his family for generations, and were actually used on a sleigh.
Marge Miccio, a local artist and longtime owner of the Artifacts Gallery in Trenton, is another one of Santa’s elves, with a very important role. “Marge found my spectacles, which are from around 1875,” Hill says. “Nick Piantoni from DBP Optical in Hamilton fitted them with the lenses. In fact, I have several pairs, in case a baby grabs them off my face, or they break, which sometimes happens. I just put the broken ones in my pocket and pull out another pair.”
“I do little things that most Santas don’t think about,” he continues. “For example, sometimes children spit up on my gloves. In that case, I take them off, take off my hat, inside is another pair of gloves, and I’m ready to go. It’s these little things that set me apart.”
In 1977, before being Santa became such a large part of his life, Hill graduated from what was then Trenton State College with a degree in liberal arts, which included numerous credits in applied arts studio, with a concentration in ceramics and sculpture.
After college Hill launched his own cabinetry business. “I realized I wasn’t (sculptor) Henry Moore, so I went into the cabinet-making business,” Hill says. “It was creative but also practical.”
Running his own business suited Hill fine, but about 20 years later he decided that he needed a change and applied for the director’s position at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie. “I figured I had nothing to lose,” he says. “I was a cabinet maker with a degree in arts, I knew stuff had to be fixed there, and I said what was on my mind. They hired me on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1998, saying ‘we need someone right away as interim director,’ so I had one foot in the door.”
That year Hill worked intensely, fixing things, painting, arranging and hanging shows, and later in 1998 was made full-time director of Ellarslie, where he stayed for some 13 years.
During this time he returned to college, and in 2002 earned a master’s degree in museum management and arts administration from Seton Hall.
In 2011 Hill was laid off as part of disgraced and imprisoned former Trenton Mayor Tony Mack’s budget cutting and served in administrative positions at historic Fort Morgan in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio before moving back to the Trenton area, where he had owned a home and still maintained clients.
Now in addition to his holiday work, “Santa’s” regular job is at Whole Foods Market in the Windsor Green Shopping Center, where a fellow laid off Ellarslie employee had gotten a job in 2011. Hill started out making pizzas and is now in the bakery department.
“I started at Whole Foods in early November, 2016, and then I was diagnosed with prostate cancer last December,” Hill says. “I don’t mind talking about the cancer. I got it and beat it. I did hormone therapy and radiation, and never missed a day of work. (The whole time) they were very supportive to me at Whole Foods.”
“I went vegan and that helped bunches, and in the process I lost 100 pounds,” he adds. “I have changed almost everything about my life since then, and it has been an adventure, to say the least.”
In an ironic twist, instead of children leaving treats for Santa, Hill offers them samples of cookies when they visit the Whole Foods bakery. He may occasionally hand his Santa card to their parents, too.
“Whole Foods is very cool with me being Santa,” Hill says. “By doing all this charity work (as Santa), I get them business. Now people are coming into the store asking, ‘Is Santa here?’”
These days, since Hill now sports naturally snow white hair, mustache, and beard, he really, really looks like Santa Claus.
Hill says he had no special training to become Santa; the persona just seemed to fit him perfectly. “I am a huge fan of ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ and maybe more than all the movies about Christmas, that one portrays the kindness and love Santa exudes,” Hill says. “You just have to be kind and show no preference between the perfectly dressed child and a poor child, or even one that might have a smelly diaper. I don’t care who or what they are, I just ask, ‘what do you want for Christmas?’”
As for Hill’s own Christmas list, he has a big request, one that he sincerely wishes Santa can make happen: “Dear Santa, can you PLEASE fix our government?”
Brian Hill as Santa Claus, Kale’s Nursery, 133 Carter Road, Princeton. Saturday and Sunday, December 16 and 17, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 609- 921-9248 or www.kalesnursery.com.
Brian Hill as Santa: www.santaclausnp.com