Naughty or Nice, Santa Claus is Coming to Town


Most of the year, Santa Claus can go about in public without a single child noticing him. But come autumn, he breaks out his red fedora and starts waxing his moustache; he is no longer incognito.

Children recognize the snowy beard and moustache, the rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes. They stare, walk backwards, and bump into things trying to keep an eye on him.

Jerry Nebel, the KP Santa, got his start somewhat south of the North Pole in Kodiak, Alaska, 35 years ago when he was asked to fill in for another Santa at a local hospital. “I had the basics,” Nebel said. “A Santa suit, a big round belly, no beard but a moustache.”

Nebel and his wife Patty later moved to Seattle, where he worked for a tugboat company. One August, his boss told him about their big annual company Christmas party and said, “Jerry, I can’t be Santa this year. Would you do it?”

Other employees stopped by to tell him about the party and how special it was. Nebel agreed and soon was in possession of the boss’s “1995 Walmart Santa suit complete with vinyl spats.”

The first thing Nebel did was reject the spats and have his rubber boots polished so they would gleam. His entrance to the party was perfect — he parked his reindeer on the roof and descended a sweeping staircase.

“One little kid grabbed my leg and never let go,” Nebel said. He recently received a photo from the dad of that little kid, who is now a young man.

Another employee reported that afterward his youngest daughter told her sisters, who had stayed home, “You really screwed up! This year they had the real Santa!”

After that party, Patty, alias Mrs. Claus, said, “I’ll make you a suit.” She has made several Santa suits since that first Victorian version.

For the past 13 years, Jerry and Patty have lived a quiet life on the Key Peninsula, but around mid-October the pace accelerates when Santa’s agent starts scheduling personal appearances and photo sessions.

This Santa derives a great deal of joy working with baby photographers who like to capture the child’s surprise when they catch their first glimpse of Santa Claus. To prepare for the job, Santa does a lot of leg lifts and other exercises to be in shape for the kneeling, crawling, and ups and downs needed to get the best shot.

Santa also does online visits for his high school alumni group so grandparents can listen in on Santa visits and has a regular engagement with children in Ireland. He has developed Zoom visits complete with slide show tours of his home, reindeer barns and workshops. Static interruptions are blamed on heavy snow and ice storms at the North Pole.

Santa makes time to help the KP fire department and visits the offices of The Mustard Seed Project. He will also sometimes show up on a local street corner to spread a bit of Christmas cheer.

In the offseason, Jerry is a speaker and regular participant at the annual Santa Clause conference at Great Wolf Lodge, as well as national Santa conventions. One seminar featured what he referred to as “a little speech on the principles of Santa that you should have in your business. Santa knows how he is different from the Grinch.”

In recent years Jerry has taken his personal elf, granddaughter Hazel, to the conventions. No elf ears, leotards or pointy shoes for her. She wears Mrs. Claus-made “special, fancy, red Christmas dresses.”

Jerry said the very best work a Santa does is to “bring joy to children.”

One skeptical child asked him once how to tell who the real Santa is.

“When you meet the real Santa you will know,” he said, “because Santa comes through the heart, not down the chimney.”